Win Win

920x920Houston has been looking like a winner of late, which is quite grand given what happened a little more than three months ago. We’re still celebrating our World Series championship and to top everything off we got a lovely dusting of white flakes last week that literally made everyone smile. The landscape that had been covered in a different kind of precipitation back in August look like a picture postcard with every rooftop and tree glistening with just enough snow to create a winter wonderland.

We’ve really needed those little bits of joy because there is till so much recovery work needed. It breaks our hearts to know that there are still people not yet back in their houses. For some the journey home has been long and hard. Many were turned down for relief funds and others are being told that they will have to raise their foundations before getting permits for repairs. Families have wiped out their savings and in some cases spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for which they have had to get loans. While the rest of us have been getting ready for the holiday season, they’ve been consumed with worry. Still, we are all Houston Strong and the viral photo of a Houstonian cheering on a plastic lawn chair during the final game of the World Series inside his stripped down home seems to represent who we are.

You can imagine how wonderful we felt when we learned that not one, but two of our hometown heroes had won the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Award. Both J.J. Watt and Jose Altuve are beloved figures here in H Town and their twin win was glorious, because there are times when we wonder if anyone even knows where Houston is or that it is the fourth largest city in the nation. It sometimes seems that Cleveland is more identifiable to the world than Houston, but much of what is best about our city has put us on the map this year. Watt and Altuve are among our finest treasures and we are swelled with pride in knowing that they have been duly honored.

J.J. Watt is the kind of man that everyone mom wants her son to become. Aside from his tremendous talent on the gridiron he is a truly fine and generous human being. We’ve all come to realize that he is a gift to our city both on and off of the field. He’s perhaps our most reliable player when he’s not injured and so he is undoubtedly the fan favorite. When he immediately stepped up to help raise funds for those affected by the floods we were not surprised, but we were definitely grateful and humbled by his efforts which paid off beyond all of our wildest expectations. This was one of J.J’s most public moments of largesse, but those of us who live here know that he has been constantly and often very quietly doing wonderful things for the people of Houston.

J.J. Watt has been known to show up at hospitals and nursing homes. He even takes the time to attend high school sporting events to encourage local athletes. He is a superstar who has somehow managed to maintain his sense of humility. We are in awe of his towering presence, but we also view him as the guy next door because that is the way he wants to be. He’s our neighbor, one of us. His pain is ours, and so when his leg was shattered fairly early in the season we were heartbroken for him. It was as though one of our own sons had been sidelined. Now that he is enjoying the honor that is so well deserved we find ourselves celebrating with him as well.

Jose Altuve has played his heart out all season long on the Houston Astros. When our city was so devastated he became a man with a mission. He was determined to work harder and better to bring a win to our town. He made it known that he and the team were unwilling to let us down. In perhaps the darkest hour that Houston has ever experienced he was a beacon of hope, a bookend for J.J. Watt.

Altuve too is a young man who works hard to be his very best both on and off of the baseball diamond. He is a team player who understands what he must do each time he walks up to the plate. Somehow he appears to be less concerned with personal acclaim and more focused on sharing his athletic brilliance with his fellow players and his fans. He understood all too well how much we needed the championship that had eluded us for decades, and on an evening when many were watching in rooms with concrete floors and only studs for walls he and his teammates took us to the Promised Land. We were as united as we had been back in August when we were working to help those affected by the storms, only this time we were deliriously happy. He gave us an unexpected gift and demonstrated that his heart was bigger than his entire body. In stature he is the exact twin of J.J. Watt.

Sometimes the universe appears to align in such a manner that the most deserving receive the awards. In a year punctuated by a great deal of suffering and ugliness it is refreshing to be reminded that there are still exceptionally talented and noble individuals in our midst. J.J. Watt and Jose Altuve are the role models that we need for our young. They are the heroes who rank with the legends. All of us in Houston are proud to embrace them as our own.

