The Three

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I was challenged to create three doable goals, things that I might actually be able to achieve in my lifetime. Since I am already in my seventies the odds are rather good that I won’t be doing anything that requires many years to accomplish or athleticism that I am unlikely to develop at this late stage of the game of life. Instead my three goals are rather modest because I have already done the big things that I hoped to do. My life is slower and more peaceful since retirement and so too will be my goals.

The book that I have written hangs over me like a nagging tyrant. I only need to get someone to create a cover for it and format it for printing and I can instantly put it on the market.  Heretofore I have allowed outside circumstances to distract me from that task. I suppose that I have also unconsciously worried that the response to my writing efforts will be ignored, or even worse, criticized. It’s time for me to screw up my courage and get the job done. I will be quite disappointed with myself if this year ends and I have not yet made that one important task come to fruition. It’s been eight years since I composed the final chapter of my memoir. Now it’s well past time to bring it into the light of day for all to hopefully read.

I also want to travel as much as possible while my health allows me to do so. There are so many places that I still want to explore. Vacations to different parts of the world comprise many of my fondest memories and I’m still healthy and energetic enough to enjoy the excitement of a good trek. I want to see Italy and perhaps go to the homeland of my immigrant grandparents in Slovakia. Scotland is calling me as is Paris. I have longed to take an Alaskan junket and I still haven’t seen states like Oregon and Idaho. I’d like to go back to New York City and London for a deeper dive into the wonder of those glorious cities. I long to keep going until I no longer am able. There will be time enough to languish around the house when my old bones grow weary. Until then I will keep going and seeing and doing.

My third goal is to keep myself healthy and alert. That means developing a routine of diet and exercise that will make the most of my aging body. It will require a willingness to continue to learn and change with the times. I want to stay fit and woke, surrounding myself with positive people and experiences. I want to go into my twilight years with few regrets which means that I have to aggressively keep in mind that a failing body or mind will limit my ability to accomplish other things. I’ve ordered The Blue Zones Kitchen cookbook and plan to follow recipes that have proven to help with longevity. I also intend to head back to the gym with a vengeance that was sorely lacking last year.

I have no idea what actually lies ahead for me or for the rest of the world. I’ve seen things change on a dime in my lifetime and read about cataclysms in history that upended lives in unexpected and dramatic ways. Nonetheless I’m not yet ready or willing to retire to the comfort of my home living a quiet existence as I wait for the final chapters of my life. I long to write them instead by controlling as much as I can and reacting to challenges as they arise.

I do not plan to go gently into that good night, at least for now, unless I truly believe that it is God’s will for me to hang up my spurs. The beginning of this year was punctuated with the deaths of two dear people who fought valiantly against the dying of the light. My cousin extended her time here on earth beyond the predictions of her doctor. She willed herself to squeeze every waking minute out of her waning days. My aunt was told many years ago that she would not walk again but she defied the odds through sheer determination. She refused to surrender to other people’s beliefs about what she might accomplish. It was only in the last couple of years as she approached her ninety fifth birthday that she began to noticeably slow down bodily, but her mind was still as strong as ever. Only a day or so before she died she beat the younger members of her family in a game of intellectual skill. She went to her grave the winner that she always was.

My idols are the people who refuse to allow the specter of old age to daunt them. They operate as though they are still young at heart, making the most of every single day for as long as they can. My grandfather read and quoted a biography of Thomas Jefferson on his one hundred eighth birthday. He walked to the polls to vote in a presidential election when he was almost a hundred years old. He was still building things and doing repairs in his home deep into his nineties. I want to be like him and so my goals revolve around continuing to have a purpose. I intend to keep tutoring students in math, writing each day, taking care of business until my mind and body prevent me from doing so, My three goals reflect my determination.

If I were to take after my relations I might still have over thirty years to make a difference on this earth. I’m not done yet, so it’s time for me to get with the program and meet those three goals.

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.



