Our Mothers, Our Angels

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I recently participated in a podcast dealing with the question of how to form meaningful relationships. As I told my own stories I realized how much I had learned about compassion, gratitude, courage, loyalty, trust and other important morals from my own mother and those of my friends and cousins. I suppose that in many ways I lived a kind of unblemished childhood with the exception of my father’s untimely and unexpected death. From the many women that I encountered, the mothers of my peers, I learned the lessons of being someone on whom others might depend. These were wonderful women who opened their homes and their hearts to me little realizing what an impact they would have on my own development and worldview.

I have sadly been reminded again and again of what these ladies meant to me as they one by one die from the diseases of advanced age. Just last week I learned of the death of the remarkable mother of one of my high school friends. I had only met this woman once, but in that brief encounter I was taken by the way in which she welcomed me and made me somehow feel quite special. I would tell people about her and that brief encounter from time to time as the years passed. It was only in reading her obituary that I realized what a truly stunning life she had lived, and I felt proud to have known her no matter how fleetingly. 

The women who were my role models were children of the Great Depression. They were young and on the verge of beginning their lives as adults during World War II. Their early years were often punctuated with sacrifices that few of us born in the second half of the twentieth century will ever completely understand. In spite of varying hardships they all maintained a strong sense of optimism and can do spirit that followed them into their roles as mothers. They passed down their love of family to all of us, both male and female. They were devoted to their children without hovering like helicopters. They worked hard to maintain a sense of peace and contentment inside their homes. They rarely complained, instead celebrating the blessings that they had, regardless of how small they were. They were an exceptional group, and it pains me to see their generation slowly leaving our earth, because they were living breathing angels who gave their all to be certain that we would have good lives.

These were not women who were always barefoot, pregnant and under their husband’s thumbs, even though many of them never worked outside of the home. They were strong and able to overcome incredible challenges. They worked for the betterment of their little corners of the earth through jobs, volunteer work, keeping their families safe and happy. Often their responsibilities included elderly parents for whom they lovingly took into their homes. I used to enjoy visiting with the old ones who became part of the big extended families of my friends. It was not until my own mother came to live in my home in her final year of life that I realized the difficulties of caring for an adult day in and day out. The women I had witnessed had always made it seem so easy.

The women who continue to inspire me thought it natural to pitch in whenever someone was in need. They’d bring food, condolences, and a helping hand to any tragedy. They were not the least bit afraid of long hours of back breaking work. They did whatever needed to be done with little fanfare or need of accolades. 

If I were to make a list of the women who taught me how to live a purpose driven life it would begin with my own mother but then continue almost endlessly, for I always found something remarkable about the generation that came before me. Mrs. Barry showed me what love and loyalty really meant when she stepped forward to help me during my mother’s first mental breakdown. Mrs. Daigle taught me how to be the consummate hostess regardless of who came to my door. Mrs. Bush demonstrated courage over and over again, even in situations that might have overwhelmed a lesser soul. My aunts showed me how to keep family close. Mrs. Janot helped me to understand how to balance the daily toil of living with fun. Mrs. Frey demonstrated how to fully utilize my own talents and creativity. Mrs. Wright helped me to discover my own worth. Mrs. Loisey was my teacher who showed me the impact of a great educator. Mrs. Pryor helped me to understand the possibilities found in giving myself to the community. Mrs. McKenna brought beauty and music into my life. Mrs. Martin showed me the new worlds to be found in books. Mrs. Brochtrup seemed to be a living saint whose faith inspired me. Mrs. Caldwell, Mrs. Gallerano, and Mrs. Cash made my life more fun and interesting by spending hours  guiding me in Girl Scouts and on our school’s drill team. Mrs. Mandola was elegant and made me feel that way as well. All of them had a way of making it clear that they genuinely cared for me. They listened to me and valued what I had to say. They understood the importance of every relationship, but probably never realized what an enormous impact they had on me.

Our mothers were our angels on earth, and now so many of them are our angels in heaven. I do miss them and the calmness that they always brought to me. When we speak of women’s rights and the roles of women we would do well to look to these wonderful ladies for examples and guidance. They were far more amazing than our society gives them credit for being. From them I learned what it really means to be a woman.

