The Ticking Clock

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How can it already be September? Wasn’t it only yesterday that we were ringing in the New Year? When did tiny strands of grey appear in my hair. How did my knees come to ache when I walk too far? Wasn’t it only yesterday that I was able to run like a deer and see without the aide of spectacles? When did my long narrow waist become thick? From whence came the wrinkles and folds in my skin. Wasn’t I a young woman looking into the future with boundless dreams only a week or so ago? How does the same time that creeps in its petty pace suddenly race so quickly that I lose track of its passage?

I never thought of growing older. It seemed to be an aspect of life reserved for my elders. Somehow it rarely occurred to me that I might one day be respectfully called “mum” or “mother” as a sign of my advancing age. I look into the mirror and I see my twenty year old self, not the seventy year old woman who has lost two and a half inches of height and whose eyelids droop over her once big brown eyes. My brush accumulates more and more of my thinning hair and I have taken to wearing comfortable shoes rather than stylish pumps. The world and its future is being overtaken by younger women with ideas that sometimes seems as strange to me as mine appear to them. Yet somehow I find myself fighting to maintain my relevance, my purpose on this earth before I am called to one day leave.

My mother embraced her age as have so many women before me. I struggle to stay in the game, to be considered woke. Haven’t there been women my age running for President of the United States? Isn’t Ruth Bader Ginsburg still demonstrating an incredible acuity of mind? Who determines when someone should retire to a state of old age? Why should I simply sit back and watch the rising and setting of the sun without making efforts to squeeze every single second of meaning out of my existence? After all I come from a line of people who live for a very long time. If I make it as much time as two of my aunts I still have at least thirty more years to contribute to society. If I consider my grandfather I can tack on another eight years. People have entire careers in less time than I may still enjoy if I am true to my DNA.

The world is not the place it was. We are often able to keep our minds and our bodies vibrant far longer than once thought possible. Our appearances may change and we may move with less vigor, but our minds are as alive as ever. Coupled with the experiences that we have had we are in many ways the wise men and women of our time. We’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. We’ve endured triumphs and tribulations and learned from each of them. We understand that simple answers are rare, but there are solutions for even the seemingly most hopeless situations. We also understand that there comes a time when we must give the young the freedom that they need to learn how to be stewards of the world when it is time for them assume the leadership roles that we once held.

Hopefully the world that we leave behind will be somehow better for our having been here. I’d like to think that each of us will have a positive impact on some person or problem or advancement. Since there is still so much to be done, we should search for new ways of making a difference now that we are no longer part of the teeming race of workers who report to jobs each day. Ours may now be small almost imperceptible contributions that nonetheless are important. What we accomplish may be as simple as sending an encouraging word to a young person who is struggling to launch. Ours are now the quieter moments that touch individuals more often than creating a buzz in the crowd.

I am indeed older. I see loveliness in the hard work that shows on my hands. Unlike what people may think about someone of my age, I know that I am more open and forgiving than I once was for I have seen my own humanity and weaknesses. I have somehow overcome them with the grace and help of others. It has been in the kindnesses of even people that I did not know that I have been able to survive this long. Now I understand that it is up to me to continue to pay my blessings forward.

I do my best to spend a part of each day outside of myself. I have friends who are far more gifted in such ways than I am and they continually inspire me. I see them spending time at nursing homes and bringing smiles to people who are sick and lonely. I watch them unselfishly donating their talents to causes that make life better. I read their evangelical praises of God and know that they are living breathing angels of example. I am awed by them and do my best to emulate them in tiny ways. They are my peers who are not daunted by the passing of time and the aging of their bodies. They are good people who forget themselves and focus on others.

We live in a world that idolizes the young and the beautiful. That is perhaps as it should be, but those of us who are moving ever closer to the inevitability of closing the circle of life still have so much to offer. We need to spend each day with purpose and resolve. The truly beautiful are those who forget about their images in the mirror and instead devote precious time to benefitting the world just a bit more.

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I See You

I See You

I went to a fairly small high school in which we tended to know of everyone of our classmates, but often did not really know details about all of them. Some of my friends from that stage of my life are still very much part of my world, and what I have learned over the decades is that each of us have had to deal with difficulties both when we were young, and when we were adults. None of us have gone untouched by daunting challenges that sometimes took all of our reserves to overcome.

