The Plan

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A good life is built on family and friends. Some people come into our lives for a particular moment and others stand with us for the long haul. We are who we are because of the relationships that we build and nurture. We learn new things, expanding our horizons because of those who share our moments. We draw our strength from the people who support is in our hopes, dreams and even our hours of grief and despair. There is always someone who surprises us, and those who are the rocks on whom we can depend. As we think about the events and the years that mark our passages there are precious moments that fill our hearts with wonder and gratitude. Without our family and friends we would be set adrift into a world of loneliness and fear. So why, I wonder, do we too often busy ourselves with tasks that are so much less important than the individuals that mean so much to us?

It’s a cliche to mention that dust and dirty laundry should wait in favor of reunions with those that we love, but we also know that it is true. Every one of us has no doubt had one of those awful experiences in which we kept promising to take the time to connect with someone, but never quite did. Then we get the horrific news that the person who meant so much to us is forever gone. We’re filled with guilt and regret for procrastinating. We wish that we had just left the unimportant tasks that we so readily prioritize over spending our hours with people. We far too often think about being with the souls we love, but never quite get there. We have appointment and tasks and routines that we dare not ruffle with interruptions, no matter how important we know it is to pause now and again to nurture our connections.

When I moved away from my old neighborhood I promised to return to visit my long time friends. Once I had left I found myself balancing work, household tasks and any number of events, but I kept putting off going to see my old friends. I told myself that there was no hurry. I would get there once things settled down, but somehow they never quite became less hectic. The next thing I knew my dear next door neighbor was dead. She had battled lung cancer and I didn’t even know of her struggles. I was devastated to learn of her passing. She had guided me with her wisdom and lovingly inspired me to be a better mom and person. Her door had always been open to me, no matter the hour of the day or night. I had loved her, but it must not have seemed so when I left and never again got around to checking on her welfare. I attended her funeral filled with angst in knowing that I never really told her how deeply she had affected me. It might have been comforting for her to hear how much she had inspired me. Instead I sat at her funeral wondering if she ever knew.

I would not feel nearly as bad about this incident if I had indeed been conscientious in other instances, but truth be told I have too often been guilty of neglecting to nurture so many of the friendships that I have known. I wonder how I might do a better job, and if there is an organized way to make my promises actually come true. Surely there must be a method for spending a few minutes here and there and staying in touch one way or another.

My friend Pat was masterful at doing that. She sent little cards to people and constantly took time to plan simple dinners and such. She’d cook up a big pot of chile and put out a call. Even when people were unable to come they knew that she was thinking about them. She thought nothing of asking someone to come along with her on her errands, making her duties more fun for her and sharing laughter and conversation with friends. She was casual and relaxed about such things because her purpose was to keep the heart of her relationships healthy and strong, not to impress.

I keep trying to improve, but I sometimes allow that basket of ironing to overtake the minutes that I might have spent sharing a few greetings on the phone with a person who is important to me. I’ve been thinking that I need to create a plan. Those calls and cards and visits need to find a place on my daily calendar along with my appointments and “to do” list. Perhaps if I designated one individual a day to get my attention I might begin to revitalize connections that appear to be stagnant or lost. It would certainly be worth a try.

We run, run, run through life hardly taking a breath until we fall into bed at night. I sometimes think that our society is as delicate as it is because we have lost our compass. If we can’t even devote time to the people who mean much to us, how can we begin to really care about the bigger problems that face us all? It just may be that the key to solving so many problems is to reach out to the people in our own backyards. We might first begin in neighborhoods and then communities. Simple acts of kindness, remembrance and appreciation done millions of times over just might transform our political landscape, but they have to start with one person at a time.

I am overwhelmed with thoughts of just how many wonderful people have impacted me, but I might reach thirty of them in a single month with a non negotiable plan to make the effort. It’s something I’m going to try. I’ll let you know later whether or not it worked, but right now I’m feeling optimistic. It seems as though the worst case scenario would be only managing to stick to my plan a third of the time. In a year that would mean that I had somehow let people know how much I care over a hundred times. That’s worth trying to do.    

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All Is Well

 

 

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It’s an amazing thing when someone you knew as a baby becomes a peer and a dear friend. Watching a youngster grow into a remarkable adult is one the the best aspects of life. It warms the heart and instills a strong sense of hope for our future. Thus it is with Scott Scheffler, an energetic, hard working and kind hearted young man who also happens to be the son of long time friends that I have known since elementary school.

