Flying High and Rocking with the Angels

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I did not really know him. I mostly knew of him. He was my neighbor Betty’s son-in-law and his name was Mike Wade. Over the years he and his wife Vickie would come visit Betty at Christmastime and other occasions. I’d see them and then later Betty would tell me all about them just as loving mothers so often do. She was proud of her daughter and the man who was more like a son than an in-law.

After years of having Betty right next door to be a kind of mentor and confidante, Mike and I moved away. Not long after that Betty’s husband, Dave, died. We were worried about how she would do living all alone in the neighborhood that was rapidly changing, but we needn’t have been so concerned because her children all made generous offers to move her closer to one of them. Betty chose to go to Pittsburg, Texas where Mike and Vickie lived. They built a wonderful new house for her on land that lay right next door to their own place. I was so happy that Betty would  be loved and safe. I had heard all of the stories of her children and felt that all would be well for her.

Mike and I traveled to Pittsburg a couple of times to visit Betty, staying in our trailer in Bob Sandlin State Park. We learned that the little east Texas town was a lovely and inviting place where Betty was living a quiet and comfortable life. It warmed our hearts to know that she was doing so well and we vowed to continue our little journeys to the area so that we might see her now and again. We felt so renewed spending moments with her and reminiscing about the old days. She’d ply us with homemade cookies and stories of what she had been doing in the times since we had parted ways. 

On our last visit to Pittsburg we finally had the opportunity to spend some time with not just Betty, but also her daughter Vickie and son-in-law Mike. It would be an understatement to say that all of us hit it off immediately. The two Mikes, my husband and Mike Wade, were particularly taken with each other. They were essentially the same age and shared a love of music and history. It felt as though they had been friends forever as they chatted about this and that for literally hours.

Mike Wade was born and raised in Pittsburg, Texas. He had even played saxophone in his high school band and was known for being quite talented. After his graduation the war in Vietnam was in full swing and he was a patriotic soul who believed that he was being called to serve. Eventually he enlisted in the Air Force and proudly gave several year in service to the country.

It was at a swimming pool on an Air Force base that he first saw Vickie, a cute blond girl who was the daughter of an Air Force mechanic, our friend Dave. Vickie and Mike hit it off almost immediately and eventually fell in love and married. For a time they lived in Houston, but the piney woods of east Texas were calling Mike, and so they ultimately moved to Pittsburg where his heart seemed destined to always be.

Mike was an electrician, a truly bright man who loved his wife, his work and his hometown. He had a big smile and a sense of humor that led to lots of laughs. Like many children of the sixties he was taken by the music of the times, and he not only possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the songs and the lyrics, but he was able to discuss the complexities of the instrumentation. On the day that we visited with him, he and my Mike were soon in a conversation of their own, talking of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and talented guitarists from both the past and the present day.

We also learned of Mike Wade’s health issues and how on the very day that Betty was life flighted to a hospital in Tyler for emergency heart surgery, Mike too ended up undergoing his own surgery for issues with his heart. They recovered together under the watchful eye of Vickie who is a nurse. Betty and Mike joked about the scooters that they rode to get around and how neither of them were letting any grass grow under their feet in spite of their health problems. In fact, on the day that we visited Betty, Mike had just finished riding over his property on his lawn mower in order to keep both his lawn and Betty’s looking well groomed.

We talked and laughed and dined and enjoyed Mike and Vickie’s generosity for literally more than nine hours. We might have stayed even longer but for the worry that the state park where we were staying might close the gate and lock us out of access to our trailer. We left vowing to return soon. We had felt so welcome and the old feeling of being loved that always enveloped us whenever we had been in Betty’s presence now seemed to be expanded to include Vickie and Mike as well.

