What We Need

common-ground-dove

There were horrid things happening across the globe before I was born. There were horrid things happening across the globe when I was a child and a teen. I have witnessed horrid things happening as a young adult and now that I am in my seventies I still see horrid things happening both near and far. For a cockeyed optimist like myself it can be quite distressing to admit that there is something in our human natures that is sometimes violent and cruel. I always wanted to believe that mankind has been slowly evolving into a better version of itself, and I still think that is indeed true, but sadly it is such a slow process that it’s difficult to define the progress at times.

On a more personal level I see goodness in each of my friends and family members, people striving even sacrificing to be kind, loving, wise. Each individual has small moments of imperfection but on the whole they are grand examples of what mankind might aspire to be. They give me hope for the population at large because I do not believe that they are the aberrations, but rather that it is in the hateful and violent members of society that we find the outliers. Normal is good, abnormal is an unusual data point removed from the cluster of morality that defines most of the people in the world.

There are those who believe that the current times are somehow worse than other eras, but I would urge them to more carefully and thoughtfully study history because there is little that is actually new in the ways of our relationships and our politics. People have been lead astray by demagogues and tyrants for all time whether it be in a family, a friendship, a neighborhood, a town, a state or a nation. You would think that we would be more circumspect given all of the information about past troubles that we have, but in truth most of us are busy taking care of ourselves and those that we love. We tend to only have time to react rather than to reflect. Besides, with so many ideas and ideologies being thrown at us at once it is daunting to determine what is actually best. Instead history has often been a vast experiment of trial and error with some decisions enhancing mankind and others being dangerously abysmal failures. All too often hindsight becomes our teacher.

We can indeed learn from past mistakes but even then it’s important to realize that we are different from our ancestors. Times continually change and we are influenced heavily by our environments, what we love and what we fear or even hate. Making choices that will affect us and the people around us can be a gamble. Because each person on earth is unique there is no one size fits all way of educating or governing and yet we try even as we know that it is impossible to exactly meet everyone’s needs. Someone always seems to feel left out, abandoned either by family or nation. Such is the conundrum of our human attempts to make sense of the world and the reason why it is so difficult to enact solutions to the problems that plague us.

Freedom is a word with many meanings. Taken too far it can lead to trouble. Constricted too much it creates hostility. The key to a healthy person and society is providing just the right dose of fairness which may mean that the balance will sometimes seem unequal. Even within families a wise parent understands that no two children are identical, not even twins. So too it is with societies that attempt to be fair and just. It is difficult to know the best course of action.

As a school administrator I learned that some of my teachers wanted to be free to be themselves without much direction while others actually desired to have precise sets of rules by which to guide themselves. The trick in working with them involved crafting individual plans that took their specific needs into account. Allowing for differences sometimes created tensions because there were always those who insisted that everyone had to be treated exactly the same. The trouble with that logic is that it does not consider our human uniqueness and sounds good until it is executed in a real situation.

I find myself becoming increasingly disturbed by the urge of various forces to make us all think and act the same. We become enraged when we witness someone deviating from the thoughts and actions that we find the most appropriate. We harangue or shame those who disagree with us in the false hope that we might force them into submission to our way of looking at the world. Such has become a national pastime with celebrities being lauded or ostracized based on what they believe. In truth it is a kind of nationalized bullying that we need to abandon. We should be extremely careful that we are not ruining people’s reputations based solely on a desire to force agreement to our individual thoughts about how things should be. 

Propaganda and unwillingness to allow freedom of speech is growing all around us. Such efforts to control beliefs has been tried throughout history but it has never worked. We should be wary of those who would insist on conformity and resistance to divergent ideas. Right now we have people on both the far left and far right attempting to shut down our freedoms. What we need is for those who treasure liberty to lead by example which means acknowledging that we must make more efforts to consider the needs of each voice, not just our own. We must curb the outrage and find ways to understand and respect the very natures of our humanity. In doing so we might find the common ground that we both desire and need. As long as we keep censoring one another we will escape from the current cycle of outrage.