The Christmas lights in H Town are burning a bit brighter and with a bit more hopefulness. The world has been set aright for once. In their great wisdom the editors of Sports Illustrated have chosen two individuals who represent the very best of the human spirit. Our congratulations will never be enough to thank J.J. Watt and Jose Altuve for all that they have given us. They are heroes whose stories will be enshrined in the crazy history of this incredible town. The mere mention of their names will bring smiles to our faces as we will always remember how much they meant to us when things seemed so bleak. All of Houston will be forever grateful and strong.

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Changing Lives

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Again and again I am reminded by experts that my brothers and I are not supposed to be doing as well as we are. On a recent offering on NPR I learned that the odds of making it out of the cycle of poverty while growing up in a single family household are daunting, and yet my siblings and I not only managed to break a cycle that had haunted our ancestors for generations, but we also managed to be emotionally healthy as well. At the end of a glorious Thanksgiving Day that we shared together the three of us sat back and attempted to analyze the factors that had been important in bringing us to our current state of happiness and success.

We all agreed that it would have been impossible for any of us to make it as adults had it not been for our mother. She was at the center of our upbringing, a task that she took perhaps even more seriously than most. She understood that from day to day she played the role of both mom and dad. Every major obligation was placed squarely on her shoulders, and her start after my father’s death could not have been more difficult. We had no car, no home of our own, no money in the bank, no life insurance pay out, and she had no job. Things were so financially grim that I caught on to the direness of our situation even though I was only eight years old. I had enough sense to rightly interpret the whispered concerns that I heard my aunts and uncles voicing as they worried about what would become of us. Somehow my dear mother would manage time and again through thrift and intellect to weave gold out of straw, and keep us afloat as a family without ever burdening us with her troubles, but she never would have been able to manage all alone.

I suspect that had our mother been virtually on her own the enormity of her task might have broken her far sooner than it ultimately did, but she was surrounded by people who continually supported her and me and my brothers. I found great comfort in the knowledge that we had guardian angels who always showed up when we most needed help. Their efforts on our behalf began on the day of my father’s death when our house filled to the bursting with members of our extended family, long time friends, and people from our temporary neighborhood and church. That trend would continue for all of our days as children and it would provide reassurances to us that someone would be there to catch us if we suddenly began to fall.

I still remember my Uncle Jack taking us to purchase a car after Daddy’s wreck with the funds that Mama had received from the car insurance policy. Even though the automobile that he was driving at the time of the crash had been virtually brand new and fully loaded with all the bells and whistles of the day, the check barely paid the balance of what was owed on the car that had been destroyed, and left only a pittance for a down payment on a new vehicle. Uncle Jack, who was a worldly wise and frugal man, counseled my mother to purchase a replacement that was within her means. He found a stripped down Ford with a standard transmission, rubber floor mats and a color that nobody would have chosen on purpose, that was advertised for an amazingly low price. He brokered a deal with the salesman by appealing to his sense of decency. Still my mother gazed at the ugly car and insisted that it was hardly the kind of model that my father would have chosen. It was Uncle Jack who insisted that she was going to have to learn how to make do with what she had. We drove away and used that “Charlie Brown” car for the rest of my childhood. It took us wherever we wanted or needed to go, but mostly it represented possibilities and the strength of individuals like my uncle who would take care of all of us for years to come.

It was the same Uncle Jack who guided us to the home where all three of us would grow into adults. It was a far more modest place than the ones that we had been viewing with my father. Most importantly, though, was the fact that the neighborhood where it stood was filled with incredibly good people who would become the steadying force that my brothers and I needed. Over the years we shed all of our fears and came to feel infinitely secure because of our neighbors who always seemed to be teaching us things and helping our mother with household repairs. It was a wholesome and safe environment that was made even better when Mama was wise enough to center our world on the nearby church and the school where we would make lifelong friends and build the happiest of memories. Everyone knew of our tenuous situation, and while they never openly discussed their sympathy for our plight, they quietly made extra efforts for us. There was a generous spirit that followed us and kept us from harm. We mostly took all of the people for granted as children are wont to do, but deep in our hearts we understood how important they were in helping to shape us into confident adults. We learned from everyone that with a bit of hard work and imagination we would ultimately be just fine.

