Pure Bliss

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The annual RV show hit Houston this week reminding me of the time when we first decided to hit the road each summer to see the USA in our Chevrolet. We had a bright blue Chevy truck, a feeling of wanderlust and the germ of an idea about traveling across the United States smoldering in our minds. The RV show nailed our resolve to take some summer trips when we found a super deal on a camper shell for the back of the truck. Mike worked all spring that year turning the interior of the enclosure into a veritable wonder by installing sets of wooden structures along the front and sides that served the dual purpose of holding our gear and serving as platforms for mattresses that would become our beds. By the time summer vacation came around our truck was a self contained traveling machine.

We got married young and life took over to keep us busy with the art of surviving. Before we had even celebrated our first anniversary my mother became ill with first and most frightening episode of psychosis. I was not even twenty one when I had to swing into action to get her the medical care that she needed and bring my younger brothers to our apartment where they stayed while she was in the hospital. I spent that summer visiting Mama in the hospital, caring for my brothers, and keeping up with the bills that came to my mother’s mailbox.

There was no time for travel that year and the following summer the birth of our first child kept as at home as well. After that there always seemed to be some kind of family emergency or illness that left us busy on the home front, including one year when Mike developed a rare disease and ended up spending three months undergoing chemotherapy four days a week. We were in our early thirties when things finally seemed to settle down and thoughts of summer road trips became our dream.

Our first foray in our rolling conveyance, mobile restaurant and makeshift hotel was to Rocky Mountain National Park. We packed away our cooking gear, food, lanterns, clothing and other necessities and niceties in the wooden boxes along the perimeter of the camper shell and placed almost perfectly fitting mattresses on top of the lids to serve as our sleeping quarters. A fourth mattress on the floor of the truck bed would become Mike’s spot for when we grew weary each evening. With a tape deck playing Willie Nelson crooning On the Road Again and piles of books to keep us entertained during the long drive we were as excited as we might have been if we were traveling first class.

We took our sweet time reaching our destination with a couple of stops at campgrounds along the way. It was then that we developed an elaborate system for keeping things organized. Our youngest daughter entered the camper first and skittered to the far back bunk which was the smallest in total surface area. Next came our first born to claim one of the side beds and then me on the opposite side. Finally Mike crawled into the middle space on the floor and we settled down for a few last minute stories and jokes before we finally fell asleep in what we considered to be our high class quarters. With windows along three sides we were quite comfortable and content and mostly excited about the adventures that lay ahead.

Once we reached Estes Park, Colorado we parked our truck in a spot at Mary’s Lake Campground in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. We set up shop under an awning that Mike created from a gigantic tarp. We had two dish tubs for cleaning our cookware and a propane double burner stove for preparing our food. A plastic tablecloth on our concrete dining table completed the scene of our temporary home along with four folding chairs around the fire ring. We could not have been happier about our vacation heaven under the stars.

We’d travel into the national park each day and spend hours hiking and enjoying the majestic views. At night we’d build a fire and enjoy hot dogs, hamburgers, soup, chile or whatever culinary delight we fancied. We could not have been more comfortable or satisfied with our accommodations and we thought ourselves the luckiest and happiest family on the planet.

We took side trips to see a railroad museum, a few ski towns, a mining town, lakes and other wonderful sights. We had contests to see who could find the best souvenir for five dollars or less. We told spooky stories and read book after book. We gazed at the stars in wonder and marveled at the glory of our world.

Over the years we put thousands of miles on our little vacation conveyance and home. We saw Texas, Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, most of Colorado and even the Canadian Rockies. Eventually we outgrew the our sleeping quarters and opted for a gigantic tent for sleeping but we would never forget those glorious summers inside our magical truck when we saw so many wonders of the United States and realized how lucky we were to have each other.