We’ve had a busy year, but we often spoke of going back to Pittsburg to see Betty, and hopefully Mike and Vickie as well. Thus it was with great sadness that we learned that Mike Wade had died in April. Of course we worried about Vickie and Betty, but we also found ourselves grieving for this man whom we had really only known for those few hours. It is a tribute to his openness and magnanimity to realize what an impact he had had on us so quickly. We have spoken often of just how much he impressed us, and now we know that we will never see him again. Somehow, nonetheless, we will always remember this man whose smile and love of life touched our hearts.

Mike Wade lived without bounds. He was a devoted husband, father, and son-in-law. He enjoyed his work as an electrician and found joy in the quiet and simple life of Pittsburg, Texas. He loved his country, his family and his hometown. He embraced the people around him, giving whatever he might have to those who needed help. I know he will be missed by those who knew him best, but he will also me missed by me and Mike.

I have learned that Vickie is planning to move into the house that she and Mike built for her mother Betty, and that Vickie’s son Aaron will live in the home next door that she and Mike shared for so many years. It will be a good arrangement for everyone, family members taking care of one another in an old fashioned but quite lovely kind of way. I suspect that it would please Mike to know that they will be alright because that is the sort of thing that seemed to matter most to him.

I feel privileged to have shared that special day with Mike. It was a visit with Betty made even more special for us because of his presence. It has always warmed my heart to witness the unconditional love that Betty and her husband Dave always offered to everyone. Now I know that their warmth and beneficence took root in their children and, in the case of Mike Wade, in their children-in law as well.

Rest in peace Mike Wade. You were a righteous man who strove to give your very best to everyone that you encountered. I hope that you are flying high and rocking to the songs of the angels. I believe that you truly earned your wings.

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Wisdom, Prayers, and a Pot of Soup

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The day on which I am writing this blog is rainy, a situation that I might normally find to be peaceful and comforting. On this occasion it simply feels dreary and sad because a dear friend is dealing with great loss that she must not only bear, but which she must explain to her children. She is a strong woman and I have little doubt that she will ultimately rise from the ashes of her life, but I know from experience how crushingly cruel such interludes in time can be.

It is part of our human experience to encounter tragedies, some of which are life changing. We react to such events in a multitude of ways, perhaps turning to prayer or leaning on people who are close to us. Sometimes we attempt to go it alone, mustering as much courage as we can find inside our souls. Regardless of how we choose to react we feel great pain, often both mental and physical. For lack of a better description I have called it “the elephant sitting on my chest.” Tragedy makes it difficult to even breath or move. There is a tendency to want to stay in bed and shut out the world, but we all know that such reactions do not work forever. Eventually we must straighten our backs and bear the weight until we heal enough to feel somewhat normal. Sadly we will carry scars from our experiences for all time, but if we are lucky they will only hurt now and again.

What can we do to help someone who is in the throes of such an experience? It is difficult to know, but I think we must try. In my own lifetime very small gestures done with love have provided me with the hope that I needed to continue my journey as a human. The help has often come from the most unexpected places, but it has always occurred at just the right moment when my despair was overwhelming me.

I still carry the vision of my Aunt Valeria puttering around our kitchen on the day my father died. She represented a kind of stability on the shaky ground that I felt all around me. My Uncle William gave me hope on that day with an ice cream cone offered as a sign that he truly cared about me and my brothers. A lovely plant sent to me by my dear friend, Adriana, on the occasion of my mother’s death still grows in my home. She sent it with a simple note that reminded me that I had done all that was possible for my mom. I needed to hear that, and somehow she knew. Another friend, Linda, brought me a big pot of chicken soup when I was hurting from surgery. Somehow that soup tasted better than anything that I had ever eaten.

Often it is a stranger who brings us comfort. I once went to a doctor that I had never before seen for a yearly physical. He was supposed to spend thirty minutes outlining my health issues in a post conference. He laughed because the test results showed that I was in excellent shape, so he wondered aloud what we might speak about to fill the time. He innocently asked if anything was pressing on my mind. At the moment I was gravely worried about my mother’s bipolar disorder, and also wondering if I was doing the right things for her. In many ways I was filled with guilt that I was not doing enough. He assuaged all of my negative feelings and encouraged me to begin talking openly about the situation. He was so engaged in my situation that the conference lasted for over an hour, and I ended up releasing tears that had been pent up in my heart for years. I have thought back on him over and over again with so much gratitude because he freed me from the worry that had overwhelmed me for so long.