Scott was an adorable child with his blonde hair and ready smile., He and my daughters became playmates as toddlers along with his younger brother, Bryan. I’ve got photos of Scott dressed in Halloween costumes and wearing Houston Cougar red regalia when he was still just a little boy. My family spent many a glorious time with his family cheering for our favorite sports teams or just chilling while the kids played all sorts of creative games. In the summers Scott took swim lessons with my girls and the best part of those hot days was visiting the shaved ice snow cone stand on Old Galveston road, and trying out all of the flavors.

Scott was a Boy Scout who eventually earned his Eagle Scout badge. Shortly after that he and his family moved out to California and I missed them so much that I went to visit only months afterward. He was in high school by then and he was the consummate host and guide along with his parents. Always a hard worker he was soon holding down very responsible positions at Magic Mountain and then The Cheesecake Factory. He was and still is a very charming soul, but it has always been hard work that defined him. With a seemingly endless supply of energy, he threw himself into whatever task his employers ask him to do.

Eventually Scott and his family returned to Texas and he enrolled in classes at the University of Houston. As always he worked part time while earning his degree. He’s always had many irons in the fire, including continuing his relationship with the Boy Scouts of America. Perhaps the best aspect of Scott’s personality is his sense of humor. He finds a way to laugh at almost anything that happens, lightening everyone else’s spirits in the process. He liked to joke that the University of Houston was going to erect a memorial bench in his name because he had spent so many years there. The reality is that if they did so it would be because of the successful man that he has become. He took the lessons that he learned there and melded them with his charismatic presence and diligence becoming well regarded in his profession.

Never one to waste precious time, Scott got a real estate license in addition to all of the other things that he does. That turned out to be quite fortunate for me and my husband when we needed to sell some property. With his usual enthusiasm Scott threw himself into the process which turned out to be far more complex than any of us had ever imagined it might be. He went out of his way to keep us informed of developments and to walk us through the minefield of regulations and annoyances. He even spent an entire Saturday helping my husband clear out a garage and yard full of junk from one of the houses. He provided my husband with a sanctuary of sanity during the grueling process. I don’t think anyone else would have been as successful at keeping everyone happy. His calm demeanor and sincere interest in our welfare lead my husband to exclaim one day, “I love that young man!”

Each Christmas we gather with Scott and his family and parents along with our daughters. We have dinner and share stories and laughs. Then we exchange Christmas ornaments, a tradition that we have followed since Scott and our children were quite young. We usually close down whatever restaurant we have chosen and then spend another thirty minutes or so saying our goodbyes in the parking lot. I suppose that it would not be too far fetched to say that in many ways Scott is like the son that I never had. I am as proud of him and the person that he is as his own parents most surely are.

It doesn’t surprise me that Scott is such a fine man. His parents are the salt of the earth, people with generous and kind hearts of their own. They taught him not so much with rules and lectures but by example. He emulates the behaviors that he saw from them, and does so magnificently. It makes my heart my heart sing to see that the key to parenting is being the role model that one wants the children to become. It is a simple concept that is often difficult to follow, but it is clear that in Scott’s case the method worked magnificently.

My husband says that he wants to shout from the rooftops that Scott Scheffler is the best real estate agent in the state, but the truth is that he is so because he is the best kind of individual that any of us would ever hope to see our children grow up to be. We do indeed love him and smile when we see others recognizing him as well.

There is still much of that sweet and innocent little boy in Scott, but there is also a strength and determination and a sense of service that truly makes him special. He is my friend and I am all the better because I am lucky enough to be able to say that. The next time I become worried about the future of our world I need only think of him and my soul will rest, assured that all will be well.

Built On Love

The house

The husband loved his wife and his little daughter so much that he wanted to show his feelings by crafting a strong and beautiful home for them. He ran concrete piers deep into the gumbo like ground, wanting to avoid the shifting motions of the earth in that part of Texas. This would be a place of security, a symbol of just how much he cared for his family. Once the foundation was set, he created a pretty bungalow with curved doorways, warm wooden floors, and windows to allow the sun to lighten each room. It was small, but elegant, a place designed for gatherings of friends and brothers and sisters. It stood on a large lot shaded by trees and within view of the rest of the family homestead. Everyone agreed that it was beautiful, and best of all it made the man’s wife and child smile.

It would be the site for so many gatherings, celebrations, parties, and even times of sadness. It weathered storms, hurricanes, summer heat, icy winter mornings. Inside the family felt comfortable and safe even as life began to change. The man was quite young when he had his accident, a crazy thing really. He fell out of a tree and broke his back. He developed a dangerous infection but could not take the penicillin that might have cured him because he was allergic. He died with so little warning, leaving his wife and daughter bereft and wondering how they would manage without him. They grieved inside the house that he built until they somehow found the healing that they needed. They went on with their lives and the house stood as magnificently as ever.

