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.

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How Much Is Enough?

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As children we all heard the story of the fisherman who caught a magic flounder. The desperate fish worrying that he might become dinner, offered to give his captor anything that he wanted in return for being thrown back into the sea. The man agreed to the bargain and insisted that he only wanted a nice house for his wife to replace the hovel in which they lived. Of course human nature being what it is, the man thought about what he might have had and kept going back to catch the poor fish again and again. He time he asked for ever more riches and power until the sea creature had enough and put the fisherman right back in the hovel that had once been his home.

History and literature is replete with stories of people who were dissatisfied with their lots in life. Icarus wanted to fly toward the sun. Benedict Arnold desired more prestige and betrayed his comrades thinking that he might get the respect and honors were lacking. The accounts go on and on and on in every era, every region of the world. We humans sometimes have insatiable appetites.

So many stories in the news remind me of individuals who want ever more and eventually go too far, destroying themselves in the process. Bill Cosby was rich, famous and beloved. He had a devoted wife and honors beyond most of our imaginations. Still, it was seemingly not enough for him. He had to also have the adoration of women and when they did not give it willingly he stole it from them with drugs. For a time he got by with behaviors so unlike the man that we all believed that he was, but as with the story of the fisherman he did not know when to stop. His thirst for power and gratification was ever boundless and in the end it became his undoing. Now he is a convicted felon who may end up spending the remainder of his life in prison. He will have many years to consider what drove him to risk all that he had for fleeting pleasures.

It makes me unbearably sad to think doubt the downfall of a man who had once been so admired that he was lovingly known as “America’s Dad.” I doubt that I missed a single episode of his television program. He was a pioneer who showed us how much alike we actually are. To think that his wholesomeness was only an act is heartbreaking, and I feel great sadness in knowing what has become of him. He was an icon who has been brought down to a point that is difficult to observe.

I find myself asking again and again why it is that people risk all that they have when what they possess is well more than sufficient. It is as though millions of dollars are not enough. They must become billionaires. A wealthy tycoon doesn’t just want to enjoy the bounty, but needs to achieve more and more power regardless of the price needed to do so. Our natures too often push us to always be reaching for the next big thing.

Ours is the wealthiest nation on earth. The majority of our citizens live in ways that many people of the world can’t even imagine. We get a nice little house somewhere and within no time we want a bigger and more expensive one. We constantly trade in our cars not because they have become unreliable, but because we have tired of them and desire a bit more flash. Our wants are rarely based solely on need, but instead on our insistence on having ever better things.

When I was growing up after my father died we rarely purchased anything that was not absolutely essential. My brothers and I each had a couple of cardboard boxes that we retrieved from the grocery store in which we stored all of our toys. We usually had two pairs of shoes, one for school and one for church. Our clothing consisted of five changes of clothing for everyday wear and two or three very nice items to wear on special occasions. We each could have packed all of our personal belongings in a single suitcase, but for the fact that we did not each own baggage. Our cars lasted for ten years and our furniture even longer. We had one television, one phone and one bathroom that we shared. My mother did not purchase an air conditioner for the house until I was in college even though the temperatures in the summer often reached the one hundred degree mark. Amazingly it never occurred to us to think that we were somehow deprived. We were filled with the riches of satisfaction and often expressed our thanks for having a warm meal every day and a comfortable bed at night. In truth we were not at all exceptional. Most of our friends lived exactly the same way and none of us felt compelled to complain. The simplicity of our lives was in fact liberating because we were not consumed with a need to be ever worried about gaining more and more. We learned how to really enjoy what we had.

I have to admit that I am bitten by the achievements bug from time to time. The green eyed monster overtakes me once in a while. My human tendencies to compare myself cause me to worry and become a bit greedy. I have to consciously remind myself of just how good my life actually is. I find ways to pull back from thinking that destroys my sense of satisfaction. I do what I can to count the wondrous blessings that I have rather than noting what I don’t yet have.

There is certainly nothing wrong with working hard and acquiring nice things, but when the quest for money and power consumes us we almost always wind up like the fisherman. Our wings melt in the heat of the sun. We lose friends and maybe even family.

I recently had a short conversation with a woman whom I had never before met. She confided to me that both her mother and her grandmother had been all about career, prestige and earning power. They had in many ways ignored and neglected her. She was instead handed over to nannies and other adults while her own family members raced for success. Hers was a lonely life until she eventually fell in love and married a man from a large and loving family. Her mother-in-law embraced her and showed her how to have fun doing very simple things. Mostly it was knowing that someone truly cared about her that changed her life from dreary to incredible. She felt as though she had found the secret to life, and it had nothing to do with any of the accoutrements that we often associate with greatness. Instead it was all about enjoying what we have. Maybe that is the real key to knowing when we have enough.