We were admittedly more fortunate than most children who struggle with poverty. We had a huge village of adults who took us into their hearts and never let go. With our mom encouraging us to use our natural gifts and talents wisely, and a great deal of motivation from teachers and mentors we were able to break the chains of economic hardship. Today few would ever imagine that our life stories might have made us just a few more statistics had it not been for the love and wisdom that surrounded us when we most needed those things. We know that it is never impossible to rise above even the most challenging circumstances which is why I suspect that we have in turn spent much of our lives attempting to help others just as we were so magnanimously assisted. Our altruism was born in the knowledge that each of us has an opportunity to help our fellow human beings and to touch hearts in ways that alter the trajectory of lives.

It saddens me to know that we still have so many young children who are feeling broken, alone, afraid and powerless, but I regularly see the same kind of good people as those who helped my family by stepping up to make a difference. In this season that is often defined by plenty and excess each of us has the power of reshaping destiny. Even the very smallest of attempts that we make to share the wealth of our good fortune, talents and love with those who have less may create the very spark that sets a soul on fire. I was the recipient of all that I needed to redefine my life, and my gratitude for the many souls who made my rise possible will be eternally boundless. Go forth and seek out the suffering. Listen to their cries. Embrace them and you will change the world.

She’s A Good Woman

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She’s a good woman with a very difficult life. She doesn’t complain, but it is apparent that she is tired. The stress in her life only seems to grow in spite of her efforts to keep things running smoothly. She makes the best of a bad situation. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. She’s adventurous and thought she would be having fun at this moment in her story. Instead life dealt her an unexpected curve to which she has responded with her usual aplomb. She’s a good woman, but one who has been pushed to the limit.

She saw an opportunity to really enjoy life with her man and they decided to grab the possibilities with gusto. They found a way to live out their retirement years in the mountains of Panama. They were healthy and hearty and would be around other expatriates, all for little or no cost compared to what they were paying in the states. They sold their house, their car, all but the most basic of their belongings and they were on their way to an exciting future with the well wishes of friends who understood that they were not ordinary souls.

They found a lovely place to live that came with a caretaker and a housekeeper who visited once a week as part of the rent. Their property was filled with exotic plants and animals and colors of every hue. They enjoyed the fruit that they were able to pick fresh from the trees and vines. They took long walks enjoying the vistas and the rarely changing mild temperatures that kept them feeling comfortable without a need for either air conditioning or heat. They enrolled in Spanish immersion classes even though most of the people around them spoke English. They wanted to totally experience the culture of their new home. It was all as wonderful as they had hoped. They had found paradise.

They met others like themselves, retirees who wanted to experience something a bit different from what they had known all of their lives. They would join their new friends for dinners and parties and game nights. They were an interesting lot with stories to tell of lives spent doing wondrous things. It seemed as though they had all found a tiny slice of heaven on earth and it was so good, at least until the unthinkable happened.

One day only six months into the move he had a stroke. It left him with difficulties that gravely limited his ability to do the things that they had so enjoyed. She immediately set to work helping him to recuperate because it is in her nature to do such things. She’s after all a good woman. Before long he was moving around the property with a walker. His appetite returned and she created healthy foods for him to eat. She worked with him to exercise his limbs and made the best of the unexpected situation. She kept his mind from drifting to dark places. She was devoted to his care and he was growing stronger by the day.

In spite of her efforts to save the remnants of the new and glorious lifestyle that they had created together it became apparent that he needed to be closer to his doctors. The long journeys into to town were tiring and took far too much time. She worried that another emergency might arise. They both agreed that it would be best to return to the states, and so they began to plan again. This time they wanted to try a small town instead of a big city like the one that they had initially left. Their research lead them to a college town in Georgia, the original capitol of the state. It appeared to have everything they might need. There would be doctors and a hospital nearby, an interesting history, a slow pace, and a reasonable cost of living. Perhaps he would even regain most of his health and they would be able to travel again, make new friends. It would be fun.

