Doing The Right Thing In Our Own Backyards

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Back in 2001 a group of city workers came into my backyard while I was gone to “trim” the large trees that grew all over the neighborhood. They left a tangle of branches that literally covered the expanse. My azaleas were mangled from the affront on them as the huge sections of the trees fell carelessly down to the ground. It was a stunning and unexpected mess, but I assumed that a crew would soon enough remove the debris as part of the work, so I tried to remain calm.

A week went by and then two until it became obvious to me that somehow my yard had been forgotten as the tree trimmers moved along in their work. Still attempting to be kind I called around and found out from the city of Houston that it had indeed been a mistake on the part of the crew to leave the tangle of trees branches. I was assured that the matter would be resolved within a few days. Unfortunately yet another week passed with no sign of the expected cleanup. I could see that my grass was beginning to grow yellow which fueled by temper. When I phoned the city again I was in no mood for excuses and demanded action. After a great deal of paper shuffling I was told that according to records my backyard should have been one hundred percent free of the refuse.

It’s a good thing that I was not speaking to the clerk in person because I’m not sure that I would have been able to contain myself. After insisting that I was going to stay on the line until I was able to talk with a supervisor I finally spoke with a quite official sounding man who patronized me from the get go. Essentially he apologized for the confusion and assured me that my name and address would be placed on a list. He noted that city workers were on a new project in my area and they would come to my house as soon as they had finished that task.

Somehow I felt caught in a bureaucratic nightmare that I suspected was never going to end. I suspected that I might have to visit a city council meeting armed with photographs or even attempt to see the mayor. In the meantime my lovely backyard was suffering and I realized that it was going to die if I didn’t take charge and do the labor myself. The problem was that it was an incredibly overwhelming task. Nonetheless I made mental plans to get to work on the weekend if nobody had come by then to take responsibility.

Within a day or so, my emotions were focused on something far graver and more important than my landscape. I had watched in horror as the twin towers of the World Trade Center had collapsed from a terrorist attack. I was in a state of disbelief and horror that evening and needed something to keep my mind busy. I looked out the window at the mess that had so enraged me and decided it was a good time to begin the process of taking control of the situation. I went to work and began cutting up the huge limbs and carrying the pieces one by one to the front yard for pick up by the garbage man. After an hour or so I had not made a visible dent, but the sweat labor had been good for my state of mind. I was accomplishing something in a world gone mad.

After a time some of my neighbors began to notice my trips back and forth and without saying a word they joined me in my efforts. None of us were in the mood for conversation, so we just worked on reducing that pile of destruction one branch at a time. Before long the curb was laden with enough wood to make a nifty bonfire and the azaleas along my fence line were once again visible, looking a bit worse for wear but still very much alive. When the sun began to set we had not completed the task, but we had made a very good start. Over the coming days we would finish the project while also watching the work of digging out that was taking place in New York City. Ultimately my yard was returned to its former lovely state, and with much more effort New York City rose from the ashes of that dreadful day.

I learned then that seemingly impossible tasks begin with small efforts and then grow to fruition with cooperation and determination. It reminded me of the old stories of stone soup and Johnny Appleseed in which the important thing was to make a start and then work together for a worthy and common cause. When I recently saw a post from a friend I was inspired all over again. The suggestion was for each person who visited a beach to pick up and dispose of three pieces of garbage. If we all followed that idea over time we would soon have far more pristine waters. There were comments from several individuals insisting that the problems with pollution and garbage are so big that such a plan would not even scratch the surface, but I found myself enchanted with the idea. It seems to me that most beaches have enough visitors each day that the combined endeavors of each person would be huge. Think about our waters getting a daily cleaning from everyone willing to spend probably less than a minute to dispose of trash that they see. I thought of ways to expand this idea to all sorts of places including city streets, and I became quite excited by the possibilities. What if we carried some of those cheap disposable gloves with us so that we might be ready to spiffy things up wherever we go? Surely with a nationwide concentration on doing such things we would do wonders.

I once worked in one of the KIPP schools and they had a rule for the students, “Leave any place that you go better than you found it.” It meant that our kids not only cleaned up after themselves but took the initiative to take care of any additional problems that they found. Our big crews made quick work of the process of caring for our environment. Why can’t we make this a way of life for everyone?

Sometimes we expend a great deal of time and emotion complaining about situations just as I did with the mess in my backyard. While the city workers were indeed responsible I was actually hurting myself by refusing to rectify the situation on my own. We so often see a bad situation and then want someone else to take care of it. Maybe we should begin to think about doing the right thing in our own backyards.