A fellow teacher once prayed with me for my grandchildren who were threatening to be born far too early. The predictions of their health if they came were dire. My dear colleague calmed me and assured me that she would be storming the heavens with pleas for a miracle. Somehow in spite of the frightening warnings from the doctors my daughter’s labor stopped, and the babies stayed safely inside her womb for enough weeks to insure that their problems would be minimal. The teacher who so understood my panic has remained in my gratitude for sixteen years as I have watched those little ones grow into beautiful and bright teenagers.

When my husband, Mike, had a stroke there were so many souls praying for him and for our family. The doctors and nurses who cared for him were not just knowledgeable, but also kind and compassionate. Our friends and many of my former students sent messages of encouragement that sustained us. When hurricane Harvey hit Mike was still highly susceptible to having another episode. As the waters rose and our home became like an island I worried about what I would do if he had another attack. In the darkest moment of my anxiety a former student, Bieu, texted to assure me that if anything happened he would come with help in his big truck, and that together we would get Mike to the hospital. I cannot even describe the relief that I felt upon receiving that message. Luckily nothing occurred, but I will always and forever love Bieu for his empathy at just the right moment.

Someone you know may be suffering for one reason or another. You may not think that there is much that you may do to help them, but it is in the simple acts of compassion that they will regain their strength and have the courage to soldier on. Don’t hesitate to offer your wisdom. your prayers, or a pot of soup. Your efforts may be exactly what that person needs. You may make the very difference that will sustain them.

Ripper Street

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Mike and I just finished binge watching five seasons of Ripper Street on Netflix. It was one of the most well written and intriguing series that I have followed since Breaking Bad. The story begins in 1889, right after one of Jack the Ripper’s last victims was found, but it is not just a story of that killer’s crimes. In fact the title is more of a metaphor than an indication of the way the plots will unfold. More than anything it is a look into the gritty world of Victorian England in Whitechapel and the horrific conditions there that troubled otherwise hard working and hopeful people. It centers on four characters associated with the H Street Police Station, one of the roughest law enforcement assignments in all of London at the time. The lead investigator is Edmund Reid, an man tied to his job by memories of the horrific murder of a possible Jack the Ripper victim. He is nobly assisted by Detective Bennet Drake, a man filled with tragic demons whose heart yearns only for goodness and love. Captain Jackson is an American expatriate with a murky past who reluctantly serves as a medical examiner for the police. His wife “Long” Susan Hart is the madame of a Whitechapel brothel with a questionable story as intriguing as her husband’s.

The series features beautiful phrasings and word pictures from the characters who use language to communicate the intricacies of their minds and hearts. As the five seasons unfold we learn of the tragedies that have haunted each of the very real people who inhabit the stories. It is a kind of Shakespearean tribute to the difficulties of living during that era told through the eyes of sympathetic but imperfect people. It grips the viewer with both compassion and revulsion. Much like Breaking Bad almost everyone is neither all good nor all bad, but simply doing whatever it takes to survive. The stories challenge us to think out of the box with regard to human nature and individual worth. It is a fascinating look at both history and the complexities of the people who live it.

There is a kind of gritty realism to the stories, but in the end it is in the relationships and their complicated intertwining that the best of the writing takes place. Each role is so beautifully acted that by the series end there is a sense that we have known and loved such people. The writer is realistic in his portrayals of the times and the characters, so much so that even the most outlandish storylines seem plausible. Everything in Ripper Street is a metaphor for life and death and the challenges that people faced in a time that is almost unimaginable to those of us who live in the modern days of plenty.