They packed their things taking mostly memories this time along with their clothing and the boxes of Christmas decorations that always followed them even when they left other items behind. They were excited about the prospects for the future as they boarded the plane but once again their hopes and dreams turned out differently than they had imagined. He had another stroke that left him more incapacitated than ever. For a time she spent most of her days with him in a hospital, preparing their new home in the evenings. He was bedridden, an invalid unable to even feed himself at times, but she’s a good woman and became more determined than ever to provide him with comfort and love. She took him home and has cared for him day after challenging day.

The weeks went by and then the months and the years. Her life is centered on his needs. She prepares the foods that he likes, changes his diapers, gives him his medications. She sleeps in another room but never soundly. She listens for his voice or signs of trouble. The home healthcare workers who come several times each week provide her with brief interludes during which she shops for groceries and sometimes even does something for herself. Now and again one of them becomes a friend.

She’s a good woman, but her life has become ever more difficult. She is far away from family and old friends. She finds new acquaintances at the grocery store or the resale shop where she finds gently used household items for her home. Now and again she meets someone at the apartment project where she lives, but they almost always eventually move away, and she has to start over again and again. She recently fell and broke her hip. It was one of the few times that her optimism began to falter. He had to go to a nursing home until she had recovered enough to care for him, but she was back on her feet in record time. She felt that she had to ignore her own needs because she saw him deteriorating at a rapid pace without her. She needed to get him home where she might shower him with her comfort and love. She worked hard at rehabilitating herself and sooner than anyone expected he was back with her again.

He’s very sick these days. He is plagued by infections. She is too weak to lift him as she once did. She feeds him and changes him and talks with him even though he is no longer able to communicate with her as in times of old when they talked long into the night. She makes the best of a very tough situation.

A few people from nearby churches try to help her. She celebrated Thanksgiving with one of the caretakers who comes each week to work with her husband. She calls old friends to have a lifeline outside of her tiny world of routines. She tries to stay positive but there is a hint of resignation in her voice. She is weary and worried, and every new challenge makes her a bit less steady in her resolve. Those of us who know her silently wonder how much more she will be able to handle. We know that she has always been a tower of strength, a survivor, and a very good woman. Still we want more than anything for her to finally get a break. God knows that she deserves it so.

She’s a good woman who has taught those of us who are her friends how to be so. She has shown us what sacrifice and dedication look like in action. We admire her, but also want to see her enjoying life without so many challenges. She’s a good woman who has certainly earned her angel wings, but we pray that she may also enjoy better times here on earth as well. If ever there was someone who deserves a run of good fortune it is this woman. My prayer is that better times are coming her way.

Twilight Dreams

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You are never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream.—C.S. Lewis

I’ll be celebrating my sixty-ninth birthday this week and I still often behave as though I’m eighteen and just embarking on adult life. Sure I’m not as energetic as I once was nor as quick-witted, but as long as I am still able to care for myself I plan to keep dreaming.

There are certain things that were once on my bucket list that don’t matter much to me anymore. For a very long time I wanted to live in West University Place, an upscale neighborhood near Rice University. I love the big trees and old style architecture there along with the perk of being close to so much of the action in Houston. For most of my working years I held firm to the belief that I would one day get there, but the prices of the homes kept increasing, and my salary as an educator didn’t keep pace so it never happened. Once I realized that I may as well scratch that idea from my book of dreams I was briefly sad, but eventually it didn’t really matter anymore. I love my present home and my neighbors and have little desire to move. After the floods of hurricane Harvey I was was incredibly grateful that I survived without any damage and I didn’t once think of how it would have been if I had indeed found my way into West U. Sometimes such goals actually become irrelevant.

As I’ve aged my tastes and desires have changed. I’m much more mellow than I once was. I learned the importance of appreciating the many blessings that I have rather than constantly wanting more and more. Contentment has become my most worthy goal, and I am doing quite well in living the dream. I’ve become amazingly good at thoroughly enjoying myself just watching the birds and sipping on a class of wine in my backyard. I like long conversations with my husband, and the honor of helping my grandchildren with homework. I no longer have to be reminded to be thankful because I find myself thinking of my good fortune multiple times each day. I truly enjoy life whether I am doing something exciting or simply basking in the wonder of the people that I know.

