The Ticking Clock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Keep On Keeping On

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When we are young we tend to be impatient. We see life as a sprint rather than a marathon. Every mistake we make feels like the end of possibilities. We fret over our futures and worry that our lives are over before we even get started. I recall thinking that I would never experience any of the things that I dreamed of doing. I was in a hurry, and life rarely works that way. Over the decades I’ve learned that there are some things that we can’t rush, but they happen all in good time.

When I graduated from high school I enrolled in college but I honestly felt totally confused about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I found love with the man who is now my husband, and nothing mattered more to me at the time. So many young men that I knew were being drafted into the army and shipping off to Vietnam where some of them died or were severely wounded. The nation was in a state of upheaval far worse than anything we are now experiencing. Somehow I lost my way and when the chance arose to marry the one person who made me feel good every minute that I was with him I leaped at the opportunity.

I was determined to continue my education even as an incredibly young married woman and for two semesters after my wedding I was as good as my word. Then my world came crashing down around me when my mother’s mental illness advanced to a stage that was more than she was able to bear. I became her lifelong caretaker even as I had little idea of what to do or how long this journey was going to take. I was playing each moment by ear and hoping for the best. On top of everything else I suddenly found that I was pregnant with my first child. Nonetheless I kept taking classes in spite of the reality that none of them felt right for me.

My mother’s battle with mental illness would recur again and again and I would need to focus my attention on her whenever she was especially sick. I decided to take a sabbatical from my university studies after my first child was born. I vowed to return to complete a degree of some kind but for the moment I had my hands full. Things became more complicated when a second daughter was born and my mom’s illness became a constant in our lives. My husband also developed a life threatening disease when we were in our mid twenties that required many months of hospitalization and chemotherapy. Any thoughts of college that I may have had were set aside as I buckled down to take care of my mom, my children and my husband. Somehow the years slipped by and any promise of graduating from college seemed remote so I found little jobs here and there teaching preschool or working as the Director of Religious Education at my church. I had turned thirty before I once again became determined to finish my studies.

I brought a great deal of wisdom and experience to my second foray into education. I found that I enjoyed my classes and gave extra effort to them out of joy for learning. I finally knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life and that certainty gave meaning and purpose to each of the courses that I took. Before long I had earned my degree in education and began teaching in earnest. I would spend the rest of my working days with children and teens. I found that I truly enjoyed my job and the real life experiences that I had encountered were as important in preparing me as my studies had been.

I earned a high level of satisfaction and success in my career. By the time I retired I had taught thousands of students in grades from preschool to middle school to high school to college. I had been an administrator and a mentor to teachers. I felt fulfilled and happy. Since my last full time job I have tutored students and taught children who are being homeschooled. I write every single day as well which was a secret dream that I had long held.

I like to tell my story to young people because I think that I am a living example of the adage that it is never too late to be the person one wants to be. I was thirty two when I earned by degree. I was in my forties when I received a masters degree. I have been learning and working hard for all of my life. I have been willing to think out of the box and try things that had never occurred to me to do. I have never given up on myself, and even when times were tough I believed that brighter days were most assuredly ahead.

Sometimes it takes a bit of sacrifice to get where we want to be in life. We may not get there in the normal ways. Our paths may be rugged and difficult to endure, but with determination we can and will overcome the obstacles that seem to stalk us. I was unable to control all of the situations that overtook my life but I could take one or two classes at a time each and every semester until I finally walked across the stage for my diploma.

I have genuinely had it all, and so can almost everyone. Where there is a will to accomplish something there is always a way. I never belonged to a sorority or lived on campus at a university, but I still made friends in my classes. I had to forgo vacations and all sorts of luxuries for years, but eventually I was doing well enough to treat myself. I had a grand purpose in caring for my family, and I’d like to think that I inspired my daughters to live their lives to the fullest. I’ve tried to help my students also understand that the problems that have daunted them are only temporary detours. If they just keep on keeping on they will emerge into the highway that leads them to their grandest dreams and a few surprises that are even better.

Overworked

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Houston, Texas finds itself in contention for “bests” quite often, and the titles are not always laudatory. We are definitely a foodie town with award winning restaurants that rival New Orleans and New York City. In fact, recently our chefs were honored as the best in the country. Along with that award comes the very negative note that we are also one of the “fattest” places in America. The truth is that we Houstonians seem to do a everything with just a bit more effort. in fact we might well be called the city that tries harder.