The series originally aired on BBC but was canceled after only two seasons. Netflix picked up the option to continue it for three more seasons and it has proven to be one of the most popular offerings ever. It actually ended in 2016, but has garnered such a faithful following that it continues to rank high on both Rotten Tomatoes and Netflix viewership. It is the kind of series that bores an ear worm in the brain, causing one to think about the times and the people long after watching one of the episodes.

Mike and I discovered the series after we had enjoyed a number of BBC and Netflix detective shows. We joked that the title was perfect for me because I have always had a morbid fascination with the Jack the Ripper cases. We soon enough found that the title was somewhat misleading, but we had almost immediately fallen in love with the story and the amazing characters. Soon we were sitting down in the evenings watching one or two episodes each night. Sometimes we spoke of the plots and the people during the day wondering what would happen next as though we were following the adventures of dear friends.

If you enjoy a good detective story, tightly described characters, the allure of Victorian England, and a brilliant use of the English language Ripper Street will most certainly delight you. It has elements of all the best and most popular series of our times. There is a bit of Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards, and Breaking Bad in the evolution of the stories and characters. As with those brilliant classics, saver perhaps House of Cards, the writing stays amazing until the very end.

So many writers begin to lose their mojo as the years on the air take their toll on originality and believability. The plots jump the shark and the players become caricatures rather than believable individuals. Ripper Street sometimes flirts with such disappointments but always finds a way to redeem itself. It is well worth a watch, especially for those who are fans of good old fashioned sleuthing with a touch of the exotic.

I’ve been chasing after mysteries from the time I was a girl poring over my Nancy Drew mysteries. I devoured Sherlock Holmes and graduated to Agatha Christi, eventually moving on to the more modern authors of brilliant detective work. Ripper Street has won a top spot in my list of favorites. I only wish that somehow the stories of Reid, Drake, Jackson and Hart might somehow be resurrected for a prequel perhaps. I still long to know more about them and dream of the kind of reincarnation that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle pulled off when the demands of fans urged him to bring Sherlock back to life after his seeming demise. I guess I’ll have to find solace in Better Call Saul until something  akin to Ripper Street come along.

The Front Porch

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There was a time when almost every house had a front porch, a place where family and friends would gather just to sit and relax and watch the world go by. People didn’t need an official “night out” to shout a greeting or wave at neighbors. They’d simply gather in the morning with their cups of coffee to watch the children scurrying off to school or in the evenings with a cool drink just to enjoy the glory of day’s end. It’s rare to see homes being built with porches in the front anymore. Instead we design our living spaces for ultimate privacy by placing our outdoor retreats in back of our homes where we are hidden from the rest of the world. Perhaps it is just one more sign of the times when we often feel isolated and unsure of our places in the big picture.

Visits to my paternal grandparents always included time spent on their expansive front porches which my grandfather enhanced with screen to keep the bugs out and to insure that even when the mosquitoes were having a roaring good time, we’d be enjoying ourselves as well without worrying about getting bitten. My grandparents always had the area furnished like an additional living room with a sofa like glider, rocking chairs and lots of extra seating. Grandma made sure that we had an endless supply of cool drinks and Grandpa kept a big fan in perfect running order to provide us with comfort. We’d join in the greetings of neighbors who passed by while on their walks and sometimes climbed up the steps to the house to spend a few extra minutes to find out how everyone was doing. We watched the birds during the day and fireflies at night, and talked of people, events and ideas. Somehow the time spent on their front porch always made me feel safe, content, proud and loved.

My maternal grandmother had a front porch as well. Hers was not covered or enclosed which was actually preferable to all of us cousins who gathered there every Friday evening while our parents played poker inside a tiny room so filled with smoke that it made us gag. We enjoyed the freedom and adventure of the outside with that porch serving as home base for the crazy games that we invented for our entertainment. Sometimes my grandmother would quietly sit in our midst, but because she rarely spoke it never occurred to us that she may have been watching over us. We just thought that she was escaping the raucous conversations of her children and enjoying the cleaner air on her porch.