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Being Leonard

10246301_10205604543090004_3263112611847433681_nIt’s graduation time, and when it rolls around each year I can’t help thinking of my own commencements from junior high, high school and college. So much hard work, angst and happy memories lay behind those glorious moments, and so much hard work, angst and happy memories lay ahead. Graduation day itself was somewhat like a wedding, a blur of people and speeches and congratulations that went by so fast. It somehow didn’t seem right for the culmination of so much effort to come and go so quickly, but that’s the way good times always seem to be. What strikes me most as I think back to those glorious moments of achievement is that each time I was surrounded by a core of my friends and family who took the time out of their busy lives to celebrate with me. While so many variables have challenged me in my life, such people have been a constant source of stability and love.

Graduations always make me think of my cousin Leonard. He’s the elder statesmen of our raucous bunch of cousins who is almost as close in age to our parents as he is to those of us who played Hide and Find each Friday night at our grandmother’s house. He was married and raising children while I was still happily engaged in the loveliness that was my childhood. When we saw him, he was far more interested in conversing with my mother and father than getting on the floor to entertain me. I always looked up to him not just because he was the first of our long line of cousins, but because he always appeared to be so happy and wise and confident.

Anyway, Leonard became known as the one person who never missed a single graduation. No matter what the timing was, or how bad the weather had become, Leonard would represent the whole family with his presence at one commencement after another. It almost became a game for us to scan the crowd at such events to find our own “Waldo” in the crowd. We always knew that we could count on seeing him just so long as we had sent him an invitation. While we joked about his perennial presence, I suppose that we never really took the time to think of how remarkable his devotion to family actually has been over the years. Little wonder that his own brood that has grown to gargantuan proportions is such a loving and tight knit group. With a kind of superhuman energy Leonard has managed to quietly take the helm and demonstrate to us the importance of finding time to honor members of the family as they pass through the milestones of life.

We Americans are a chronically busy and productive bunch. It doesn’t seem to be in our DNA to slow down even after we retire. There is nothing quite as shocking to us as someone who chooses to chill for a bit too long. We join organizations and volunteer and fill the nooks and crannies of our calendars so tightly that when we receive heartfelt invitations we quite often have to beg off, send our regrets. We’d love to be with family, but there is just so much to do that forces us to decline. Such has never been so with Leonard, a man who worked hard at his career, raised four delightful children, helped at his church and within his community, and still found ways to pause just enough to demonstrate his love for his us time and again. He has been as dependable as they come.

I suppose that if I were to give one single bit of advice to graduates it would be to follow Leonard’s example. As I look back on my life a sea of faces and experiences fill my head. Jobs and honors have come and gone. People entered my life and exited never to be heard from again. Many of the things that I labored to purchase have broken or gone out of style. The one aspect of my life that has continued to sustain and support me has been family and a circle of special friends who have stayed by my side. I have learned that when someone is as continually faithful as Leonard has been, it is due to great sacrifice and genuine concern. It is not easy to be as responsible and dependable as he is, but somehow he has made it his mission to be so. He is a rare gift in a day and age when behavior such as his is becoming less and less common. He has not allowed the rat race to become the focus of his pursuits. He has found balance and purpose in a life well lived.

There are so many stories of people on their deathbeds voicing regrets, being alone, realizing that they in their quests for riches, power, glory they forgot to remember the people who might have loved and remembered them most. When we hear such tales we marvel that someone who seemed to have it all actually had so little, and yet we also have tendencies to expend all of our energies chasing people and things that may ultimately leave us lonely and forgotten. Leonard on the other hand is a man who is beloved because little that he does is only about himself.

I attempt to emulate Leonard. He has demonstrated to me the importance of showing up again and again. He may not be able stay long but he always manages to demonstrate that he cares enough to be part of our most important milestones. That is all that we need to see. He has been our immutable constant in a world that seems ever less dependable, but he is growing older and time is taking its toll on his health. He won’t be able to carry the family banner forever, so its up to the younger generation to accept and honor his lead. He has shown us how its done. It would be a terrible shame to forget the importance of his efforts. It’s time for all of us to be more like Leonard.

Our Foundation

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It’s the day after Mother’s Day and I find myself thinking about what it means to be a mom. I learned all that I needed to know from my mama who was exceptionally good at the task. I always marvel at the fact that she somehow managed to raise three children each of whom is totally different from the others. She allowed us to be ourselves and ultimately it made us into very happy adults. She loved and guided us, teaching us right from wrong, but then let us develop our own passions. She parented us all alone because our father had died when we were eight, five and three respectively.