Kindness Hope and Love

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The little priest walked slowly down the aisle of the church pushing his walker. He appeared to be so frail and yet there he was saying the prayers of the Sunday mass. When it came time for the homily I wasn’t expecting much. I supposed that he was long past his prime, a minister put out to pasture so to speak. It was wrong of me to judge, but he walked like Carol Burnett did whenever she was imitating really old people in one of her hilariously funny skits. I listened politely as he began to preach, and by the end I was in tears.

He told us that he was going to paint a beautiful picture with his words. He began by explaining how he had come to our town. An old friend had invited him to retire in the warmth of the south. The two thought that it would be wonderful idea for everyone, and besides they would have so much time to be reunited, telling their old stories and having a few laughs. He had decided to be adventurous even though the only thing that he knew about Texas was the stuff of legends and folklore. He really didn’t have any idea what to expect when he arrived in August, but his buddy had assured him that he would love every minute of his stay.

By the end of that month the rains began to fall from the effects of hurricane Harvey, a new experience for him for certain. The heavens opened up and refused to stop for days and days. By the time the sun finally came out more than fifty one inches of rain had fallen on the area. He had watched the rescues and the heartbreaking stories in horror, but then he realized that something utterly stunning was happening. He saw the love, hope and kindness of humanity unfolding in front of the eyes of the world.

Over thirty percent of the homes located near the church where he was staying had flooded. The parishioners swung into action turning the halls and the classrooms into a haven for those who had lost everything. They brought food, water, blankets, clothes, money, anything that the victims might need. They worked tirelessly day after day as the lines of people seeking help wrapped around the property. It was in that moment that he saw the utter beauty of humankind being revealed so magnificently. He realized that this was exactly the way God wanted his followers to be. It was as though all the best qualities of the human race were present for him and the world to observe It was a lesson in how we all should behave, not just in an hour of need, but for all of our days. He knew that he had come to a place that he would call home.

He told us to close our eyes and imagine the goodness, feel the hope, and luxuriate in the love. He reminded us that it is all around us, and that it is God’s way of assuring us that we are never alone. There will always be someone who will take our hands and guide us to a place of safety. We need only look around and we too will see the lovely image that we as people have painted.

I suppose that it is sometimes difficult to noticed just how wonderful humans really are when our media focuses so much on the horrors of our society. We have entertainers saying very ugly things about people in the name of humor. Our leaders have jumped the shark with their obnoxiousness. We see violence seemingly in every corner of the world. People shoot the bird and scream in anger at the smallest provocations. We align ourselves with groups and political ideologies. We argue and stuff our ears with our fingers lest we hear something that differs from our own points of view. We seem unwilling to compromise or get along, and so when a terrible disaster or tragedy occurs we are somewhat shocked to see kind hearts and heroes emerge. In reality the people who rise to the occasion have been around us all along. We were just so busy believing the naysayers that we failed to notice that most of us are truly and exceptionally good.

The priest said that God was smiling as He saw His ultimate creations demonstrate the kind of behavior that He had hoped for them. It filled Him with parental pride to watch his children performing acts of generosity without any consideration other than doing the right thing. Humans had made something horrible become beautiful and everyone took note. The priest got phone calls from all over the world from individuals that he had known. They were checking on his welfare, but also expressing their astonishment at the scenes of courage and warmth that they had witnessed. It had changed their perspective and reminded them of what makes humans truly exceptional. They too wanted to help, and so they did, just as thousands of others whose hearts had been touched.

I still think of those four days of inundation. I remember the fear that I felt as I saw the images of people being carried from their homes in boats. I believed that our city would never be able to recover from the devastation, but I had underestimated the spirit of humans. I had bought into the negativity that is swirling around us in abundance. I had been so very wrong.

We struggle and waver and even have moments of hopelessness, but the reality of who we are is so much better than the doomsday predictions. Our innate goodness rises up again and again to repair the wounds of our fellow beings. We get up after we have been knocked to the ground and check to see if anyone else needs our assistance. Life is far more wonderful than we may have thought it was, and people in all of their variety are ultimately the sparks that light the fires of optimism and love.