As I have aged I have had opportunities to get to really know some of the people who went to school with me who were once little more than acquaintances or names and faces in a yearbook. Even those that I thought had a golden touch have endured painful experiences, and many of them occurred even as they sauntered through the hallways of our school with smiles on their faces hiding the hurt and fear that was stalking them.

We are in a strange kind of era in which we almost appear to be vying to determine which people among us have been the victims of the most unjust tragedies. Certainly some among us have always had more resources for dealing with difficulties, but none of us have ever been entirely free of troubles. My brothers and I had a heavy dose of sorrow, poverty and exposure to mental illness but we also had more than a generous share of emotional support from our mother, our extended family, our neighbors, the people at our church, our teachers and our friends. We may have been thrown into the maelstrom more than we might have wished, and wondered at times if we would survive, but time and again we learned the very important lesson that we were never alone. That realization was more valuable than money or possessions or influence or privilege. In fact, we were quite young when we knew beyond a doubt that there is always is source of kindness and that often it comes from the most unexpected places.

The one thing that most people desire is to be seen and heard. I recently read a book that my grandson chose for his summer reading that reminded me of our human need to be noticed and honored for being exactly who we are. A Monster Calls is the story of a young man plagued by nightmares in the midst of his beloved mother’s battle with cancer. It is a gorgeous flight of fancy that speaks to our desire to be understood. There is no race or class that does not share the desire to be fully and totally accepted.

Just as the boy in A Monster Calls was filled with anger because he believed that nobody fully understood him, so too are many people in society today filled with rage because they feel misunderstood. They are mad about this or that and don’t want to take it anymore. They seem to be unaware of the fact that we all have been burdened with challenges beyond our control that have made our lives more difficult than we want them to be. They carry on because they want someone to empathize with their plights, some of which appear to be more deserving of our concern than others. In truth it is impossible to discern the difference between rotten apples and moldy oranges. Problems are problems and we all have them. When they pile up and become unbearable, which they tend to do in spite of our efforts, we simply want some compassion and for those around us to acknowledge our sorrows.

When humans feel abandoned they are more likely to lose hope. They lash out or devolve into depression. There is no telling where their thoughts of desperation will lead them. Sometimes they become ugly and violent versions of themselves. I always ponder when I encounter such a person what brought them to such a terrible place. I find myself wondering if someone along the pathway of their lives might have helped them to find positive ways of dealing with tribulations. I contemplate the possibility that they became so invisible that they broke.

I  have been greatly saddened by a tragedy that occurred near where my grandsons live. On a summer afternoon just before the start of school two boys the same age as my grandsons met in a park. One of them shot and killed the other. They were sixteen and my grandsons knew both of them from their high school. The shooter was in the same advisory period as theirs. The victim’s mother was an acquaintance of their mom’s. It hit all of us hard just as it did the teachers at the school. Everyone wondered what might have prevented such an horrific moment. Was there something that might have been said or done? What was the defining event when things began to go so terribly wrong?

We tend to operate as though laws and rules and allegiances are more important than individual lives, and yet there are stories after stories both in literature and history of people who were saved because someone witnessed their pain and did something meaningful to help them. Kindness often does wonders. I know for a fact that it made an enormous difference for me and my brothers when we were growing into adults. Just having someone see us and offer a hand taught us to be optimistic even in the darkest hours. Little acknowledgements were enough to sustain us.

I was reading about Latinas going to college and feeling different and a bit frightened when checking into their dormitories. It reminded me of my own college days. I was unable to live on campus. I went to the university in my city and commuted to and from school each day. I did not have a car but I had two dear friends who offered to get me there and take me back home. They went out of their way to help me.

I would have liked to have been part of college life with a dorm room and all of the activities associated with that experience, but I barely had enough money to cover my tuition which I paid from summer jobs and little bits of work here and there. I instead got something even better, a lifetime relationship with the two wonderful souls who made sure that I got to my classes. They saw me and they listened to me then and all the way into the present. I don’t know what I might have done without them, but I’ll never have to wonder because they were there.