Recently Houston was highlighted as the second most overworked city, one upped only by Washington D.C. The designation was based on number of hours worked each week, daily commute time, work/life balance, and support systems from local government and employers. Most Houstonians spend around 43 hours on the job and drive one way to on average about thirty minutes. Benefits in terms of vacation time, cost of medical insurance and such perks falls well below most cities. With this kind of news one might wonder why anyone would ever want to live here, and that is a valid question indeed.

The reality is that Houston has been known from its earliest history as a place to find employment. My Slovakian grandparents arrived here just before World War I because of opportunities to work and my born in the USA grandparents found their way to Houston in the forties for the same reason. Houston has never been a city known for its beauty because it is as flat as a pancake and as wildly tossed together as a city without zoning might be. It’s a patchwork of businesses and neighborhoods that sprang up willy nilly through the wild ideas of entrepreneurs who weren’t above creating travel brochures for Houston that featured mountain scenes. Houston has always had audacious ideas like building a world class medical center in the middle of a prairie and cutting an enormous ditch from the Gulf of Mexico to the landlocked east end of town to create a major port of commerce. Our town has a university known as the Harvard of the south and landed the center for space travel. Movers and shakers with incredible ideas find a welcome home here and then create jobs for the masses.

Those of us who have always lived in Houston do our best to travel to more scenic areas where we often dream of luxuriating in rolling hills or mountains or seasides, but work always pulls us back. Houston is a place where almost anyone with a willingness to labor can find a job, and so it has grown and grown and grown. it also attracts the kind of people who don’t mind putting in a few extra hours each week, and because of the snarls of traffic many, like myself, prefer arriving early and leaving late to miss the height of the commuting congestion. I suppose that when averages of time spent at work are calculated such outliers make a difference. In my years traveling to my various job locations I always marveled at the number of drivers on the freeways as early as six or six thirty each morning.

Traffic is a fact of life in Houston. Our freeways get bigger and ever more crowded as more and more people like my grandparents arrive in search of work. Ours is a vast city spread out over many square miles. We are linked together by a network of concrete that is perennially under construction. We have a little Metro train that is only a spit in the bucket in terms of moving our citizens from one place to another. It has few routes and has yet to catch on as a viable way to move about. Thus each morning and afternoon those who work are subjected to a slow moving caravan of wall to wall cars.

Perhaps our work benefits are not up to par either, but then it really does cost less to live here than even many other cities in the state of Texas so economically things manage to balance out. We may pay more for health insurance but our homes and groceries and other needs are more of a bargain. In Houston even those with low incomes often have houses with big yards. It’s a trade off that works rather well in the long run.

Houstonians like to take trips. We travel through the state, across the nation and around the world. Such jaunts help us to deal with the lack of scenery in our own town. Nonetheless there are other diversions and perks in town that make up for our somewhat homely appearance. Ours is a very friendly and diverse place to live. We welcome people from all over the world and we tend to work together in relative harmony. Sure we have some tortured souls who never quite get with the program of inclusion, but they really are more aberrations than the norm. Somehow we generally understand that we are in this great big crazy working town together, and so we celebrate our rodeos and sports teams and families with as much abandon as we give to our jobs. We promote the arts and sciences and search for ways to have fun. On any given day there are so many things to do and see if only we take the time to seek them out.

The statistics may point to some problems in Houston, but they rarely tell the whole story. The very things viewed as negatives are often the reasons that our city has grown. This is a place filled with opportunity that makes it possible for ordinary souls to take an idea and run with it. Houston is a place where crazy dreams have come true and jobs have been available even in times of hardship. It’s where the where often find a place to rest and be accepted as well as work.

We have our problems and even know what they are. We have more crime than we would wish and we’ve been experiencing floods almost since the city’s inception. Water tends to accumulate in a place dominated by ribbons of bayous that are barely above sea level. We’ve been overrun by mosquitoes decade after decade and the summer heat would be unbearable without air conditioners that vie in size with the furnaces of the north. In spite of all of its flaws Houston is a wonderful place, a working place, and if we put in a few more hours of labor each week that is alright. We have Simone Biles, and J.J. Watt, and the Houston Astros and we have jobs. As both of my grandfathers always boasted, it is preferable to have a job than none at all. The rewards for our hard work are many, and so we stay.