The girls are grown and gone with family’s of their own now. Mike and I have a much fancier travel trailer complete with its own kitchen, bathroom and comfortable bed. Air conditioning and a heater protect us from the elements and we even have a television to entertain us when we wish. It’s perfect for the two of us as we age but on its best day it simply can’t compete with those times when we and our children were young and thinking ourselves so fortunate to have the cramped quarters of that tiny camper on the back of our truck. Those trips were incredible and filled with the most special of memories. I can still hear our laughter as we climbed into our beds after a long day of exploration. It was in those days that we experienced the meaning of pure bliss.   

Travel Trinkets

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I pick up souvenirs whenever I travel. They are generally small things that remind me of the places I have been. Often they are rocks, shells, leaves, pinecones. I like to decorate my home with framed prints of locales I have seen so that I might be reminded of the joy of my vacations for years to come. I have a thing for books that fill the shelves of my bookcases with colorful and informational volumes about the sights that I have been fortunate enough to have seen. When I find special pottery or glass I am almost always tempted to purchase a piece to join the collections that grace my rooms. I almost never buy kitsch unless it somehow seems to signify a very special moment from my trip, like the gigantic chigger from Arkansas that made me laugh instead of cry when I became infected with bites from those pesky insects, Mostly, though, I’m inclined to bring back Christmas ornaments from each of the sites that I have visited. I have so many now that I copied my daughter and purchased a special travel tree to exhibit my finds each December.

It’s amazing how my collection of ornaments from around the world has grown. Their eclectic nature makes for a whimsical display that includes everything from bears to fine crystal. I have a stained glass reproduction of the rose window from Westminster Abbey and a yellow cab from New York City. One of my loveliest items is a set of old fashioned handmade straw snowflakes from Salzburg, Austria. They add a wonderful finishing touch to the design of the tree. I have glass pinecones, gold dipped aspen leaves, and a number of replicas of Spanish missions. There is a ceramic reproduction of Cafe du Monde and another of a little grocery store in Maine where I ate the best lobster sandwich I have ever had. Perhaps one of my favorites is a set of Revolutionary War soldiers from Boston.

I try to find a representative ornament from each place that I go. Then when I set up my Christmas decorations each year I relive the joy of visiting each place. The little trinkets that I hang on the branches never fail to bring back a flood of wonderful memories. Vacations are wonderful for the way that they seem to soothe any anxieties that I might have and they allow me to set aside my type A driven personality in favor of living totally in the moment. They are a panacea that I don’t take for granted because I know all too well how privileged I am to be able to spend money on trips to wonderful places rather than having only enough to live from day to day.

The vast majority of people in the history of the world have not had the luxury of travel for the sake of enjoyment. My grandparents went from one place to another in search of work. Their parents essentially were born, lived and died in the same place without ever leaving. Such is true of most of the world’s people even today. Those of us who ride down highways in our comfortable cars or fly through the skies to distant lands are fortunate indeed. The frivolousness of vacationing was once only the domain of the wealthy few. Today those of us in the middle class enjoy it in ways that our ancestors would never have known.

I appreciate the freedom that allows me to go see the wonders of the world and those in my backyard as well. My father had been determined to see as much as possible in his lifetime and he was on his way to becoming acquainted with most of the United States when his life was cut short. I imagine that he would have ultimately seen it all and added to his journeys with trips across the ocean. Back before he died I already knew that my family was somewhat unusual in the grandeur of our trips. I got to see Disneyland in the first year it opened and I remember sitting with my father on the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago while he fished when I was only six.

After my father died our only family trips were to visit my grandparents in Arkansas. We would arise before dawn so that my mother could drive as far as possible before it grew dark. We only stopped for gasoline and to spend one night in a motel before reaching my grandparents’ farm. Only one other time did we take a vacation to San Antonio and Austin. It was a grand adventure that included visits to the Alamo and the state capitol. I vividly recall how fun it was to splurge by going to see The Sound of Music in a lovely indoor theater unlike our usual viewings at the drive in on nights when an entire car of people got in for a greatly reduced price.