Faking It

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Minnie Bell rose anxiously from her bed at the end of the trailer worrying that she had somehow overslept on the first day of school. A quick glance at the alarm clock on the shelf at the foot of her sleeping quarters reassured her. It was only five in the morning and she had plenty of time before she had to depart.

It would be a day of firsts, the first time at middle school, the first time that both of her parents would not accompany her to meet the new teachers, the first time that her home was a twenty one foot trailer instead of the beautiful house where she had once lived. Somehow she dreaded the whole experience but school had always brought her joy and she needed  joy more than ever.

The summer had been difficult for Minnie Bell. Her father had been driving home from work when it happened, a freak accident really, something that never should have happened but did. The deer jumped in front of his car from nowhere. There was no way to stop or swerve without hurting another driver.  The huge animal flew into the air like a missile when he was hit and then returned to earth with such force that it broke the windshield of the car and ramming its rack of antlers into her father’s heart. Death was inevitable and instant the officer told Minnie and her mom. Daddy probably didn’t feel a thing.

The funeral and all of the days after that had been a blur. Minnie Bell could not imagine life without her father, the man who had christened her with a moniker that literally made people laugh. Hers was a regal name he convinced her, one that had once belonged to his great great grandmother, a strong woman with toughness and gentleness rolled up into one very tiny package according to family lore. “Bear yourself proudly, Minnie Bell,” he had commanded her as though her silly name was both a great gift and a responsibility.

Minnie Bell thought of how she and Mama had ended up living in an RV park inside the tiny trailer as she stowed away her bed linens on the upper bunk and transformed the bed into a table with benches on both sides. Her mother had delivered the bad news of their situation after spending the day “taking care of business.” The family finances were strained for now and they would have to make some changes for a time. “Soon enough we will be in a better situation,” Mama promised, “but for now we need to sell the house. We’ll have a little adventure living in our travel trailer. It will be fun. We’ll rent a space in the RV park near your school. I’ll get a job and maybe even go back to school myself. It will be our little bit of excitement.”

During the summer things had been fun. It was like an eternal camping trip. Mama worked in the office of the RV park and Minnie Bell walked dogs and did odd jobs for the mostly elderly people who lived there. They were all so nice. They taught Mama how to keep the systems inside the trailer working efficiently. They showed her how to get good television reception and how to make the most of the free Wifi in the park. They often invited Minnie Bell and her mother to dinner and one lady even made some new clothes for Minnie Bell to wear to school.

Minnie Bell and her mother had slowly adjusted to life without her father but as she prepared for a new school year a sadness and sense of foreboding overwhelmed her. Everything was so different and she did not want to talk about it with anyone. She hoped that she might be able to just fake it, not mention that her father had died or she had moved or any of it. She just wanted to pretend that nothing had happened.

Minnie Bell filled a bowl with cereal and sat quietly at the table worrying as her mother stirred in the bed at the other end of the trailer. She sat up and smiled at Minnie Bell across the space. “Hey, sweetie, are you ready for a grand new school year?’ she smiled as though there was nothing strange about the two of them living in cramped quarters with a future so uncertain that both of them often had nightmares.

Minnie Bell returned a weak smile for her mother. She would pretend that she was happy because she didn’t want Mama to have anymore worries. “I’m excited!” she lied. “I can’t wait to see my friends and meet my new teachers.”

Her mother was beaming now. The two of them bumped into one another as they bustled about the trailer getting ready for the new reality. Minnie Bell donned the outfit that the neighbor in the trailer next door had sewn for her. She gathered the school supplies that the residents of the park had surprised her with inside a brand new backpack. Mama handed her money to buy her lunch just for that day and then as Minnie Bell walked down the metal stairs of the trailer she was greeted by a crowd of well wishing neighbors who had gathered to take first day school pictures and give her hugs for good luck.