The man’s wife rose to the challenges set before her. She helped to continue the business that he had built with his brothers. They worked in a back room of that house, loving and laughing and taking care of one another. The daughter grew into a beautiful woman. She set out on her own in a house nearby. She began a family and had a son. Now the rooms were filled with the sounds of play each day as the little boy spent hours with his grandmother. It was still the happy place that the now gone husband had hoped it would be. His memory lived in those rooms.

In a kind of classic love story the beloved wife seemed to long for her husband even as she carried on with courage. She one day discovered that a cancer grew in her body. She was still a young and energetic grandmother, but not able to fight the disease which overtook her body. She died and all who knew her were devastated, wondering how it would be possible to continue her legacy of compassion, love and laughter. They gathered in the house to mourn her and to recall the love that they had shared there.

The daughter moved into her mother’s house. She and her husband and son continued the traditions that her parents had so honored. The house was still as lovely as it had ever been, but the neighborhood had begun to change. Where there had once been a little forest of trees leading to a bayou, an interstate highway had been erected. Neighbors slowly began to move to suburbs far from the center of town. The view of the business district that was only a few miles away began to be dominated by gigantic skyscrapers. The town became a city growing around the little bungalow with a vengeance. Still inside those walls the daughter and her family lived life just as her father had hoped.

The boy grew and fell in love and married, moving to the other side of the city. He and his wife often visited the little house. They loved the Sunday dinners, the Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations, and the quieter times when the boy watched football with his dad and his wife enjoyed tea and conversation with his mom in the gracious dining room of the house.

Eventually there were more children crawling on the gleaming floors and playing happily with their grandparents. They especially enjoyed the times when they slept over and stayed in the room that had once been their grandmother’s and then their father’s. They heard stories of the original owners of the house and played dress up with hats that had belonged to their great grandmother.

Progress moved farther and farther from the center of the city. The streets near the little bungalow grew dangerous. Crime became a way of life. It was time to leave. The bungalow would become a rental, with hopes that one day the area would become as glorious as it had once been. The lovely rooms were emptied of the family treasures, but the walls retained memories of the wonderful times that had gone before.

Things began to fall apart for the house and the places around it. The people who rented it did not love it. They broke its windows and punched holes in its walls. They did not know how precious it had once been. It was only a way station for them, a place to stop over on the route to something better. In many ways the house and the neighborhood around it became unrecognizable to the members of the family who had at one time enjoyed and appreciated its history.

The husband’s daughter died and left the house to her son, who dreamed for a time of making it a wonderful place to live again. Such reveries never came to pass. There were drug dealers walking on the once placid streets, derelicts lounging on the curbs. At night it was a dangerous place where crimes were commonplace. Still, the boy kept the house even as he watched it sag and saw the damage that renters had inflicted on it. He grew older than his grandfather had been at the time of his death. He made repairs on the house and had to struggle with renters who would not pay. It became an onerous task to keep the house alive, and so one day he decided that it was time to sell it to someone else.

He found a buyer, someone who wanted to build his own dream on the land. The house would be torn down. There was a kind of sadness about the whole affair. As the boy walked through the rooms he saw that the little bungalow was past its time. To revive it would be costly. In some ways it would be merciful to just let it go, to rejoice in the memories of its happier days.

The husband who built that house looked down and smiled at the boy who had been his grandson. He approved. He understood that to everything there is a season and the time for the bungalow had passed. The land was not the same as it had been when he created the place with such great care and love. He would smile that the boy had tried so hard to keep it alive, but he also knew that the little house that was his gift had changed long ago.

The boy and his wife walked through the rooms one last time before surrendering the keys. The floors were scuffed and dirty but still so strong. They heard the voices and the laughter of the people who had once passed through the rooms. The house groaned and creaked and spoke of how old it felt. It told the boy that it was time to let go. It was the love that made that house, and that love lives on , not in walls and floors but in the boy’s heart.

Atonement

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I often joke that I may have to spend some time in purgatory when I die before earning a place in heaven. I note that I can rock along for quite some time doing my best to be a good person and then I do or say something not so nice that cancels some of my kindnesses. Truth be told I’m about average when it comes to my humanity. Like the scores of people who came before me and those who inhabit this earth with me I make mistakes. Such is the inevitability for most of us.

Now and again I see another soul who seems to have achieved a bit more perfection. Both of my grandmothers would fall into that category. They were generous, loving guileless women, but I have often thought that being isolated from most of the ugliness of the world as they were may have helped them not to back slide. Women today spend decades out in an often unforgiving world and the temptation to fight back sometimes leads to anger and invective of the sort that my grandmas never invoked. I believe that I will ultimately be forgiven for my lapses because I also firmly feel that my God is all about redemption. I mean, isn’t that more or less what Jesus told the world as He died on the cross?