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Gratitude

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It was during the middle of the Great Depression that a monastery in New York began offering food each afternoon to citizens who were hungry and out of work. The fare was rather plain, just a sandwich with nothing special about it, but it was substantial. Often it was the only meal of the day for some of the recipients. Those who came reacted to the meager offering in many different ways. Some were so hungry that they gulped down the food in only seconds. Others ate half of the sandwich and saved the rest for a later time when they would once again feel the pangs of starvation. There were those who took the food home to share with others. Then there were always a very few who grumbled that the meal wasn’t very tasty, somehow forgetting the gratitude that they might have shown. Nonetheless the monks continued their daily ritual giving as much as possible to the multitudes who came even though their own pantry was sometimes bare.

I heard this story a few Sundays ago and I thought of how often we tend to take our blessings for granted, and sometimes even complain when given a gift out of the generosity of someone’s heart. We are truly a land of plenty compared to some parts of the world where hunger is rampant. In such places children regularly lie dying from lack of nourishment, their bellies swollen, their eyes sunken. There are many places in our own country that offer food for those who are not able to provide for themselves and for the most part people are grateful for whatever they receive. Nonetheless we have all seen or heard of those who grumble and seek more than the charitable groups are able to provide. It hurts us when we see generosity being so under appreciated, even as we understand how deprivation can breed anger.

I’m reminded of a chapter in the classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird in which Scout describes a cantankerous old woman who lives near the Finch family. The lady invariably hurls insults at Scout and her brother Jem as they pass in front of her home. One afternoon the woman says such vile things about the children’s father that Jem becomes enraged. He later returns and cuts off all of the blooms on the neighbor’s favorite bush and breaks Scout’s new baton in half. Ultimately he is confronted by his father who chides him and insists that the he be kind to the woman because she is old and sick.

As a punishment for his egregious actions Jem has read to the cranky lady each day. He chooses Ivanhoe as his subject and visits her home every afternoon. Little by little his task becomes less onerous and the woman less and less demanding. When she dies shortly after he has fulfilled his duties Jem learns that she had been addicted to a powerful drug given to her because of her illness. She spent her last days weaning herself from its hold by listening to Jem’s recitations. She died clean and sober with her pride intact. Jem’s father insists that she was one of the bravest people he ever knew.

We never really know what is causing someone to be grumpy or inappreciative. It is easy to chide them for their seeming lack of graciousness, but if we take time to find the source of their crossness we often learn that something quite terrible is plaguing them. Sometimes it is simply the idea of wanting to be thought of as being just as good and important as everyone else. Still, on the whole we would all be better served by being more thankful for whatever we have rather than wishing for more. We appear spoiled, churlish and even a bit childish whenever we judge any kind of gift to be unworthy. Often the things that we receive from people who care about us are the very best that they have to offer, even when they are quite humble. We need to think more about the intent to please us and less about the actual object.

Each day there are probably wonderful opportunities for demonstrating a sense of appreciation. A smile is a gift. Having someone help us with a problem is a blessing. Having a roof to shelter us from the elements is wondrous. Experiencing joy and laughter is beautiful. An education is one of the greatest gifts we might ever receive. Seeing a sunrise one more day, watching a baby play, enjoying the quenching goodness of clean water, sitting under the shade of a tree are such simple things that in reality are glorious. We forget to be thankful for such things because we take them for granted, but we notice immediately when they are gone.

I used to feel embarrassed because my mother sent me to school on most days with a fried egg sandwich. I often tried to hide my meal in shame because it seemed to shout that I was poor. I forgot to be happy that I did not have to go hungry. That egg filled my belly and gave me energy for the afternoon. It was more than better than nothing. It was tasty and made with my mother’s love. It took me years to understand just how lucky I was to have that meal wrapped in waxed paper and gently placed in a brown paper bag to keep me nourished. I was silly and superficial not to be more grateful. It took me many years and many experiences to realize my folly.