Now I am planning a possible jaunt to Colorado in the spring and a gala trip to Scotland at the beginning of summer. I’m still in awe of the good luck that has allowed me to do such things. The worrywart in me sometimes thinks that the time may one day come when it may no longer be possible to go on such extravagant excursions. The world may change in ways that preclude a continuation of the way we have grown accustomed to doing things. My own health may fail as I continue to age in ways that make it difficult for me to travel too far away from home. It’s important that I do my best to see as much as I may for now and while I’m wherever the winds take me I’ll surely be adding to my collection of Christmas ornaments. 

There is little that I would rather do these days than go to new places and revisit my favorite old ones. I never take my good fortune for granted. I have seen gloriously wondrous things that only a few ever get to glimpse. My souvenirs are like a tangible record of my memories. They are wonderful beyond words,

Glorious Mornings

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Mornings are generally slower than they were when I was still working. Back then I arose before the sun was out and hurried to get on the road as soon as possible. I absolutely despised the early hours of the day back then because they were filled with so much stress that I was already feeling tired before I even arrived at my job. I always imagined that when I retired I would sleep in every single day and just do wherever the spirit led me to do once I left my bed. Surprisingly I actually look forward to the new day now that I don’t have to hit the crowded freeways anymore. I’m awakened with great regularity at about six thirty or earlier each morning without setting an alarm. I hear the sounds of neighbors gearing up for the new day and I quietly arise to enjoy the slow pace of my own design.

I have developed a comfortable routine that is quite satisfying. I prepare some tea and a light breakfast and retire to my sitting room where I spend time reading the news, wishing friends happiness on their birthdays, checking my email, meditating or praying and writing my weekday blogs, all in the comfort of my pajamas. I am rarely in a rush, so it may be ten or even eleven before I finally get dressed depending on the weather. If it’s a cold or rainy day I am never in a hurry. Instead I enjoy the quiet and the opportunity to be alone with my thoughts, luxuries that were denied for decades. I have to admit that I check the calendar each morning just to remember what day it is. It’s nice to be free to be me rather than to have to answer to the schedule of someone else.

I so despised the morning rush when I was a student and then an employee that I thought myself to be a night owl rather than someone who actually preferred the early hours of the day. I always felt sluggish and out of sorts as I sat in traffic jams on the beltway nervously watching the clock tick as though mocking me because I was running late. Houston traffic is notoriously bad and I became a maniac as I fought it on the way to work. My generally quiet demeanor became full blown rage as I witnessed the craziness of the freeway. I had to fight myself to keep from flipping off every other driver. I’d think of my warm and cozy bed and wish that there were some way for me to stay there instead of being a daily gladiator of the road.

Once I got to work I was generally so full of vinegar that I did my best to avoid human contact at all costs until I was able to get control of myself. I tried to sneak into my classroom from unfrequented entrances. I’d close the door and even leave the light out lest someone notice me and attempt to engage me in a conversation. I craved silence and calm.

I still don’t appreciate noise or conversation in the morning. I love the sound of children waiting for the bus but I don’t want anyone calling me on the phone or coming to my door until after nine. By the time the caffeine in my tea has fully awakened me and my brain is working well enough to enjoy other people I’m as pleasant as can be. Once my brain adjusts I no doubt talk way more than I should with anyone willing to listen to my babbling.

I would have been a great candidate for working at home. I am disciplined and willing to set a keep strict adherence to a schedule. I like having meaningful things to do. The one thing that I hate is having to rush from home soon soon after I arise each morning. I’d work until I am one hundred years old as long as I would not have to leave my house until the afternoon. It was never the work that bothered me but the fact that I had to face the thundering herd on an early morning journey.

I don’t get anymore sleep now than I did when I worked. In fact, I may get less, but being the sole determiner of how to spend my mornings energizes me. I don’t want to languish in bed because there are so many wonderful moments in the morning, not the least of which is the opportunity to meditate and pray. I do love the feeling of serenity that now defines my mornings. I see the seasons. I hear the birds. I feel closer to my friends. Life after work is rather remarkable and certainly refreshing.