The good father painted a beautiful picture indeed. It is an image that I will cary in my heart to bring to mind when times get tough. It is a canvas painted with the colors of  kindness, hope and love.

Until We Meet Again

pexels-photo-424517.jpegDear Lynda,

I remember the first time I met you as clearly as if it was just yesterday. I should have been excited about moving to a new house, but I wasn’t. I liked my neighborhood, my friends and my school, and I could not imagine being as happy in a new place. I rather grudgingly traveled with my parents to our home, and was quite pleasantly surprised when your family came across the street to welcome us as soon as we arrived. When your mom found out that I was in the same grade as you she immediately introduced us and the rest was so glorious! It almost seemed as though we had been destined to meet and become friends. To this very day I still tell people that you were my first best friend, and probably the most wonderful of the lot.

I was six going on seven and could not imagine anything more wonderful than those happy days that we shared riding our bicycles all over the neighborhood while singing “Jesus Loves Me” at the top of our lungs. We’d hang out in the woods across from the school and squeal with delight on the big tree swing that went over the bayou. Each afternoon we paused to watch The Mickey Mouse Club together and discussed the Mouseketeers and the stories of Spin and Marty as though they were our real friends. I so loved being with your big family and eating at the picnic table in your kitchen. I felt as though I was your sister and sometimes even wished that I actually was.

We told each other our secrets and shared both our fears and our dreams. I don’t believe that I have ever again felt so completely close to anyone as I did with you back then. I loved your grandmother as much as my own and I still laugh with amazement as I remember her bending over to place her palms flat on the floor. That was a wonderful trick in my mind that made her even more lovable than she already was.

We joined the Brownie scouts together and I recall a sad time when Mrs. Guidry, one of our leaders, died. Our mothers took us to the funeral home to pay our respects and there she was lying in the casket in a blue negligee. You and I thought that it was hilarious to see her that way, and we began giggling so much that we were unable to stop. I think that our mom’s were horrified by our behavior, but we were just two silly girls who had never seen someone reposed in death before. I suspect that our laughing was more of a nervous reaction than a sign of disrespect, and  were such pals that our brains seemed to be melded together. We thought alike on so many things.

When my family moved once again, this time to California, I was bereft. I could not even imagine being without you. My time so far away was truly terrible and I suppose that I pouted and carried on a bit too much, but it was so painful to leave the one person with whom I felt so happy and free. Those months away were some of the worst of my lifetime and I often prayed that we would somehow be united. Of course we did come back, but our situation became so very different. My father died and I was so confused. My mother thought it best that my brothers and I not have to endure his funeral and it was you who understood how much I needed to know how the ceremony had been. You went with your family and then so honestly gave me all of the details. I always felt that our bond was even more special after that because I knew how much you understood me.

Life has a way of bringing people together and then pulling them apart, and so it was with the two of us. Even though we moved back to the old neighborhood after Daddy’s death we were many blocks away from you and so our meetings became a bit rarer, but we still stayed in touch and I so enjoyed every single time that we were able to talk and just be together. We were always able to pick up as though it had only been five minutes since we parted.

We went to different high schools and became involved in our teenage worlds and saw less and less of each other, but our special bond never grew weak. We married and started families and spent wonderful times visiting and watching our children play together. You had become so incredibly beautiful and I often laughed inside when I remembered how you had once wondered if you would ever be as lovely as your mom. Our worlds seem to be so perfect, but then life took over and jerked us into reality. I became a caretaker for my mother as she struggled with mental illness and you assumed the role of single mother, caring for your three boys and working full time. The years raced by and it seemed as though perhaps our friendship would be just a very lovely memory, but somehow we managed to speak again and found that we still had that magical feeling of comfort when we are together.

We’ve seen and done so much since those carefree days when we were little girls. Both of us will be seventy by the end of this year. I can’t even imagine where the years have gone, but my childish belief that we would somehow stay close through the years wasn’t so silly after all. The months may stretch out between our meetings, and we may be in different cities, but we somehow find our way back to each other time and again. With each meeting we realize that there is something rather special about our relationship that will never change.

I will love you and cherish our remarkable friendship for all of the rest of my days. You are a part of my heart, of my life, and I am so thankful that I met you. So much of who I am today was born on those bicycle rides and in our oh so serious conversations. You are an angel who is always on my mind. In fact, yours is one of the few birthdays that I always remember. Each April 19, for more than sixty decades I have thought of you and hoped that you are doing well. Thank you for being the remarkably loving and inspiring person that you are. May we both look forward to many more opportunities to see each other and to enjoying so much more laughter. God bless and keep you until we meet again. Happy Birthday!