Take the time each day to really notice the many gifts coming your way, particularly those that are sent with the best of intentions. Appreciate each little effort, every special gift. Set aside anger or feelings of want and revel in whatever you have. You will soon find your heart filling with contentment. Even a plain sandwich will become a gourmet meal.

  

Changing the World One Person At a Time

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I watched an interesting movie, An Inspector Calls, a few nights ago that has stayed on mind. It was based on a play written by the English author J.B. Priestly and was first performed in 1945. It alludes to the impact that each of us has on the people that we encounter, even when those meetings are impersonal and brief. Each day as we go about our lives we are leaving impressions that either enrich or hurt the people with whom we interact. What we say and do is affecting someone’s psyche in deep and meaningful ways, making it imperative that we think before we act. 

All too often we are wrapped up in our own trials and tribulations, forgetting the power that we yield in even the most mundane situations. If we are irritable, taking out our frustrations on complete strangers we may think little of our actions, but our anger may in fact ruin the day of the person who is the recipient of our barbs. How we choose to treat people actually matters, and may in fact have lasting consequences of which we are completely unaware. So why wouldn’t we continually do our best to more pleasant and understanding?

According to a recent 20/20 episode road rage has become a national problem. In city after city there have been tragic cases of individuals who become so angry that they lose their composure and end up creating mayhem in the process. Far too many people are coming unglued and overreacting to snarls of traffic. Everyday folk become Mr. Hyde when they take command of the driver’s seat in a car. They forget that the automobile can become a weapon with fatal consequences when emotions take hold.

Extreme examples of people snapping and resorting to violence are still mostly rare, but we all too often use our words to tear people apart. It has become more and more acceptable to speak our minds, as though being brutally forthright is a badge of honor rather than the destructive force that it actually is. We sometimes even applaud those who utter vile things about the people with whom they disagree. It’s supposed to be a sign of toughness to be able to take an insult on the chin, but I find myself wondering how much damage is being caused by the deep hurt that is being so nonchalantly used to win arguments. Sticks and stones may indeed break our bones, but words are often even more powerful in breaking spirits.

I have to admit to feeling a bit sad these days as I see so much mean spirited behavior being bandied about without much thought. I find myself wondering how many souls are quietly hurting because of the suspension of manners in so many situations. Surely we must all be somewhat affronted by commentaries that threaten and insult. Where is the kindness that we know is far more effective in healing?

I was impressed by former President Barack Obama’s speech in South Africa upon the occasion of what would have been Nelson Mandela’s one hundredth birthday. He pointed out that Mr. Mandela understood the importance of forgiveness and understanding in leading a nation. Even though he had been imprisoned and treated badly, he chose not to hold grudges against those who had tormented him. He realized that the only way to bring his country together was to mend the divisions and bring all of the people together.

I have found that the greatest people of all time have understood the basic principle and power of love. Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and of course Jesus Christ followed a righteous path of justice, inclusion, and above all nonviolence. They were willing to forgive, to understand, to create alliances between people of different beliefs. In the final analysis we are all stronger when we come together in a spirit of forgiveness and peace.

I have a friend named Andriel who personifies the way in which each of us may play a small role in making our world a better place to be. Andriel’s life was shattered a few years ago when her beautiful daughter was killed in an automobile accident. The tragedy touched many of us, but its effect on Andriel was unimaginable. From the ashes of that time, Andriel has worked her way back to wholeness not by stewing in anger over the unfairness of her plight, but by reaching out to one hurting soul at a time and embracing them in their moment of need. She has healed herself by healing others, and continually being conscious of the power of even the smallest of her actions. She encourages  and inspires all who know her to consciously embrace and appreciate the people around them with positivity. She is a life coach who has walked in a valley of pain and sorrow only to emerge more whole than ever before. Her secret to being a joyful minister lies in opening her heart in all that she says and does, remembering how fragile each of us sometimes may be.

Andriel has advised those who follow her to spend some time each and everyday helping to mend someone who is broken. Make that phone call. Send that text. Say those words that are in your heart but somehow remain unspoken. Let people know how much they mean to you, how much you love them. Your efforts may make all the difference in someone’s life.