I have been reminded of the power of honest contrition by admissions of weakness by heroes of mine like Mother Teresa, Jimmy Carter, and John McCain. All three made it clear in their writings and orations that they sometimes failed to follow their own principles. They spoke of making faulty decisions. In other words they were as human as any of us, which I suspect was also the case of my grandmothers, not withstanding my idealized image of them. As humans we are filled with imperfections and contradictions. When all is said and done the question becomes how we have attempted to live the majority of our days, and whether or not we have been willing to admit our transgressions and attempted to change.

My mother and my teachers all taught me that to sin is human, but to ask forgiveness is divine. They also insisted that once I demonstrated true contrition it was important that I move forward rather than eternally looking backward at my failings. I was schooled in the idea that I should love all of my fellow men, and that my hatred should be aimed at behavior that I found to be egregious, not people. That’s an admittedly difficult formula to follow, but it became a glorious model to use in my work as an educator. I was able to separate the flaws from the person, and deal with behaviors while still caring about the child.

We are in a cycle of judgmental excess, all around. We even take our self righteousness to the extreme of looking back in history and condemning entire civilizations and ways of thinking. We forget the rule of social science that tells us that generalizations are rarely acceptable in assessing humans. We also forget how different the world was from ours even a hundred years ago.

I have been watching the Amazon Prime series Lore and have been taken by the ignorance and superstitions that were prevalent in the world of my ancestors. Scientific and medical knowledge was so antiquated. Philosophies were often based on superstitions. People were generally uneducated much like my two sweet grandmothers who were unable to read or write, much less understand scientific and sociological intricacies. I find it oddly ridiculous that in our modern era there are so many who would overlay our own knowledge and understanding on people who often lived in isolation with little or no education simply because they appear to have behaved badly in a past that was as human as the present.

I also have a problem with pointing fingers of judgement at historical figures who attempted to atone for admitted transgressions and mistakes. It is so easy to insist that none of us would ever have been willing to follow bad leaders, but then we will never know if that is true or not. We cannot possibly put ourselves totally in the shoes of someone from another time and place. We would have to become them in every sense of the word, and of course that is impossible. Instead of looking backwards and admonishing people who lived in times far different from ours it is up to us to look forward. We can do that by learning from the past. Reading and studying with an open mind will teach us how to find the best thoughts and ideas. If we are to be fruitful in our quest for a more equitable society then we must spend more time constructing than tearing down, finding the good and building on that foundation.

I saw a group of students from Harvard who asked a professor what they might do right now to begin to foster positive change in our society. His answer stunned them a bit, but it was brilliant. He suggested that they take full advantage of their educational opportunity by becoming persons who have knowledge and the ability to think critically. He challenged them to acquire the tools that they will one day need to become great leaders, He spurned the idea that they spend their time protesting before they knew enough to come to reasoned decisions.

I also seem to go back to the folksy wisdom of my mother who was indeed a brilliant woman. In her times of clarity she understood human nature as well as any sociologist or psychologist. She often told me that people evolve over time, and that life is a journey through many seasons, all of which make us better people if we are willing to grasp the importance of each. She noted that youth was a time for observing and learning. She spoke of knowing when and how to grasp the reigns of leadership and when to pass them down to the next generation. She felt that a wise person would understand that we are all hoping and dreaming and failing. Each of us is an imperfect being with the potential for greatness. Our journeys in that direction challenge us to be humble and compassionate and forgiving. She always believed that there is an overwhelming goodness to this earth that beats with one heart. If that is our focus we will find happiness and purpose, even as we falter.

Three Days in August

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Some things are so traumatic that they leave a permanent scar on the heart. We vividly remember how such events felt even years later. For me those moments have been the morning when I learned of my father’s death, the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the moment when I heard that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had also been killed, 9/11, and the three days of rain that flooded my city last August as a result of hurricane Harvey.

It has now been a year since fifty one inches of rain fell in virtually every part of Houston over that three day period. I remember all of the dire warnings that were being bandied about even before a drop of precipitation made its way to earth. I made a few preparations, but truly believed that the weather forecasters were overreacting. As a matter of fact, I joked with both of my daughters in a group text noting that the news reporters were all going to have egg on their faces when the whole incident became a bust. We all three worried that such wolf crying would one day lead to disaster when none of us bothered to listen to them anymore.