I’m Still Not Dead

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There’s a line in one of Willie Nelson’s songs that goes something like this, “I woke up still not dead today.” Willie has a way with words as well as music. I suppose that for someone in his eighties like he is it feels good to see one more day while still wondering when the clock will stop on his run. I’m about fourteen years younger than Willie, but I have to admit that there are times when I feel as though I’m taking a leap of faith when I go to sleep at night. At my age there are no guarantees that I will wake up the next morning. In fact, so many of my contemporaries have already died that I more and more appreciate the fragility of life. I understand that each passing day pushes me just a bit closer to my the ultimate human fate, death. For that reason I find myself trying hard to focus on the aspects of living that are actually the most important, and I am irritated when mundane tasks vie for my attention. Like everyone else I simply have no idea when I will draw my last breath, but at the age of sixty nine I am fairly certain that my days are numbered more so than when I was thirty. That means that it’s really time to pack as much meaning into them as possible.

Family and friends have always been first for me, but I have lately found myself also wanting to pack in as many experiences as possible before my health deteriorates or my income becomes too meager to allow for extravagances. When I think back on my life the moments that I remember always revolve around quiet nights spent with the people that I love and exhilarating moments when I witnessed something extraordinary. Things fall apart and become meaningless, but relationships and adventures are timeless and priceless.

I was watching the movie All The Money In The World last week and it reinforced my thinking that having a great deal of wealth is only as good as what we do with it. If we horde it or become obsessed with it our lives lose meaning. Sadly for some acquiring money becomes an end in itself. Young people are sometimes urged to choose career paths based more on future salaries than passions and talents. All too often adults counsel the young to go for the gold rather than happiness. It worries me that so many young people are being lead down a path that they may one day regret, for in the end there is something about the human spirit that longs for purpose and human contact more than riches.

Don’t get me wrong. Having sufficient economic power is crucial to fulfilling our most basic needs. Having money for nonessentials provides the means for a sense of well being. I don’t advocate living like a pauper, but I have found that it is very possible to lead an exceptional life without bowing to the demands of a lifetime spent chasing the dollar bill rather than fulfilling dreams. As a teacher I enjoyed a rather minimal salary, but it was just enough. The joy that I felt each day that I was at work was far more important to me than a burgeoning bank account. My riches are found in my sense of accomplishing something important and I still managed to enjoy creature comforts without sacrificing my altruistic tendencies.

Each of us is unique. For some there is great excitement in the world of business. For others it is in building things that the most contentment is to be found. If we are lucky we find the niche that helps us to experience the joy factor of life. Even better is when the people around us support our choices.

I used to tease my mother by suggesting that she write a book on parenting, but I was only halfway in jest. The fact is that she somehow managed to raise three children who are so unlike one another. She not only allowed, but encouraged us to follow our individual dreams. When one brother announced at the age of five that he wanted to be a mathematician, she provided him with the tools to develop his interests. He ultimately attended Rice University and worked for a NASA contractor creating the navigation system for the International Space Station. When my other brother revealed that he wanted to be a fire fighter she was just as proud of his accomplishments. He rose through the ranks earning two graduate degrees, running the training academy, and becoming an area chief. While she sometimes imagined that I would become a doctor or a lawyer, she was quite proud of the work that I did as an educator and even helped me to work my way through my earliest days in the profession by providing guidance and understanding. Not once did she ever indicate that one of our professions was better than the other. Nor did she point to the differences in prestige or salary associated by the public with our chosen careers. Instead she boasted that we had each been successful and that more importantly we had actually enjoyed our work.

As time goes by I become more and more convinced that we are making to many attempts to socially engineer our young so that they will become versions of what we want rather than acknowledging the importance of every single job. As I write this carpenters are replacing damaged sheetrock in my home. Given that my husband and I do not possess their skill, I am in total awe of what they are able to do, and appreciate that they chose to offer this service to me. Right now they are as important to me as a scientist or a financial wizard. In other words, we need a variety of people in our world and that even includes a Willie Nelson whose musical genius entertains and comforts us. Where would we be if everyone chose to only focus on the lifestyles that are most likely to bring wealth rather than finding that one thing that makes them feel so alive?

I’m happy each morning that I wake up still not dead. It’s one more day to spend doing things that I enjoy with people that I love. Lucky for me I have few regrets because in the long ago I was able to follow my personal dreams. I recommend that route for anyone who is just starting out.