Risky Business

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I have twin grandsons who have confounded their teachers and sometimes even family members with their almost identical looks. When they were babies my daughter had to always dress one of them in blue just to be able to quickly tell them apart. Over time their individuality became more and more apparent, particularly in their personalities. One of them is daring to the point of taking risks that might cause most of us to pause while the other is far more cautious. Life can be a rather risky business and each of us chooses different degrees and ways of taking chances. Being courageous does not always mean flirting with danger. Sometimes it simply requires a willingness to push ourselves to do things that frighten us or seem impossibly difficult. In that regard both of the twins are willing to engage in the risky business of failing while pursuing a goal.

Our society today is marked by competitiveness. We rank people beginning in their childhood. We place tiny babies into quartiles based on size. We note dates when they achieve certain physical and mental milestones. We begin testing them for this or that from their early years. Our efforts are intended to derive useful data that may assist in keeping them healthy but all too often our rankings have the unintended consequence of unfavorable comparison. We ferret out the gifted and the special needs children from the general population and begin the process of sending the message that we are often defined by our perceived level of intelligence. We may not mean to do so but we subconsciously tell our young that comparisons with others are important.

Over time our ways of doing things create more and more problems. Our children become acutely aware of who learns the most easily and who struggles. Everything evolves into a kind of contest to determine who is the biggest, fastest, smartest, prettiest, most likable. As humans we all too often strive not so much for the joy of learning or achieving some new skill but in a kind of perennial competition to prove our worth. It can be maddening to the point of causing us to feel insecure and at worst even unworthy. Many shut by dropping out of the race, refusing to take risks of any kind lest they be deemed losers. They quietly hide away, often unhappy with themselves and  angry at the world.

It would be wonderful if we were able to begin the process of development by focusing on self growth. The message we might send to our young is that if there is to be any form of competition it should be in that of continually improving by attempting to become our very best. Contrary to the wisdom of Yoda we might all aspire to a credo of trying many things without fear of failure. The best performances and innovations the world has ever seen often began with mistakes. Those willing to take the risk of  rejection again and again are likely to eventually overcome the challenges that befall them.

The most important message that we should give to all people is that the process of growing better should be couched in self care and improvement, not rankings with others. In this life we will always find someone who does things better than we do. If our measure of happiness and success is based on how we compare to others we are doomed to a life of frustration in which someone will always manage to best us. Contentment comes instead from a willingness to work hard to be just a tiny bit better than we may have been before. It means learning for the joy of discovering new ideas or developing new skills. It means walking a few more steps or lifting a bit more weight. Mostly it means understanding that each of us has unique talents and purposes that should be cultivated at our own individual paces. 

As adults it is important that we not unconsciously teach our young to fear taking risks because they know that we are continually judging and ranking them. We need to help them focus on opportunities to relearn, redo, retry until they reach a point of feeling confident of their mastery of knowledge and skills. It should not matter that one child completes a task quickly and another takes longer to achieve. The goal is the same but instead we sometimes leave so many youngsters behind to wonder about their worth. We reward and adore those with natural talents but rarely stop to consider that with a bit of time and effort we might help develop those who require just a bit more encouragement. Think of the power that we might unleash if we were willing to reconsider our rankings and our systems of scoring and comparing and instead kept a personal growth chart for each person detailing their success in increments great or small.

I suspect that we humans might become more and more likely to take risks if we were certain that nobody would laugh at us or think ill of us if our efforts proved disastrous. How glorious it would be to have a worldwide willingness to see our attempts as ways of learning and making slight adjustments that slowly lead us to success. Imagine our world cheering on each person willing to try things instead of making fun of them when they fail. How great might it be to be told what we did right in our efforts and then shown how to fix the things that were not quite how they needed to be. I suspect that we would discover so much untapped talent and most certainly would eliminate some of the unhappiness that so dominates societies today. Best of all risky behavior might not be so risky at all.