Most of the people in my neighborhood stayed home all day long getting ready for we knew not what, but before long we were bored and more than ready to get out and about. Precaution kept us home nonetheless and we reverted to binging on Netflix just to get away from the dire predictions on the local television stations. My next door neighbors baked cookies to fill the hours of waiting for a disaster that seemed in grave doubt of ever materializing. It finally began to rain in the evening, but nothing about the downpour seemed to be especially alarming. My husband, Mike, and I retired feeling content that the morning would find everyone doing well.

Of course that was not the case. By the time I awakened and turned on the television to see what had transpired during the night there were already areas of town that were severely flooded. Almost one third of Friendswood which is only about fifteen minutes away from my home had been hit hard. People were being evacuated in boats after their homes filled with water. All along Interstate 45 there were reports of grave problems. The images on television were frightening, and even more so were the messages from friends on Facebook who had been forced from their houses in the middle of the night.

The rain kept coming down, with no sign of letting up. I became more and more concerned mostly because Mike had been struck down by a stroke only a few weeks before. We had been told that he was in a critical time period when the chances of his having another attack were the most likely. I began to worry that he might need emergency medical care that would not be forthcoming, but I said nothing to him because I wanted to keep him calm.

Mike was sleeping quite a bit at that time, so I took advantage of the moments when he was dozing to slowly move items upstairs just in case our house began to take on water. I put many things on countertops and high shelves in closets. All the while I monitored the nonstop coverage of the event. The news was not good. The rains kept coming and the photos got worse and worse. I prayed for even a few minutes of respite from the inundation, but none came. My neighbors and I sometimes met outside to determine how well our street was draining. Somehow it seemed as though there was no way that we would ultimately be spared from flooding inside our homes. We promised to watch over one another to the end, whenever that might be. Day two ended with even more horrific stories than the first, but we were somehow safe.

Mike and I went to bed upstairs but I slept very little. The constant droning of the rain made me anxious. I checked over and over again to see if my home was taking on water. I’d also quietly turn on the television to see if there were any signs that the rains were finally going to end. Somehow all hope seemed to be gone. I cried over the images that I saw. I sobbed each time another of my friends or relatives reported that they had been forced to evacuate their homes. I thought surely that my beloved city was so hopelessly wounded that it would die an excruciating death. Not even the stories of courage and compassion that were so numerous were able to convince me that we would somehow survive the ordeal. Mostly I continued to worry about Mike and all of the unfortunate souls who had already lost so much. One of my students provided me with a small slice of optimism when he texted me to assure me that if Mike needed to get to a hospital he come immediately with his big truck to save the day.

There were fears of levees bursting in neighborhoods where dear friends and relatives resided. It seemed as though the news grew worse and worse and worse. Still the rain kept coming and I finally reached a point of sheer terror. I had done all that I might to prepare for the worst. I was exhausted but unwilling and unable to sleep. I kept watch all night on the third day, certain that my street and my home would soon have no place to drain. Many people that I love had already had to flee. It seemed that no area of town was untouched.

It was early in the morning, about five, when I realized that the rain had stopped. I held my breath expecting the inundation to return at any moment, but we had finally reached the end. Four and one quarter feet of rain had come done without even a short pause. There were people whose houses flooded only thirty minutes before the end came. Some who had survived the deluge went under water when the county had to open two reservoirs to prevent the downtown area from going under water. As a city we were wet and tired and overwhelmed by what had happened. I truly believe that we may have suffered the largest case of mass PTSD ever recorded. Little did we realize that the work of repairing our city had only just begun, and it would continue for months, and in some cases, more than a year.

I used to love rainy days. I reveled in the sound of thunder and the raindrops falling on my roof. I have yet to find storms as relaxing as I once did. I watch the weather reports religiously. I have been on high alert all during the current hurricane season. I sometimes suffer from guilt that I was spared while so many had to endure sheer terror as the water rushed in through the weep holes of their walls. I am thankful for my good fortune, but not able to celebrate because I know all too well how horrible the past year has been for so many others.

Even with flood insurance or assistance from FEMA most people had to dip far into their savings to return their homes to a livable state. Those without such funds still walk on concrete floors and lack the privacy of walls. For many it will still be a very long time before life returns to normal. It’s difficult to know who they are because from the outside it appears that Houston is as normal as it ever was. Still we know that the suffering lingers.

We are proud of how we behaved and the ways in which we helped one another. We will be eternally grateful for the kindnesses extended to our city from people all over the world. We will move forward as we always seem to do, but we will forever be haunted by far too vivid memories of those three days when biblical tales came to life. I suppose that if we make through a few years without a repeat performance from Mother Nature we will eventually calm down, but for now we just want to reach the end of hurricane season without any excitement. We remember what happened on those three days in August all too well.