None of my homes either as a child or an adult have boasted a front porch. I suppose that trend lost its charm for builders sometime in the middle of the twentieth century. We hosted our gatherings in our backyard where we might enjoy more privacy without interruption. The front of the house was reserved for coming and going and quick waves of the hand at our neighbors. Only once in awhile would we bring our lawn chairs to the front yard to join adventurous folks who decided to resurrect the old ways of relaxing together after long days of labor. I so enjoyed those sojourns with the Halls and the Turners and the Mayfields on somebody’s lawn when we would watch the children playing and laugh as our cares drifted away.

I rarely see people gathering in front of their homes anymore. Such enjoyment has in many ways become a thing of the past. Perhaps we are too rushed or too private or too wary of being on display. Maybe we don’t want to fight the heat or mosquitoes. For whatever reason we mostly stay enclosed in our own private worlds and seem to think it necessary to wait for special invitations to meet up with our neighbors. We know that there is life inside the homes on our street but it is only the passing of cars from the garages that alerts us to that fact. The old ways of lounging together outside on a summer’s eve are mostly the domain of the past.

Now my husband and I sit around the table on our backyard patio listening to the cooing of the doves and sounds of the people around their swimming pools or on their trampolines. Their dogs bark at us as we survey our garden and once in a great while a voice from behind the fence will ask us to retrieve a wayward ball that has found its way onto our space. Most of the time our contact is minimal and we get the idea that everyone prefers it that way.

My father-in-law has a lovely wrap around front porch at his house that was originally built in the early days of the twentieth century when such a feature was all the rage. He rarely sits out front preferring the deck in the back of the house instead. When I visit I imagine festooning the front porch with sumptuous ferns and plants. I think of placing a small table with chairs out there where one might enjoy a meal or a cup of morning coffee while watching the passersby. I suppose that I would wear out the swing that my husband and his best friend once hung so that my mother-in-law would always have a place to sit. I’d wring out all of the enjoyment that the front porch was intended to provide. Sadly I’m not sure that I would see much because I rarely observe anyone passing by whenever I go to visit. It seems that even those with the wherewithal to enjoy the neighborhood from the front don’t bother to do so anymore.

Front porches seem to have become a thing history, a pleasant memory of bygone days when the windows were open and the doors were unlocked. A neighbor need only shout a greeting from the sidewalk to be invited to come sit awhile. Everyone knew everyone else and there was an unspoken duty to watch over the children as they played. We were open and unconcerned with things like political differences. The whole neighborhood was one great big happy family. Along the way our televisions and phones and air conditioners lured us inside and pushed us at the back of the house. Maybe it’s time that we come back out to the front.

Finding Hope

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Statistics can be a powerful way of understanding trends in our society, but they can also be misleading. Learning the truth about the numbers that we see requires analysis, critical thinking. Since we are continuously bombarded with information regarding the state of our world based on statistics we need to consider what that data is actually telling us. Something as simple as the intervals of a graph has the power of visually changing the way we interpret the facts. So it is with the ever recurring claim that the lifespan of the average American has continued in a downward direction since its apex in the nineteen sixties. It’s important that we begin to understand what that bit of information actually means, and what we may need to do to halt the decline.

We are often told of the need to improve medical care in this country by the use of this astounding statistic. For most of us it simply seems almost impossible to believe that we have such phenomenal medical facilities and still are losing the battle of saving lives, and yet it is real. A deeper analysis demonstrates that the downward trend is related mostly to alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide. It is not so much that our country is lacking in quality medical care as that we have an epidemic of self harm that results in deaths from overdoses, cirrhosis of the liver, and increasing numbers of suicides, especially and shockingly among our middle age population. It is a quiet and grim trend about which we say little, but it is prevalent all across the country and most particularly in areas where businesses have failed and lifestyles have drastically changed.