When I was younger my dreams centered on finding success, accumulating things, becoming wealthy. I eventually realized that my desires were not making me happy because they were focused on the wrong things. Once I acknowledged the greater importance of being a good person and appreciating and cultivating relationships I began to have a sense of lightness even when I was merely performing routine tasks on very quiet days. It’s quite true that nobody takes any possessions with them when they die. They may be dressed in fine clothes, wearing golden rings and such, but few are ever remembered for what they owned. What truly remains are the legacies that they have created over time. For that reason my goals as I begin to approach my seventieth decade all center on people. I truly hope that I will leave love and memories of a purpose-filled life behind.

My dream is to stay healthy enough of mind and body that I will be able to continue to help and sometimes even inspire the people that I encounter. I don’t need much for myself anymore, but I would so like to be able to comfort and enrich other lives. I have begun to understand that it doesn’t always take a great deal of money or effort to do that. Just letting people know that they matter is a great gift. So many are struggling and the world can sometimes feel quite hateful. I want to be that person who smiles and improves a day that might otherwise have been bad.

It never takes great effort to bring joy into other people’s worlds, a kind word, an affirmation, just being there. When I received a “thinking of you” card from high school friends after my husband’s stroke it felt as though I had won the lottery. That little note of reassurance and thoughtfulness made what had been a very bad day seem bearable. My goal is to pay that sort of kindness forward a hundredfold. I suppose that everyone appreciates an unexpected pat on the back as much as I do.

I so admire Jimmy Carter for continuing to spend his time and talents in his twilight years helping the less fortunate. He might have traveled, played golf, spoiled himself, but instead he has dedicated his post White House years to being a shining beacon of hope for so many who might have suffered but for his largesse. I can’t think of more noble goals than the ones that he set for himself. I wonder if I would have been as forgiving as he was when the voters rejected him for a second term as president. As lesser man might have stewed in indignation. President Carter instead found a way to remain optimistic and loving. There aren’t many bonafide saints who were as magnanimous as he has been.

I have no idea when the clock will stop ticking for me. I’ve certainly witnessed friends and family members in my age group climbing the stairway to heaven. Their deaths remind me that none of us have a certain future. Nonetheless I plan to keep planning until I can no more. I think that just about anything is possible for me to accomplish as long as I don’t surrender to the passage of time. I’m just not yet ready to sit permanently in a rocking chair just watching the world go by. I suspect that there are still many miles to traverse and I want to walk them with a sense of accomplishment.

I’ve actually considered attempting to earn a doctorate, and the only thing that holds me back is that I would rather spend time with people than with books and my thoughts. I want laughter and love and life to be part of my days. I desire to have friendships and fun. I’d like to think that I have many more smiles to flash and hugs to give away. I want a twinkle in my eyes and a happy story on my lips. I believe that I have actually found the most worthy promises of my life, and I thank the good Lord that I have everything that I need to make all of them come true.

The Last Lecture

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I love to listen to the radio while I drive, but I prefer talk shows over music. I spent some time listening to conservative programs, but when I reached the point of becoming so angry that I considered shooting the bird to nobody in particular I realized that it was time to try something different. Of late I’ve been enjoying NPR where I’ve learned so many interesting and quirky things. Last week I heard about a professor at Sam Houston State University who’s offering a last lecture series. It’s based on the idea of providing one’s own elegy before death. The prof got the notion from an Oprah program that featured a guest who was dying of cancer who had given a powerful final lecture to his students. The incident was recorded and went viral after it was uploaded on YouTube. Now a number of teachers at Sam Houston are volunteering to give their own versions of final lessons for their students.

The format is interesting in that the speaker tells a brief history of his/her life and then gives advice on how to live a full and meaningful existence. Those who have agreed to lay bare their souls have found that they leave the experience feeling quite fulfilled. Their public self reflections are as helpful to them as to their listeners. They serve as reminders that we should cherish each breath that we take, and do our best to make each moment as meaningful as possible. We assume that we have miles to go before we travel down the rainbow highway, but we never really know when our time here on earth will end. It’s actually a challenging but freeing experience to look back on what we have accomplished and assess how well we have done.