The Power of Truth

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I was nineteen years old the first time my mother had a mental breakdown that rendered her unable to cope with the demands of caring for herself or my brothers. She took to her bed filled with paranoid anxieties, not even willing to run her air conditioner in the heat of July in Houston, Texas lest some intrigues find a way into her home. She drew her drapes and sat in the darkness imagining dire scenarios. Her fears became more and more frightening as I visited her each day hoping against all hope that she might experience a spontaneous recovery and become her old self once again. As her situation became more and more uncertain I understood that I would have to take charge of finding care for her, even though I still thought of myself as an insecure child.

My father had been dead for eleven years by then and the other adults in my life were as confounded by my mother’s sudden turn into depression and then mania as I was. Help was difficult to find. Not even the pastor of our church was willing to offer counsel as he admitted that he had a difficult time dealing with such situations. I felt abandoned in my hour of need and forced to rely on my own wits and the wisdom and kindness of strangers.

Our long time family physician advised me to find psychiatric care for my mother, an almost unheard of route in 1969. Mental illness was still a topic confined to whispers behind closed doors which was no doubt the reason why none of my elders felt comfortable discussing my mother’s sudden downward turn. I groped in the dark hoping that I would do the right thing for my mother. I found a doctor with a seemingly good reputation and crossed my fingers.

Few things went we’ll during that first battle to restore my mother’s mental health. The doctor was patronizing toward me, treating me like an ignorant child and revealing little about my mom’s prognosis as she appeared to be getting better with each passing day. I had to simply accept that our family was on the right path and that my mother would soon be her amazing self again. When I heard the words,”Your mother is cured.” I eagerly believed them and went about the business of living a routine life once again.

I kept the secret of my mother’s illness closed up in my heart. Few people who knew me, including members of my extended family, knew of her illness and I was more than happy to keep it that way. Mental illness was a conversation killer and something that felt somehow shameful as though it indicated a weakness in our family that must never  be mentioned by any of us. I clung to the hope that my mama’s mind would never again be as diseased as it had been during that horrific time even as I saw signs that she was somehow different from the tower of strength who had guided me into my adult years.

Within a year or two it became apparent that my mother was descending into madness once again. By that time my own confidence had grown and I did a great deal of research before finding her a doctor who was more open and sympathetic to her needs. It was a blow to have to begin anew but things turned out well once again. In spite of the recurrence of her illness I continued to rather naively tell myself that she would somehow beat this monster that invaded her thoughts and behavior while I also continued to hide the reality of our family’s struggles from all of my friends and coworkers.

Such was the continuing routine year after after. My mother would cycle in and out of psychotic moments and I would get her the medical interventions that she required then we would both act as though nothing was essentially wrong. Relapse after relapse occurred until we both became quite good at seemingly hiding our secret. I pretended as much as my mother did that all was well until it wasn’t.

During a particularly devastating occurrence of yet another breakdown of my mother’s mind I found myself desperately needing to share the burden of caring for her. For the first time I spoke openly to colleagues at work and discussed the toll that being her caretaker had imposed on me. I felt utterly selfish for admitting that I was exhausted. I thought of myself as an utter failure and a fraud. It was only in my moment of honesty that I found the comfort that I had needed for so long. I also became better at helping my mother. By allowing the light of day to illuminate the problem everything became easier. I learned that I was not alone in my concerns and sorrows and that people were far more understanding than I had been willing to believe.

I found a great doctor for my mom who finally provided me with the frankness that I needed to hear. He had a diagnosis for her recurring bouts of depression and mania, bipolar disorder. He explained to both me and my mother that her illness was chronic but with regular care it need not be as debilitating as it had been. He forced us to face all of the demons that had haunted us and to accept that mental illness need not be hidden from view anymore than one might pretend that a heart attack was something about which to be ashamed. He provided us with an epiphany that free us from the self imposed prison that we had build around our worries.

From that point forward I became a vocal advocate for those with mental illness and their families. I felt compelled to speak about the journey that our family had travelled and to share the struggles that had threatened to break us. While there were still those who shied away from my openness most people embraced my honesty and supported my family as we continued to deal with my mother’s lifelong illness.