I used to feel sick all of the time. I seemed to continually be afflicted with some bug or virus. I was rundown, sluggish. Just being in command of my routine has changed all of that. I’m filled with energy and I rarely catch the diseases that send people to their beds. I actually feel younger than I did when I was working. Sometimes I think that I’m in such good shape that I should go back, but I suspect that I would be dragging within a week. I’d hate losing the calm of my mornings. I’m not willing to trade the most wonderful part of my day for a spot in the rat race. I’m glad I don’t have to care which highways are plagued by delays. Life is now simple and good.

I know I’ve earned the magic of my mornings. I get to do the things that I love. Writing is a joy, reading is glorious, listening to my thoughts is sublime, just being in the quiet is like an elixir that heals both my body and my soul. I had no idea that it would be this grand. 

Alone and Lost

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Humankind’s ingenuity is so incredible that getting lost is almost as much a thing of the past as the buggy whip. It’s been at least twenty years since I found myself driving around in a state of frenzy because I had no idea where I was or how to get back on track. Those were the days of big paper maps that folded into glove compartment sized rectangles that waited patiently for use. Back then we always had one for the city, one for the state and one for the entire country. Using them required stopping the car if I was alone, finding the flashlight and hoping that it was fully charged if it was dark, and praying that I would be able to figure out where I was as a starting point for creating my route. It could be a frightening experience especially before cell phones were as common a possession as a bar of soap.

The last time that I was truly lost was back in the late nineteen nineties. I had attended an evening event on the near north side of Houston, an area that was quite unfamiliar to me. I was a Magnet School Coordinator back then an I had set up an information booth at a fair designed to introduce parents to the various programs in the schools around the city of Houston. The math/science offering at my campus was rather popular and so I had been quite busy answering questions from eager parents. I had not really noticed that most of the other coordinators had packed away their tri-boards and pamphlets and headed to their cars. By the time the last parent had left I realized that I was all alone inside the school and I felt a sudden sense of foreboding.

I gathered my things as quickly as possible and rushed to the dark parking lot where my vehicle sat in the shadows. I felt quite uneasy about being all by myself in a place known for a somewhat high crime rate. I ran across the parking lot in a kind of frenzy, looking over my shoulder and dropping some of my things in my hurry. Once I was inside my automobile I locked the doors and finally felt a modicum of safety. I was only mildly comforted by the fact that I thought I knew exactly how to get back home and I found courage in that fact that I had my flip phone in case of an emergency.

It took me no time to realize that I had somehow become turned around and I soon realized that I was wandering aimlessly around the dark neighborhood. When I drove past the same group of men drinking and arguing in their front yard I knew that I was going in circles an that I was lost. I tried to get a view of the Houston skyline because I reasoned that if I followed the lights of the buildings as though they were stars I would ultimately reach a point that I recognized and be on my way back home. Sadly a fog had added to the mystery of the night and shrouded the sky in a miasmic goo.

I was becoming more and more frantic as I saw one unfamiliar street name after another. I felt as though I was replaying the journey of Apocalypse Now in real time. I finally thought to reach for my phone and call my husband, Mike, who had grown up on the north side of Houston. I was near tears when the phone rang again and again making me worry that he had already gone to bed and was sound asleep. After all it was nearing eleven.

Just when I was on the verge of total panic I heard Mike’s voice on the line. I explained my situation and he calmly told me to find a street sign and tell him exactly where I was by looking at the name and number of the first marker I found. He was stunned when I finally gave him the information he needed and wondered aloud how I had gone so astray, but luckily he knew exactly where I was. From that point forward he guided me block by block until I was finally on the interstate highway that I knew quite well.   

I did not know then that one day I would own a smart phone with a personal guide named Siri who would direct me seamlessly even in cities and towns where I had never before been. I did not even dream that my future car would be fitted with a GPS system that would keep me heading in the right direction no matter where I went. Such wonders were still in the future and getting lost was still a frightening experience, especially on a foggy night in an unfamiliar neighborhood.