The program made me wonder what I might say if I were given an opportunity to present a last lecture of sorts. What might I tell an audience that would make a difference or inspire? Where would I begin?

I’ve already written a memoir, but it focuses mostly on my mother and the trials that so defined her life. I suppose that like her my own story has a before and after all having to do with my father’s death. Literally everything in my world changed in an instant that was tragic but also hardly the end of my world. I learned that life takes twists and turns that seem impossible to overcome at the time, but in reality help us to grow and become stronger. In my own case it took a very long while for me to regain my footing. I was afraid and unsure of myself even with the amazing strength of mother to guide me. Ironically it was when I became responsible for her care after her first mental breakdown that I realized just how much courage I was capable of mustering. I was literally forced by circumstances to either sink or swim, and I chose to dog paddle my way through situations that once might have terrified me. There is strange twist in the fact that I learned how to be brave at a time when I was most afraid.

I always wanted to be a highly successful and accomplished woman, but I somehow believed that doing so meant that I needed to be rich and famous. I felt a bit ashamed that my biography was seemingly so ordinary. After all who really views a mom and a teacher as someone outstanding? I knew that I was never going to be honored as an exceptional graduate or have my name in a headline or on a marquee, but I have to admit that I made great choices that I would repeat again if I had the opportunity to live my life all over again. It felt good to quietly make a difference in my own children and my many students. There was great meaning in what I did from day to day and that has always been important to me.

If I were to share the advice that I deem to be the most important it would be to follow one’s heart. Life should be joyful, and if we are not feeling a burst of happiness and satisfaction in whatever we do, then maybe we are in the wrong place. Of course not every single day will ever be perfect, but there should at the very least be meaning and a sense of importance in whatever we choose to do. My advice for young people has been to find their passions and follow them. If they do so they will rarely go astray.

I have always attempted to be a woman of integrity. I have few secrets and most of those are things that I do not share in order to protect other people. Otherwise my life is an open book. I admit to my imperfections and do my best to improve them. I try not to judge or be self righteous. I honor and love people and accept and cherish differences. Doing so is the spice of life that makes each day more interesting. I try to be humble, but I am indeed proud of my family and my friends and the work I have done. I believe It gets one nowhere to brood over what is lacking rather than counting the blessings that are always there. Mostly I know that the key to a life well lived is found in the simple act of love. It is in giving of ourselves to the people around us that we become our very best. Being able to glance in the mirror and like what we see is a tremendous gift, but it takes hard work to achieve.

At the end of the day our possessions and our wealth mean so little. We can’t take anything with us, but we can leave behind legacies that continue to inspire long after we are gone. We never know what people will say about us as they gather to mourn but we always hope they will know and remember how much we truly cared. It is in sharing adventures and travels and learning and quiet moments that we are most likely to find our way into hearts. The best among us are always ready to listen or comfort or just laugh.

I recently answered a reference call for one of my former students. I haven’t seen him for quite some time, but when asked what kind of personality he has the words that came to my mind were sensitive and compassionate. I have forgotten his flaws and only recall his sweetness. That’s how we tend to be when someone has shown us kindness, and he always did. I suspect that every one of us would very much like to be remembered like that. I know I would.

A high school friend recently asked me what I would write about him if he were to die. He was curious to know what kind of man I perceive him to be. I was happy to be able to tell him what a positive impact he has had on this world. He possesses high principles and constantly strives to live up to the standards that he has developed as a guideline for living. He has done an excellent job in that regard so I have little doubt that if he were to deliver a last lecture it would be quite compelling just as I know he would want it to be.

It is said that each of us is forgotten within two generations, left to become dust blowing in the wind. It truly matters not whether or not we are remembered in the future, but it is important to be well regarded in the present. If we are careful to consider the needs of those that we encounter even if it only means smiling to make them feel happy, then we are on the right track. It doesn’t take much to find that little bit of heaven right here on earth so long as we simply celebrate ourselves and the people that we encounter along our way.