A truly good mother like her is able to provide everything that children need, but it is a challenging  job that requires full time devotion, and my mom was always ready to give us her all. She admittedly spoiled us but only with love, not things. We appreciated her, but nonetheless I don’t think that we ever really knew how important she was to us until she had died Now we remember all of the little things that she did that once seemed so insignificant. In fact I find myself calling upon her wisdom and generous spirit more and more as time goes by.

My mother-in-law was another model of motherhood who was only able to bear a single child which was quite dangerous for her. She had a congenital heart defect that doctors felt would shorten her life, and so when she became pregnant they were certain that having a baby would kill her. Not to be bullied into terminating the pregnancy, she insisted on taking the risk. The delivery was complex but ultimately successful, and one of the proudest moments of her life. After my husband was born she the proceeded to love him so much that she turned him into one of the sweetest people to ever walk the earth. Her parenting style proved that some good things are never too much.

I was a young mother who still resembled a child when I first became a mom. I made the kind of mistakes that come from immaturity, but I know without reservation that my girls were the most wonderful gift that I had ever received. I literally thought about them almost every waking moment. More than anything I wanted them to grow to be great women like their grandmothers, and my dreams have very much come true. They are not just good moms. They are extraordinary.

Mothers are the foundation of society, the first teachers of the young. They quietly sacrifice for their children, rarely drawing attention to the many things that they do. They awake in the middle of the night to feed a hungry infant or to console a feverish body. They juggle routines and schedules to get their little ones to lessons and activities. They slowly help them to develop their talents and interests, sometimes adjusting their budgets to provide opportunities for their hard work to take hold. Their own responsibilities and worries grow, but they rarely share the concerns and stresses that rattle around in their heads. The children’s joys are their joys, just as the pain becomes theirs as well.

Sometimes we grow up and look back at photographs of our mothers and marvel at how lovely they were before we were born. We forget that they were once young themselves, dreaming of lives that may or may not have turned out the way they had imagined. We find ourselves one day looking at their graying hair and wrinkled skin and we remember when they ran and played with us. We think of those times when they tucked us into bed, or just smiled at us from across a room. They seemed to love us for no particular reason, but simply because we existed. We gained and lost friends, but our moms were ever faithful, ready to hug and comfort us even without being asked, even when we had ignored them or hurt their feelings.

Moms come in so many different versions. Like snowflakes no two are exactly the same and yet they are all similar. Some moms carry us in their wombs, and others choose us when we have no other place to go, loving us as much as they would have if we were their very own. Some moms dedicate themselves to the home and others balance their care of us with careers. All of them are beautiful.

This past weekend I attended a lovely graduation party for one of my former students. She spoke to us about the things that her mother had done to help her to earn her degree. There were nights when she was up in the middle of the night studying, nearly exhausted. Her mom would arise from her own sleep and bring coffee and encouragement. When she was frustrated her mother would cheer her onward. The young woman believes that her achievement is just as much her mother’s as her own. She understands that without the sacrifices that her mom made her great day might never have come. She rightly credited both of her parents for the wondrous things they had done from the time that she was born, and realizes that they will continue to walk beside her in her journey through life.

We sometimes forget how remarkable and demanding a job being a mom actually is. Sadly the day eventually comes when she is gone. Still her spirit somehow lives on inside our hearts. We see her in the things that we say and do. Her face in forever etched in our minds. We know that she is with us, guiding and consoling us through time and space.

God bless all of the mothers of the world and those who use their maternal instincts to help all children to grow in wisdom and grace.

A Circle of Friendship

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We sat around the table talking about our high school days, wondering how it is even possible that by the end of this year all of us will have entered our seventies. We recalled the times when we first met and wondered how some of our absent friends were doing. Somehow we each felt exactly the same as we had when we were teenage girls even though the calendar belied our somewhat vivid imaginations. We were celebrating Susan’s birthday and and anticipating Linda’s. Charles had enjoyed his on Sunday. Each person who was present is quite special to me in one way or another.

I had met Susan, the woman of the hour, when I was only six years old. We were both in second grade and had the same teacher. She lived within walking distance of my home and we often rode our bicycles around the neighborhood laughing and singing. Her voice would ultimately become the music of an angel, but back then we were just two little girls having fun.