Minnie Bell wanted to just stay with the wonderful people who had supported her and her mother all summer long but now it was time to face the moment that she had most dreaded. She thought of her father and could almost hear him urging her to hold her head high and be as tough as her namesake had been. She looked at Mama who was so genuinely and hopefully smiling and she knew that she had to set her selfish fears aside. Daddy would want her to be his amazing girl and Mama needed for her to be a help, not a problem.

The ride to the school was only five minutes away. As Mama eased the truck into the school parking lot her face lit up with a happiness that she had not exhibited since that terrible day when Daddy died. “I have a feeling that this is going to be your best year ever, Minnie Bell,” she gushed, seeming to really mean it.

Minnie Bell forced a smile as she shook her head in agreement. Somehow she was going to make it even if she had to fake it.

Note: I often use a book of writing prompts for topic ideas. Today’s prompt asked me to write the first pages of a book for young readers. This is my idea. What do you think?   

A New Revolution

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There are moments for almost everyone when it feels as though an entire lifetime of experiences occur in the space of only a few weeks. It is as though one is riding on the most exhilarating and frightening roller coaster ever invented. The ups and downs are so extreme and come so quickly that emotions have no time to adjust and instead leave the person feeling numb and exhausted.

I have a dear friend who recently endured one of those condensed versions of This Is Your Life, reeling from the rapidity at which her entire world was changing. Fortunately she is an amazingly wise woman who sought help and was willing to ride the wave until it left her on the shore of normalcy. By year’s end she was celebrating her survival with people who truly loved her and speaking of taking things slowly while she can.

I’m old enough to have experienced a number of instances when it felt as though I was living through a microcosm of human existence in a brief span of time. While such a thing is happening it always seems as though time truly is relative because in the moment it moves so painfully slowly but in the grand scheme of things it is in fact only a blip in the entirety of history.

My entire world was upended both mentally and physically when my father died. At the age of eight I had not yet even imagined the possibility of such a thing happening particularly since my family had been planning so many fun adventures like weekends at the beach, a whole summer of freedom from school, moving to a brand new home. Suddenly we had to adjust to a strange new reality for which none of us had prepared.

The feelings that I experienced as an eight year old child repeated themselves when my mom had her first mental breakdown during my early twenties. I had enjoyed a reprieve from tragedy for twelve years after my father died and I had foolishly imagined that I would never again face such sorrow and emotional distress. I literally dreamed of how grand it would be to simply ignore my responsibility to care for my mother by running away to some wonderful magical place where I would never again be plagued by horrors. Of course there is no such thing as freedom from tragedy as I would learn over the course of many years. I would also realize that we have to deal with the pain that comes with the terrible moments just as my friend has done even when doing that is a grueling process. It takes time and patience to heal.

This past holiday season was one of many contrasts for me. It began with the celebration for my friend who had emerged like a phoenix from the hellish fires that had seemed to consume her. It was with a sense of gratitude, happiness, and inspiration that I toasted her heroic steadfastness. I took my own life by the horns and enjoyed glorious times with friends and family. It felt as though I was gloriously blessed and perhaps even immune to sorrow, but that would have been too simple an analysis of my world because I knew that there were also hardships brewing for many of the people that I love, things that worried me in the still of night.

Somehow many of them came to a head just as the new year was dawning, reminding me that each of our lives are fragile and uncertain in spite of our efforts to control destiny. I had to say final goodbyes to two souls whose light had always made me smile and laugh. I had to watch their closest loved ones struggling to accept a future without them. My emotions and were challenged to the very core and yet in the midst of such sorrow there was a ray of hope. I saw what I had experienced so many times, the power of love. It was there in the people who went out of their way to share their stories and their feelings with one another.

We know for certain that our lives will be a series of repetitions that all of mankind has experienced. We will see births and we will watch deaths. We will come together in a state of happiness and joy as well as mournful sadness. It is a certainty that we must experience both the good and the bad. Hopefully as we do so we will be surrounded by fellow travelers on this earthly journey who will hold our hands and give us the courage to keep going, for there is always a light up ahead and we will find it given enough time and forbearance.