We have so many wondrous inventions these days that we tend to take them for granted. There are generations who have never had an experience like I did on that night. It is unfathomable to them that one would be lost and without resources for finding the way back home. Reading of Hanzel and Gretel leaving crumbs in the forest as a guide back to civilization is a quaint idea for them, and yet I am from a generation when being lost was a real and scary possibility. If not for my good fortune of having a phone in my car back then I don’t know what might have become of me because all of the places of business where I hoped to get directions were closed for the night. Hopefully I would have eventually encountered a clue that might have led me to my destination or a source of help but I would have no doubt been overtaken by anxiety before that happened.

We like to complain a great deal about how horrific the world has become but I know that our new fears have been counterbalanced by the elimination of old ones. The days of feeling helplessly alone and lost are not as likely as they once were. For that I am deeply grateful.

Another Year Has Passed

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2019 was a fairly typical year in that it had both its ups and its downs. We lost some wonderful family members and friends who will be missed for some time to come and yet we celebrate the impact they had on our lives. I suppose that with the passage of time we will eventually consider only the joy that they brought us rather than the pain of their deaths.

Mike and I took a trip of a lifetime with my brothers and sisters-in-law. We saw the sights of London, York, Bath, Cambridge and the Cotswolds. We laughed our way across the English landscape and grew closer to one another than ever. I realized on our journey that I indeed have the sisters that I always dreamed of having. We shared good times that we will never forget and hopefully we will reunite for more travel in the future.

Mike and I enjoyed two semesters of classes at Rice University from our favorite professor, Dr. Newell Boyd. We learned all the dish about the Tudor and Stuart monarchs, reinforcing the idea that history repeats itself again and again. We humans are a quirky bunch indeed. We are on a waitlist for a trip with him to Scotland this June and I have my fingers crossed that we will get an opportunity to actually go.

We were able to watch our grandson, Eli, compete in the Track and Field Junior Olympics in Sacramento over the summer and steal away for some sightseeing in Napa Valley, San Francisco and Lake Tahoe. It was an unexpected journey that was great fun.

Speaking of grandchildren, ours continue with their educations and dreams for the future. We are immensely proud of the people they have become. They are thoughtful and concerned about the world’s problems. They give us great hope for the future,

We celebrated the ninetieth birthdays of my father-in-law and mother-in-law. We should all be as healthy and active as they are. They continue to inspire us and with their optimism and wisdom. They never seem to slow down. They have truly found the secret to a good life,.

A dear cousin celebrated her eightieth birthday as well. She seriously doesn’t look a day over fifty. Somehow the beauty of her soul shines forth in her gorgeous countenance. Her special occasion gave us an excuse to have fun with our cousins and to make plans for more meetings in the coming year.

We ended  2019 with a mega party for one of our nieces that was the event to top all events. The theme was Camelot and to say it was a stunning occasion is an understatement. We enjoyed three days of eating and talking and laughing and recognizing how wonderful family truly is.

I had tea time each week with another niece that became a special highlight of the year. We used my various teapots and flavors of tea along with special cookies that a former student brought me as a gift. I enjoyed those weekly gatherings in which I learned just how much my niece and I are kindred spirits.

Some of our friends and relatives had a very difficult year dealing with major illnesses and losses. It was hard to watch them suffering and feel so helpless to do anything that might change their situations. All we have been able to do is pray for them and let them know the we care,

We had many fun times with friends and neighbors throughout the year. Mardi Gras, time at the beach, fun in the backyard, lunches and dinners spiced up the routine or our lives. Those were great moments when I realized how truly blessed we have always been.

We checked a few more things off of our bucket list like seeing the Rolling Stones, Mark Knopfler,  a Game of Thrones concert, and Willie Nelson. Now we look forward to watching Elton John this  summer. We also saw our Astros make it into the World Series and up until the last minutes of the final game we thought that perhaps we might win that match one more time. Maybe we will have an even better baseball year in 2020.

We have learned to roll with whatever each year brings and snatch as much happiness as we can. Life roll on with abandon beginning every January 1. Here’s to the coming year. May it bring you many blessings and few sorrows.