Perhaps instead of growing irritated by those who are shouting about their pain and sorrow, we simply need to let them know that we do see them and we will listen to them. That is the first step in helping someone to find the way to a better life. I had angels who gave me that gift, I pray that other frightened souls will find someone willing to provide for them.

Be That Person

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It’s quiet this morning. As I write my blog the children in my neighborhood have not yet started back to school, but by the time it is posted their educational routines will have begun again in earnest. This time of year causes me to review the totality of my own life and to consider the challenges that I faced in growing up as well as those that plague today’s youngsters.

I was five years old when I became a student for the first time. My father dropped me off rather unceremoniously at St. Peter’s Catholic School where I began the first grade with little preparation for the routine that would overtake my life. My mother had only days before returned from the hospital with my brand new baby brother. My favorite uncle was fighting for his life at the Veteran’s Hospital in a battle that would not end well. There was a bit of chaos in my little world and thus the adults decided that I would be happier in the structured environment of school than the free range of a home turned upside down by life’s events.

Nobody took a photograph of my milestone entrance into school nor did they explain to me what lie ahead. I was simply told at the last minute that the time for my formal education had arrived. To say that I was unhappy and a bit overwhelmed would be an understatement, but I was always an obedient child and so I quietly demurred to my parents’ wishes even though I was frightened and confused. Luckily my teacher was an extraordinary educator who sensed my reluctance and did her best to help me to feel more comfortable about being away from my family for long periods of time. A sweet girl named Virginia who befriended me in my hour of need helped to soften the experience as well.

I soon found that learning provided me with a profound sense of control over my life. I was by nature an anxious child, but once I began to read and perform mathematical calculations I actually became so caught up in the experiences that time passed quickly and I hardly thought about the concerns that so often crowded my mind. I found solace and escape from worry in the lessons that inched me toward becoming the person that I would ultimately be. Still, as each successive school year rolled around I found myself dreading the return to structure and assignments and being away from my family only to be surprised at how much I enjoyed being a student.

My fourth grade years brought eight year old me to school as a fatherless child. My world had been turned upside down by my father’s sudden death and I had spent the summer in a kind of sorrowful haze. I remembered how much he had loved learning of all kinds and thought of him dropping me off at the first grade. I was a psychological mess, and sadly I did not get a kind and gentle teacher that school year so I experienced my first episode of school as a source of stress. I protected myself by retreating into my books and I found that even without the kindness of the adult in whose care I existed each day I still felt a sense of serenity within the pages of those tomes that carried me to faraway worlds.

Year after year I repeated the rituals of school until one day I was the one greeting the children and directing the lessons. Knowing how important it had been to me to be in the presence of a compassionate teacher, I suppose that I spent an inordinate amount of my efforts trying to make the learning experience a lovely one for my students. I understood all too well what it was like to come to school carrying baggage that made it difficult to concentrate or think. I had learned the power of kindness and understanding in breaking through my own walls, and so I did my best to appreciate each of my students just as they were rather than worrying too much about how I wanted them to be. I always hoped that they understood how much I cared about them.

So many children today begin their educational journeys as infants when their parents place them in daycares and pre-schools while they work. The educational scope and sequence has been accelerated to a level that is demanding and allows little time for relaxing. The buses that come to my neighborhood arrive before seven in the morning and don’t return until after four in the afternoon. The school year begins earlier and earlier. Today’s kids spend most of their young lives outside of their homes and the demands placed on them are often enormous. In an effort to help them be well rounded they are enrolled in extra curricular activities and spend afternoons and weekends competing in athletic events. Their time at home just resting and being themselves is ever shrinking. With homework and projects they are at times in a perennial cycle of exhaustion that allows them less sleep than they actually need and few moments of quiet time.

As adults we have seen these things and maybe even worry about them but continue to simply go with the flow lest our youth fall behind the progress of their peers. After all the college years are looming and our kids must be competitive enough to earn spots on the finest campuses. There is no time to waste, or at least it seems so. Our intentions are good but sometimes the pressure is too much for certain individuals to bear. They break and feel as though their lives have ended. I know this because I have counseled many a young person who felt as though he or she had reached the end of all possibilities. They saw themselves as failures who would no doubt spend their adult lives feeling ashamed. They had been programed to judge themselves with rubrics that did not allow for those moments in which we demonstrate our humanity with bad decisions or horrific mistakes.