This holiday season has provided me with the precious gift of knowing that I am not alone and that none of us need be so. There will always be good and loving people who are willing to help us carry our burdens and share our joys. We need to be willing to let them into our lives but also to know when we are so weary that it might be best to quietly rest for a time. That gooey ball of feelings is the essence of who we are. We need to embrace both our tears and our laughter while opening our hearts and minds to understanding our own experiences.

We’ve begun a new revolution around the sun and each day there is a new rotation. We are a part of the marvel of that scientific fact. Change will happen. Loss will occur but as long as we still breathe we are not yet in our final act. More is coming our way and so much of it will indeed be very good. 

Her Wonderful Life

Jeanne

I vividly remember when I first met Jeanne. She was the kind of person who left a lasting impression on people and she definitely had that effect on me. I was about six or seven years old when my cousin, Leonard, brought his girl friend, Jeanne, to a family gathering at Clear Lake. She was a stunningly beautiful teenager with a mega watt smile and a confidence that made her an instant hit with my aunts and uncles. It wasn’t too long after that when she and Leonard were married providing me with my first encounter with what I thought of as the holy grail of true love.

Jeanne was undoubtedly one of a kind, a delightful spirit who found and gave joy wherever she went. She had a way of making everyone feel special and loved, and she always took time to let people know how much she cared about them. Even the smallest children knew that her interest in them was genuine. With her seemingly boundless energy she gave her heart and soul to every person who came her way. Her humble way of giving of herself guaranteed that she would become a favorite in our big extended family. It was not long before she was the person we felt most excited to see whenever she arrived at our events.

Jeanne and Leonard started a family of their own that grew and grew and grew filling their home with laughter and unmitigated love. Jeanne was at the center of the antics and delighted in planning raucous gatherings where fun and mischief were the order of the day. She was a premier hostess who literally chose her homes with entertaining in mind and understood the importance of having enough room to hold all of the love that was a constant presence in her life.

Jeanne was the bearer of so many gifts that she in turn generously lavished on her family and friends. She was a teacher, a woman of great faith. She was a light of optimism and a ray of hope. She humbly spread her kindness leaving no one untouched by her generosity. She loved to cook and she made preparing a feast for a crowd look easy to do. She danced her way through life grasping every possible opportunity to enjoy people and places and events. She built traditions that brought those that she loved together, hosting family annual reunions and scheduling week long camping trips at Garner State Park each summer.

Jeanne had a particularly amazing way of making each person that she encountered feel welcomed. Nobody in her presence went unnoticed. She took great pains to make everyone part of the fun that seemed to surround her like a halo. She possessed a charisma that made her unique and exciting but more importantly she maintained a quiet strength that was comforting. I found myself drawn to her just so that I might basque in the sunshine of her warmth.

Jeanne lived as full and meaningful life as anyone might desire. She was a loving wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, daughter, daughter-in-law, sister, sister-in-law, cousin, friend. She lived a simple life by choice but somehow everything she touched became extraordinary. She earned a college degree after her children were grown, proving to them that learning is a lifelong goal. She found ways to attend athletic events, band concerts, birthday parties, graduations and funerals with a faithfulness and sincerity that told people how important they were to her.

Jeanne had a beautiful heart but she was also an incredibly attractive woman with a flair for the flamboyant.. She loved bright colors that seemed to perfectly match her exciting personality. There were no grays and whites in her home or her way of living. Instead reds and oranges and deep blues shouted out her never ending joy and matched her ever present smile.

Jeanne left this earth last Friday. She had been very ill for some time. In her classic way she willed herself to remember others even as her health failed. She came to my fiftieth anniversary party with her oxygen tank and looking feeble, but still managing to have a glorious time. On Christmas Day she was surrounded by her huge family doing her best to laugh through the pain that had become her unrelenting companion. It was a fitting final act of love that was the definition of who she was.