There’s A Place Where I Can Go

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Mornings have become my favorite time of day. It wasn’t always so. When I was working mornings began before the sun announced the dawn. I’d rush around half asleep readying myself for a busy day at work. I’d eat my breakfast on the fly hurrying as quickly as possible to get into my car and hopefully missing the worst of the rush hour traffic. Even with my best efforts a wreck, a stalled car, or a rain storm might land me smack dab in the middle of an immovable jam of traffic. I’d sit in a half asleep stupor wishing that I lived closer to my work so that I would not have to endure the horrors of a long commute in a city with virtually no mass transit. I never felt as though I had any affection whatsoever for the earliest hours of a new day, but that was before I no longer had to leave my home to join the daily rat race.

Now I arise without benefit of an alarm. No longer do I feel as though someone has awakened me with a cattle prod while in the middle of a lovely dream. Instead my body and a hint of sun tells me when it is time to begin the routines of my day. I have no sense of hurry for I am now the mistress of my schedule. I wander into the kitchen to prepare my morning tea and a light breakfast and then repair to my sitting room. It is an area filled with things that have meaning for me, things that make me feel comfort and happiness.

It is a somewhat old fashioned place because it is filled with things that once belonged to people that I have loved. I might tell a thousand and one stories just from glancing at the objects that decorate every inch if the space. It is dominated by an art print that once hung in my mother’s home. She and my dad chose it when I was still a young child and I recall accompanying them on the shopping excursion in which they selected furnishings for the living room in the first home that they had purchased. It is a lovely rendition of magnolias which at the time complimented the colors of the sofa that they had selected. Long after my father had died and the original couch was gone my mom still treasured the piece and it came to represent both her and my father in my mind. It calms me in an almost spiritual way even though it is only an object. Somehow I feel the presence of my parents and remember the happy times that I shared with them whenever I gaze at the lovely work of art.

Ironically I had purchased a floral chair long before my mother gave me her prized picture. The colors in the chair look as though they were produced solely to go with the painting. A dear friend eventually created pillows to place on the couch that pull the entire room together. It is comfortable and quiet in the room and it has become my refuge.

After my mother-in-law died my father-in-law gave us her secretary desk that I had always admired. It stores other treasures that I have either inherited or collected over the years. There is a cookie jar that my brothers and I bought for our mother one Christmas with money that we had saved from all of our little odd jobs around the neighborhood. It also features two little blue teacups that had once belonged to a set of toy china that my mother had as a child. There are lovely ceramic birds from New Orleans that Mike’s Aunt Elsie collected when she lived in that glorious city for a time. My treasured piece of the Berlin wall is nestled in a lovely wooden box from my eldest daughter along side a lovely china container from England. There is also a clock that my brother gave me when I earned my college degree that is still working long after I have left the career that it launched.

Perhaps my favorite piece is an antique vase that once belonged to my great grandmother Christina. My grandmother Minnie Bell gave it to me when I was still a girl, admonishing me to always keep it safe. It meant little to me when I was young, but over the years it has found a special place in my heart as I think of how precious it must have been to Christina as she lived out her hard scrabble life. I have moved it from one home to another with great care. It is a tangible link to my history and to the women who came before me.

There are other wonderful things as well that may mean nothing to others, but everything to me. I have end tables and lamps that belonged to Mike’s grandmother, including an old style Tiffany lamp that also compliments the colors in the room dictated by the picture on the wall. Pewter coasters crafted by the Norwegian uncle of our dear friend Egon hold my morning tea and make me smile as I thing of the friendship that we had with this man who left the earth far too soon. A whimsical frog catches my eye and those of my guests making me think of a sweet colleague named Jane, an extraordinary woman who so enriched my life when I was still a working girl. A shadowbox contains door handles and some of the wooden flooring from the home that Mike’s grandparents built when my mother-in-law was only a child. It is gone now but I can still see it and imagine the dinners and the parties and the ordinary days that they enjoyed there.

My sitting room is a peaceful place, a refuge that I now have so much time to enjoy. It is where I go when I need to think or just relax. It looks a bit old fashioned but I have yet to find anyone who does not feel the same sense of serenity as I do when enjoying its comfort. Best of all is the fact that I am now able to linger there as long as I wish. I feel a sense of joy in recalling the lives of the people represented in the contents of the room and sense that their spirit still resides in me. It is so much more than things. It is a respository that speaks of who I am, where I have been, and where I might one day go. It’s a place where I can go to truly be me.