As we send our children off to school this year each of us would do well to help them to maintain perspective. A life is not a series of sprints, but rather a long distance marathon that requires us to save some of our energy for the inevitable times that become difficult. The best lessons that we might teach our children are how to pace themselves, how to keep balance in their lives, how to know when they are attempting too much, how not to constantly compare themselves to others, how to choose the right people to be in their lives, how to learn from mistakes and get back in the race. We owe it to their futures and ours to help them keep a positive perspective and to give them our time and attention every single day.

Academics are important, but it will be in the love and understanding of caring adults that our children learn the lessons that will sustain them for a lifetime. Be that person in the life of every child that you encounter. Never underestimate the power that you have to make a difference in the world one young person at a time. The best lessons are not found in books.  

Tiny Gestures

It’s been a very difficult summer for many of my family members and friends. I have watched as they experienced health problems, deaths, emotional and financial struggles, and even the loss of trust. It’s always difficult to know what to say or do in such situations. I find myself searching for wisdom and feeling uncomfortable in my feeble efforts to make them feel better when I truthfully know that they need time to heal in either body or mind. All I can offer is a hug, a shoulder to cry on, perhaps a card or some flowers. All of these gestures help to demonstrate that someone cares, but the journey needed to heal the scars is often far longer than we might hope. Because of that those of us who truly care must be willing to stay with the wounded for the long haul.

I know a man who lost his adult son several years ago. It was a devastating blow to him from which he has yet to recover. Somehow I was foolishly believing that there should be a kind of time limit on his grief after which he should be able to proclaim to all of us that he is fine and ready to move forward. I mentioned this to a childhood friend with whom I was reuniting after more than fifty years. She smiled patiently at me and then explained that she too had lost a son, a tragedy that still left a hole in her heart that has never quite healed. She told me just to accept that the man about whom I was worried is reacting in the most normal of ways.

I don’t know why I expected more of the grief stricken father than I do of myself. In truth I still have moments when I cry for my father who died over sixty years ago. So many things remind me of him and I feel a deep longing in my heart just to see and hear and touch him one more  time. On Friday evenings I think of my mother and how we used to spend the launch of the weekend laughing and enjoying good food and adventure together. Even things that used to mildly annoy me about her now seem so wonderful. I’d love to have her come to my house unannounced honking her horn to tell me that she has come to tempt me to accompany her on some silly adventure. So it is with countless people who were once so important in my life but are now gone.

Our humanity is grounded in our emotions. When we open our hearts to truly love someone it is painful beyond measure to lose them. We push ourselves to carry on as we must, but in the deep recesses of our minds it feels as though a little piece of us has been stolen. We never again feel quite the same.

So too it is when we have to face a devastating illness. I remember one of my neighbors speaking of his loss of confidence when he had to live from day to day with the specter of being incapacitated. He said that his pain and his fears sometimes dominated his every thought. He sometimes felt as though people were avoiding him because they felt uncomfortable seeing him as a shell of his former self. The best of his friends were those able to just accept his new reality and still enjoy his company.

People who are in the depths of depression are quite possibly the most difficult to console. Their darkness of mind is frightening both to them and to anyone who loves them. It is tempting to just shake them and insist that they snap out of their melancholy, but in truth such tactics never work. Instead we can remind them of their worth and of how much we love them while also urging them to get professional help to still the terrors that threaten to destroy their minds, but we can’t ask them to just will themselves to get better.

I have an aunt who is one hundred years old. She called my mom every single day and lovingly modeled the kind of comfort that anyone in a crisis needs. When my father died she was the first to come to our house just to be with my mother. She gave no advice, but simply was there with her loving heart. Over the years as my mom had episode after episode of depression and mania it was my aunt who listened to her paranoid ravings in the middle of the night, sometimes for hours. She was my mother’s crisis hotline, open twenty four hours a day offering love and comfort.