We went all the way through high school together, and Susan’s father often drove us to football games on Friday nights. When we were in college we both worked for Holiday Inn one summer making reservations and a pretty good sum of money. Susan was one of my bridesmaids when I married almost fifty years ago, and we both had daughters named Catherine but with different spellings, if I remember right. For a time we played bridge every Friday night and shared cheesecake and lemonade and lots of laughs. We lost touch for a time but managed to eventually find our way back to each other. We marveled at how easily we got right back into comfortable conversations as though we had seen each other only the day before. Now Susan is seventy, but somehow looks exactly as she did when I first met her, and is definitely as sweet.

I’ve known Monica as long as I have Susan. In fact the three of us had the same teacher in the second grade. Monica and I have always somehow managed to keep the fires of our friendship alive. In many ways she is much like the sister that I never had. Her husband and mine get along famously and we have taken camping trips and vacations together that are among the best memories of my life. Monica is thoughtful and creative and a genius when it comes to common sense. She’s someone who knows how to keep my flighty tendencies grounded. Our children grew up together and still get along famously. I can’t imagine what my life might have been like living without Monica by my side.

Linda is the person I always wanted to be. She is beautiful and kind and good at everything that she tries. When we were in school together I thought that she was the most perfect person ever, and the truth is that I was not being hyperbolic. We really became close while we were in college and our bond has only grown stronger over time. When her boys and my girls were growing up we spent hours together in the summers going crabbing and eating snow cones on hot days. Our children learned how to swim from the same teacher, and we often cheered for our Houston Cougars at parties that featured Linda’s culinary genius. I learned how to cook and decorate and even how to be a more caring person from Linda.

Carol is the glue for our Class of 66. She is the historian and secretary all rolled up into one. She keeps is apprised of birthdays, illnesses, parties, and even deaths. She is like a walking encyclopedia when it comes to knowing the whereabouts of everyone of our former classmates. Her heart is big and warm and she makes each of us feel loved and important. Without her we’d probably all drift apart, but she keeps the fires of our friendships burning brightly. I have grown so very close to her. She has been the happiest surprise of the past few years. I never intend to let her go again.

Shirley has the power of serenity. Somehow her sincerity and brilliant smile have always calmed me. Just sitting next to her brings serenity to my heart. Most people are only remotely interested in the things that others say, but Shirley gives off a vibe that indicates that she takes everything that quite seriously. She remembers conversations and asks how people are doing long after they have spoken of troubles. Even when her own life is in an upheaval she thinks of everyone else first. She has a very special talent of expressing profound compassion without even having to say anything. Her eyes are like windows to her beautiful soul. I have to admit that I always leave her feeling renewed.

I only recently realized that Jeanette and I were in the same class together in the first grade, so I suppose that I have known her the longest. She was a cheerleader when we were in high school. She always seemed to be smiling and having a great time. It’s uplifting to be around her. She has a cheerful aspect that brightens our reunions. I didn’t know her well until recently and I find myself regretting that we did not become close earlier because I like everything about her. She is down to earth and loyal and incredibly thoughtful in a very quiet way. She does wonderful things for others without fanfare, asking nothing in return for her generosity. I’m hoping that we manage to stay in touch now that we have found each other because she is one hundred percent the kind of person that I adore.

Janis is an icon. In many ways she was the consummate leader of our class. She wears a necklace that says Go Go which says it all about her. She is a ball of energy who gets things done no matter what is needed. She is a highly successful business woman which doesn’t surprise me at all. She uses her influence to lead charitable causes and help her city to become a better place. She is everywhere doing her magic and just being around her is inspiring, She motivates me to be better than I am, to do more. When it comes to women leading us to the future, Janis is at the front of the pack.

When we were still in high school Janis had a car and I didn’t even have a driver’s license. When we had to go places she always made sure that I had a way to get there. When we were seniors I was the May Queen and as usual my hair was a mess. I have never figured out how to deal with it. Janis very sweetly styled my locks and redid my makeup so that I looked truly regal. I walked out feeling so pretty and confident because she had taken the time to help me. I’ve always remembered that kindness.

Charles was the only male in our group. He and I both went to the same church for many years after we had graduated from high school and college and created families. I always enjoyed seeing him, but I eventually moved and thought that we would never meet again. It was a great surprise when he showed up for Susan’s party. He is so down to earth and sweet.

It’s rather remarkable how wonderful my school mates have become. There was something magical about our youth and our upbringing. We have all worked hard and loved mightily. We have terrific children and adorable grandchildren. We simply enjoy being with one another with no pressure or expectations. Our circle of friendship has grown ever stronger and made all of us just a bit better because of it.