A Most Extraordinary Life

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My cousin and I were having one of those silly conversations in which we asked each other what our favorites are in different categories. I realized as I answered each query that it is truly difficult to narrow down my preferences to just one or even two things. Let’s take the category of best book, for example. I’ve read so many from differing genres that choosing only one is literally impossible. I’ve always loved classics like Jane Eyre, but then more recent picks might be Things Fall Apart or The Kite Runner. I’m a huge fan of nonfiction as well. Isaac’s Storm kept me on the edge of my seat with anticipation, but reading about Czar Nicholas, Queen Victoria, or John Adams was as interesting as it gets. In other words, I so love to read that I’m often taken by whatever I have read most recently which would include The Nightingale and The Tenth Muse.

Choosing a favorite movie is just as impossible. There are some that I consider to be works of art like The Godfather ( both I and II), Apocalypse Now, The Lord of the Rings, and The Mission. Others are just fun and appealing. Those might include Titanic, Christmas Vacation, or Love Actually. I’m such a movie fan that it would literally take pages and pages to list all of the flicks that I have loved. To me there is nothing more satisfying that spending a rainy day watching old Alfred Hitchcock films and munching on junk food, even though these days I try to be good and stick to fruit and vegetables. Just tell me that someone is featuring a movie marathon of some sort and I am in!

The same is true of television shows. How is it even possible to list all of the programs to which I have been addicted over the years. Breaking Bad was epic, but Better Call Saul is pretty great as well. Unlike most people I was totally satisfied with the totality of Game of Thrones including the ending. In fact my recent trip to London with its study of the reigns of kings tells me that the violence and madness portrayed in the series was maybe a bit tame compared to real life. I’m a sucker for any kind of mystery or crime series, but I love to laugh as well and while it’s difficult to beat Seinfeld, there have been many contenders over the years. The glory days of Saturday Night Live with John Belushi and others was magnificent, but that venerable program has lost its magic over time.

I’ve traveled to many places both in the United States and abroad and there are some that I enjoyed so much that I have returned multiple times and never grown weary of seeing them. I’d go back to New York City any time, but it’s not a place that I would ever want to live. Chicago, on the other hand is a city that I not only like to visit, but I would be willing to set down roots there if I had to move for some reason. I love San Francisco and San Diego, but despise Los Angeles. Boston is a wonderful place that I never tire of seeing and also one where I would be willing to live. I visit New Orleans again and again. A piece of my heart lives there, but I would be afraid to settle down in that region because of the continual threat of hurricanes. I suppose that I truly feel the happiest in Colorado with so many cities and towns that I adore. If I were able to go there many times each year I would do so. I fell madly in love with London on my recent trip there, but I’m a die hard American, a Yank who loves my English speaking cousins but can’t imagine living outside of the USA.

It’s quite interesting to speak of favorites. I enjoy hearing what other people like and dislike. It demonstrates aspects of living that we share as well as those that make us unique. The world is filled with so much variety which makes it possible for there to be something for everyone, particularly in this day and age. So much has changed from the times when I was young and most people lived in a narrowly defined area with few opportunities for seeing the rest of the world. Back then books were the best source for expanding horizons and libraries were the places where we found the volumes that most intrigued us. Television was in its infancy featuring only three or four stations with rather predictable programing. Movies were often a treat that not everyone could afford, and travel was mostly by car.

I am thankful each and every day for the magnificent advances that allow me to be ever more part of the world. I have so much from which to choose that life is never a dull moment. I seriously thank the good Lord for my blessings at the beginning and end of each day. I have seen more of the world that almost all of my ancestors put together. I have more education than they even dreamed of having. Movies and television programs and books are literally at my fingertips. It’s difficult to even consider complaining when I think upon the advances in quality of life that I enjoy compared to either of my grandmothers. Neither of them were able to read or write and their daily activities were labor intensive. They rarely ventured too far beyond the confines of their homes and I’m not sure if they ever went to a movie theater. While they seemed happy enough, it boggles my mind to think of all that they were never able to experience that has so enriched my own life.

I chastise myself when I grow sad or dissatisfied with my lot in life. I have read so many books, seen so many movies and traveled to so many places that I cannot choose a favorite. The only thing that I should be doing more of is counting my good fortune and expressing my gratitude for a most extraordinary life.