HBO in conjunction with Dr. Sunjay Gupta filmed a documentary called One Nation Under Stress that attempted to get to the heart of why so many are turning to drugs, alcohol and even death as answers to problems. We know that addictions can be difficult to overcome, but what attracts people to chemical means of coping with anxiety in the first place? Why are ordinary middle class individuals in so much pain that they feel compelled to shut out their sadness with chemicals that alter their brains and damage their health?  What is really happening?

Dr. Gupta and the experts that he consulted note that our society is continuously and relentlessly changing, particularly in small towns that often rely on particular industries for the welfare of the populace. Many of the old avenues for work are being eliminated and in the process people find themselves suddenly left with no meaning or income in their lives. The losses that they incur both physically and emotionally drive them to seek solace in harmful ways or to despair entirely. Additionally our society has lost many of the support systems that were once so prevalent. The extended family units and neighborhood associations that were once so common have crumbled in many ways leaving individuals feeling alone and unable to cope. In fact, a certain irony is that recent immigrants are actually doing better than long time citizens because they cling to one another in communities that emphasize care and support.

Those in the middle of the economic spectrum are the most likely to feel the weight of stress. They are subjected to a kind of collective pressure and worry about losing their status and all of their comforts. They often feel quite alone in their struggles and so the abuses to their bodies and minds begin. They are reluctant to share their concerns, and often feel that they have nobody whom they trust enough to do so anyway. The anxiety bears down on them both mentally and physically.

I experienced a kind of microcosm of such feelings during the rains of hurricane Harvey which so inundated my city. My husband Mike and I were alone in our home hearing reports of devastation that was affecting both strangers and dear friends and family. Mike had suffered from a stroke only a few weeks earlier and we had been told that his chances of suffering from another attack were at their highest during this time. I was quietly frantic with worry, so much so that I was hardly sleeping and had to keep my mind occupied by preparing my home for the possibility that it might flood. When my daughter and her family had to leave their neighborhood for fear that the levee that protected their home high fail I felt incredibly alone with the realization that they were now so far away and Mike and I were so isolated from everyone. It was a series of reassuring texts from a former student who assured me that he was on alert if Mike and I needed a rescue that kept me from totally losing my composure. The lifeline that he gave me quelled my fears as did the random meetings with a neighbor across the street with whom I spoke as we both assessed the drainage system that was working to keep the water away from our homes. Facebook also gave me a way of knowing what was happening to friends and members of my family. It provided me with a way of expressing my anxiety rather than bottling it up inside. Ultimately I made it through those horrific days, but I found myself wondering if it would have been possible without those human connections that kept me grounded.

What happens when a person feels that there is no one to help? How does one cope when the pressure is not for just a few days but over a long period of time? What might each of us do to help those who have lost their way? Do we sometimes underestimate the power of a text, a message, a phone call in changing the tenor of a person’s thoughts? Have we emphasized independence so much that we have lost the emotional support of multi-generations living and working together?

Mike and I were recently discussing the Great Depression. Our parents were children during that time. It was our grandparents who bore the full brunt of that era. We noted that they survived by sharing responsibilities and resources. Whole families of sons and daughters and cousins and grandparents pooled their funds and their food to keep afloat. It was a cooperative effort that brought our ancestors through the tragedy. Hidden in their efforts was a great deal of love. Our people understood that the were going to make it because so many cared about the welfare of each individual.

We would do well to reinstate the power of family and neighbors to ease suffering. Old people should feel assured that they will find the care that they need if they become sick. Young folk should know that they will have the encouragement and support to launch themselves as adults even when they make mistakes. Those in the middle should never be reluctant to ask for help when things go awry. If we open our hearts and begin to embrace the people for whom we care perhaps we can stem the tide of self medication and self destruction that is literally killing people in our midst. The change that we need is to be found inside our relationships. If we focus on strengthening them many of our problems will be solved.