Do Not Be Dismayed

pexels-photo-414752.jpegDo not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world.

All things break. And all things can be mended.

Not with time, as they say, but with intention.

So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally.

The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.

      —-L.R. Knost

Just before Easter last week there were big storms in Texas. At the very moment that the rain began to come down in heavy bursts over our home an interior shower occurred inside the house. Water was pouring from the vents in our kitchen, laundry room and hallway. Of course our first thought was that we must have had a terrible leak in our roof since the timing of the incident corresponded with the rain.

As it turned out it was our hot water heater that was sending the torrent through the ceiling down the walls all the way to the bottom story of the house. Our upstairs bathroom was spouting moisture like a sieve and the carpet in the area nearby was saturated. Luckily we were able to turn off the gas and the water connected to the offending appliance and allay some of the damage. Nonetheless we will have a number of repairs ahead to insure that no mold grows inside the walls and to fix the door jam to the bathroom that is now so warped that the door won’t close.

Of course we have little reason to rejoice over the expense and inconvenience of this household accident, but the reality is that it might have been far worse had it happened while we were away from home or sound asleep. We actually feel rather lucky and, as my niece remarked, we may even get some nice changes to the house that we will ultimately enjoy.

An irony of the whole situation is that only an hour or so before the incident my husband had crowed about the fact that our health insurance had covered all but a pittance of a very expensive ultrasound that he recently had to check on an artery in his brain. We laughed that we will probably spend as much as or more than the cost of that test in getting our home back to normal. I thought of how my mother would have seen the situation in her characteristically optimistic way. I could almost hear her saying, “Isn’t this wonderful? Because you didn’t have to spend so much on the medical procedure, you will have enough to repair the house. Isn’t God good?”

The fact is that all things break. Entropy is a fact of nature, organizations, societies and humans. Each of those things can also be mended unless the damage is extraordinarily severe. We just need the will to take care of whatever problems we face, and if we do it with a smile rather than a grumble we feel a bit less of the pain.

One of my favorite books is Things Fall Apart, a tragic tale of pride, conquest, and man’s inhumanity to man. It is a lyrical story written by a gifted African author who outlines the effect of  arrogance in a clash between an inflexible man and political and economic forces too strong for him to overcome. It is a classic tragedy in three parts that speaks to our very human flaws. It’s theme of broken promises and spirits is all too often the stuff of the human experience. When things are left to simply rot there is a kind of darkness that descends.

Only months ago my city was literally under water. It felt as though we were engulfed in a situation from which we would never escape. There was billions of dollars of damage to people’s homes and schools and churches, but even more to their psyches. For a time I truly worried that it might be impossible to bring our gasping area back to life, until I saw person after person, group after group rolling up their sleeves to help perfect strangers. The love that was present in every corner brought a light of hope that was both miraculous and up-lifting. Somehow we all knew that we were going to be fine, and sure enough slowly but surely things are moving back to normal and we are basking in the intentional love that was showered on us by both friends and perfect strangers. In our moment of deepest tragedy we saw the goodness in mankind in all of its glory.

There is something truly wonderful about people when in times of dire distress. They generally find ways to come together to solve problems, repair broken dreams and get back on the right track. We are almost always more good than we are bad, but sometimes we get so busy arguing over how best to be that way that a kind of darkness descends over our intentions and we lose our direction. We seem to be in that state of mind right now.

We have many problems that we need to address, but we are so busy arguing with one another that we get nothing done. Our brokenness is impeding our efforts. We are forgetting to love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. We are bogged down with our feet of clay. Our inflexibility is making all of us unhappy. We are forgetting to focus on what we have in common rather than where we disagree. The broken world will stay that way until we are willing to spread light rather than shouting at one another.

We have citizens who worry about the next health issue, but we do little to ease their fears. There are young immigrants who live in the shadows wondering if they will be sent away to countries that they do not know. Our schools are not as safe as we had once hoped they would be. We have threats from around the world. There are far too many broken souls with addictions and mental illnesses. There are many questions that we must address, and that will only happen when we work together like people did in my city when it felt as though we were all going to drown.

We proved here that we can be all one people. Perhaps we need to try doing this on a truly grand scale. If our politicians can’t fix what is broken, then we need to begin the process of mending ourselves. It can take place one person at a time, one moment at a time. All we need do it stop our shouting and get to work.