Jeanne will be sorely missed. A great light in our lives seems to have gone away, but I believe that her impressions are so indelibly imprinted on our souls that we will always see and be guided by her example and her brightness. I agree with Jeanne’s granddaughter Madison who imagines her grandmother laughing and joking with Jesus and dancing with delight in her new heavenly home. She is waiting for us there, preparing a party for the time when we join her. For now we rejoice that her pain is no more and that she has so justly received her reward for living a truly wonderful life.

I saw a magnificent sunset not long after Jeanne died. Somehow I felt that it was a sign from her that we are supposed to continue to celebrate the beauty of life just as she always did. I know she would want us to embrace and comfort one another and find a way to dry our tears and carry on her traditions. She taught us well.

Renewal

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We humans like traditions. They tend to be anchors that keep us moored. We often attach our ways of doing things to special dates so that we might have reminders that it is time once again to repeat them. We turn on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade while we prepare for a family gathering later in the day. We watch fireworks on the Fourth of July. We hang lights on our houses and set up trees for Christmas. We celebrate birthdays with cakes and candles. Each year we plan for a succession of such events to break the routine of work and daily living, Traditions give us something wonderful to dream about when we are weary of the trials that so often beset us. They are mostly about spending time with people whom we love, forgetting about our challenges until another day.

Sometimes our difficulties are so overwhelming that they intrude upon our traditions. A death or a serious illness may make it impossible to feel the joy that usually comes with such occasions, We feel like outsiders as we see what appears to be the entire world having fun around us. We can’t imagine how they can be so happy when we are so bereft. Our woes are part of the natural cycle of life just as much as our joys but somehow we have a very difficult time accepting them in the midst of general revelry. We can’t imagine how it will ever again be possible to join the fun without heavy hearts.

Life is a repetitive cycle whether or not we humans take note of the changing seasons. It goes on and on and on just as it has done for centuries. We are part of its story and in our tendency to manufacture ways to take control of it, we create those traditions and cling to the constancy of them. They somehow help us to feel better but they can also be vivid reminders of loss. Our emotions are tied up with our traditions and we associate certain people and places with them so much so that they can at times hurt as much as they help.

Today is the first day of a new year and a new decade. In our human need to demonstrate a modicum of mastery over our existence we have created traditions to mark the passage of the earth’s journey around the sun. We eat special foods that we associate with good luck and we make resolutions to improve ourselves in the days ahead. Renewal and redemption is a constant theme in the human experience. We falter and then we forgive ourselves and hope that others will as well. We begin again hoping to be our best. It is perhaps one of our most noble characteristics.

I hear of many worthy resolutions on this day. People vow to take better care of their health or to pursue learning. They set goals of traveling more or spending time doing more purposeful things. The list of possibilities is endless and wonderful. It feels good to have the opportunity to renew ourselves, to jump start the goodness in our lives one more time. It’s also a moment when we might glance around us to find those souls who feel so broken and lost that they are unable to join the rest of us in the feelings of happiness and renewal. Perhaps there is no greater resolution than to show them comfort.

I spend a bit of time on Facebook each day just to get a feel of how my friends and family are doing. I see so much joy on my wall but hidden in the corners are hints that tell me of those who are suffering. I suspect that their sorrow is compounded by the celebratory images that they see. This most wonderful time of year can be quite hard for them, at least for awhile. Healing is a slow process but it need not be endured alone. There is nothing more curative than receiving small gestures of kindness and remembrance from people who care.

A friend posted a wonderful idea just before January 1. She suggested that each of us choose one person for whom we will pray each and every day of this new year. I’d like to add the idea of making time for that person as well. Giving to others is a tonic not only for them also but for us as.

May this new year of 2020 bring you and those you love the contentment and strength that you need to keep moving through another revolution of the sun and an opportunity for renewal.