We don’t have to be victims of a movement of so called strong men and women who would abase and belittle us. We can do what we know is right and muffle the sounds of ugliness. There are more good people than bad. That has always been true. We have the power to change the world, one life at a time.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

backlit-clouds-dusk-853168On any given day the headlines of any publication include the good, the bad and the ugly. That trend pretty much sums up the nature of humanity and history itself. As people it’s actually easier to find the good among and about us, but more often than not we focus on the bad or the ugly. I suppose that is because horrific things are actually more unusual than generosity and compassion. We are fascinated with the bad and the ugly even as we abhor such occurrences. 

I scan the headlines each morning as I eat my breakfast. Last week the front page announced the bad news that a six figure income just over one hundred thousand dollars a year in San Francisco qualifies a family to be considered low income and possibly in need of government assistance to provide the basics of food and shelter in that city. It was shocking to realize that such a fine sum of money is insufficient in a town where the median price of a home is over a million dollars. It is a beautiful city that has become almost inaccessible to anyone but the very wealthy. In fact, it suffers from one of the most tragic homeless problems in the nation, and residents complain that the plight of individuals with no place to go is growing exponentially. I find myself wondering how it is so that a city that prides itself in being advanced in so many ways has become more and more segregated by economics.

Yet another quite ugly story from out of California told of an elderly man from Mexico who was severely beaten by a woman in Los Angeles who shouted that he should go back from where he came as she pummeled him with a brick. It’s more than difficult for me to imagine how someone might possibly become angry enough to inflict suchg harm on a stranger. Had she taken the time to determine his story she would have found that he was simply visiting his very legal family as he has done countless times. His vacation turned into a needless nightmare because someone jumped to conclusions that weren’t even accurate. Even if he had been attempting to come to this country without proper paperwork, the violence that he endured was terribly wrong. I suspect that it would not even have warranted mention in the newspaper were it not so unusual, but I worry that there is a kind of growing contagion that encourages more and more people to demonstrate their prejudices with this form of extreme ugliness.

We certainly do in fact have very real problems, and of late we don’t appear to be inclined to work together to solve them, but sometimes something quite extraordinary happens and we see the goodness of our better natures in all of its glory. Thus it was with the rescue to the soccer team and coach from Thailand. For many days the entire world seemed to be holding its collective breath and praying in unison for the young men trapped inside a cave in a very dangerous situation. Help came from around the globe, and models of courage and sacrifice kept people from far corners holding their breaths in the hope that all would turn out right. In the end the entire crew was rescued in a daring operation that sadly took the life of one man who perished while helping with the endeavor.

There was no preening here. No requests for glory or paybacks. The faces of the those who worked tirelessly mostly remain anonymous. They had a cause that was gloriously important and nothing else seemed to matter. People worked together to solve a grave problem and succeeded just as mankind always has whenever people have been willing to set aside differences for a common good. When the entire group was finally safe we all heaved a collective sigh of relief and shed tears of genuine joy. We realized in that moment how incredible we humans are when we use our potential for something good. The rescue represented the best of who we are as people, and it felt so wonderful to experience such pure elation without the recriminations or critiques that split us apart more often than we desire.

I just wish that we would think of all that is happening to us on any given day and emphasize the truly good things that take place, relegating the bad and the ugly to the back pages where they belong. We give far too much attention to evil and violence, and not nearly enough to our grand accomplishments. We need not ignore problems, but we would do well to put them into perspective. Most of the time the truly ugly stories are judged to be so because they are indeed the exception rather than the rule. The bad ones generally mean that we need to put our heads together to find solutions. The good ones show us just how much capacity we have to create a better world for everyone.

I remain a cockeyed optimist because I truly believe that when all is said and done we time and again grow weary of the bad and the ugly and decide that it’s time to do what we know to be right. It’s just too bad that we don’t hear a bit more about such instances because every single day there are wondrous and heroic actions taking place. Even now someone is saving the life of another human being. Somewhere a great new discovery is taking place. Children are learning the foundations of a just society in many corners of our world. Some person is quietly helping another. Such unsung acts of goodness are the true nature of the world. Sometimes we actually get to know about them and it feels fabulous.   

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.