We might all take a cue from my aunt. Just being that one person that someone can take for granted is the greatest form of solace that we might ever offer. Heartbreaks and grief that last a lifetime are a normal part of our humanity. We can’t really fix those things, but we can be a refuge whenever the pain becomes too intense.

Think of someone you know who is struggling in one way or another. Give them a call. Drop them a note. Send them some flowers. Each tiny gesture tells them that someone understands.

Finding Beauty In Life and Death

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I’ve seen more than my share of death. As the calendar moves relentlessly forward I have had to watch the passing of my elders, the people who loved and guided me when I was a child. Of late I have seen far too many of my peers leaving this earth as well. Death is inevitable and yet still such a frightening and unwanted state for most of us. We cling tenaciously to life even as we understand that not one of us is immortal.

A friend posted an article that defined the ways in which one might experience a “good” death. It was filled with all sorts of ideas that might work if one has the luxury of knowing that the end is near because of an illness that points in that direction. For many death is more sudden and unexpected, making it impossible to take charge of the event as described in the article.

My mother always spoke of being ready to die at any moment. She did not broach this topic in a morose manner, but rather from the standpoint of living life in such a way that no matter what might happen she would be ready whenever her time on earth was over. She did this with several routines from which she rarely diverged and from open discussions about her preferences long before there were any signs that her death was drawing near. As a result her passing was beautiful, and done on her terms just as she had always wished.

Mama never let a single day end in anger or hurtfulness. She asked for forgiveness for her transgressions which were always of the very minor variety anyway. She communicated her love for the people that she knew daily. There was no need at the end of her life for her to make an act of contrition to either God or family members. We already knew as I’m sure God did as well that she was sorry for anything that she had done that hurt anybody.

My mother expressed her desires to refuse all artificial means of prolonging her life on many occasions. She only hoped to be as free of pain as possible, but beyond that she insisted that we not take any extraordinary measures. We therefore felt comfortable conveying her wishes to her doctors who all smiled in agreement with her wisdom.

Mama lived a faith filled life that never wavered. She believed with all of her heart that our earthly home is only temporary and imperfect. She looked forward to an eternity of peace and happiness with God. On her last day of life she had an angelic glow and a beatific smile as she motioned toward heaven whenever we asked how she was feeling. She believed that her reward for a life well lived was coming soon. She had no anxiety and her peacefulness spread to each of us who visited with her in those final hours.

One by one the people who had meant the most to her came to pay their last respects. She made each visitor feel her love as she held hands and did her best to help them to accept the inevitable. She orchestrated final moments that none of us would ever forget, and gave us a gift of peacefulness that is unimaginable. In fact, even the nurses who cared for her in the ICU felt the joyousness that she projected. One of them cried as she left her shift, telling me and my brothers that she had never witnessed such a blessed ending to a life. She understood as we did that my mother had chosen this way of spending her final hours by living her entire life in preparation for the end.

My mother was always a caretaker who sacrificed for the needs of others. She asked for very little for herself and she certainly had moments when she was filled with all of the human frailties that we have. Somehow she always found her way back to a kind of inner peace and a total dependence on God to comfort her. She never asked Him for things or even to take away her sorrows or pain. All she wanted from Him was a bit of help in managing her attitude toward whatever was happening. Sometimes it took awhile, but always she found the serenity that she sought.

Mama’s life was difficult from beginning to end and yet she was one of the happiest people that I have ever known. From the time that I was a child she explained her joy by reasoning that she was able to tackle any challenge because she always knew that God was not going to leave her to act alone. Even, and perhaps most especially, in death she had a certainty that He was with her and that the best was coming. She was never angry with Him for the difficulties that mounted at her door. She accepted her travails as being a part of life.

I understand that it is difficult for many of us to curtail our anger, resentments, suffering and sorrow. Life can appear to be very cruel and death is often prolonged and painful. Keeping the faith and finding a way to smile even under the worst of circumstances can seem impossible, and yet I saw firsthand the power and beauty of my mother’s unwavering determination to be in charge of her life and her death by choosing an attitude of trust, faith, hope, and joy. She showed me and those who knew her how to have a beautiful death. I only hope that I will be able to follow her lead whenever that day comes for me.