Mental illness is a disease just as surely as diabetes is. There are treatments for such conditions that help individuals to lead better lives. The more we discuss mental heath the more likely it will be that those afflicted with disorders will find hope and perhaps even a bonafide cure one day. I learned that we must have conversations about such things. It is the only way to erase the stigmas that make such illnesses somehow seem unmentionable. I no longer lie to myself or anyone else. My mother was a remarkable woman who also happened to have bipolar disorder. She was so much more than her illness. 

Rejoice

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His parents had dreamed of having a son and after three attempts their wish finally came true. Sadly before he was even born they learned that he had a rare condition commonly known as “brittle bones.” They were nonetheless undeterred by the dreary picture that the doctors painted for them. He was their child and they already loved him. They would do whatever they needed to do to care for him and show him how much they cherished him even with his physical imperfections. They named him Alec and convinced him that he should never be defeated by the challenges that his condition posed. They taught him how to be his best and to find optimism in the midst of his pain.

They sent him to the best doctors in Chicago where he found kindness and assistance from the Shriners who had worked to provide hospitals and care for children such as Alec. The boy grew to be happy and articulate and courageous even as he endured countless fractures of his fragile bones. Surgeries to mend and strengthen him became part of his routine as did learning how to maneuver his wheelchair so that he might play basketball with other youngsters with afflictions that left them unable to walk.

Along the way Alec became a spokesperson for the Shriners. His infectious smile and sincerely winning mays made him an instant hit and familiar face to millions of television viewers who stopped to listen to the precious boy who asked for help with the very worthy cause of sharing with youngsters who deal with crippling conditions, He possessed a natural charisma that was enchanting.

Alec is seventeen now and still a popular spokesman for the Shriners. He is small in stature due to his condition but his personality is gigantic. He is proud to represent the organization that has done so much for him and for his family. He admits that his life has not been easy but credits his parents for continually providing him with the motivation and love that keeps him moving forward with his life. He feels a sense of purpose in being able to bring attention to the children like him who continually struggle with their crippling illnesses. He has found multiple ways to enjoy the life he has without self pity.

Alec’s parents recently gifted him with a new car fitted out to accommodate his needs. It has a lift and hand controls that allow him to have a new sense of freedom. His voice is deep now but the same smile that made him a star as a child is ever present on his very recognizable face. He confides that he has suffered at times but he revels in the kindness that people have exhibited toward him again and again. He appreciates the gift of life that his parents gave him and the unending support that they continue to provide.

The story of Alec and his parents is uplifting and reminds us of our own blessings. It also demonstrates that the promise of life is not without challenges and suffering. How we face the pain that all humans endure is a measure of our understanding that each of us has the power inside our souls to endure even the most unthinkable. Our attitude determines how well we manage both the good and the bad events and Alec shows us that with determination and a will to find good wherever we go we indeed may find meaning and happiness in spite of difficulties that taunt us.

Depression is on the rise across the globe. Babies such as Alec are routinely aborted. Millions bury their sorrows in alcohol and drugs. We so fear pain and suffering that we attempt to run from it. When we have no other recourse we so often fill our hearts with rage, which is a very natural and human reaction that even Alec admits to having felt. The key to overcoming our inclinations to give up is to understand that while life can be overwhelming there are powerful alternatives to our sorrow. We only need keep the faith that each breath we take is a sign that we have something to give to the world even if it is just a genuine smile.

I have been blessed to personally know people who inspire me just as Alec has done. They have been beset with plagues of sorrow and pain and yet they soldier on, changing direction as needed but always surviving with determination to make the best of the hand that has been dealt them. My own mother was the consummate example of someone who might have given up but she remained one of the happiest individuals I have ever known through grave loss, debilitating illnesses and economic misfortune. The key to her happiness lay in her ability to find great joy in small things. She had an the wonder and appreciation of a child.

Take time each day to consider all the good things about the world rather than the bad. Think of the people who love you rather than those who hurt you. Be thankful for the talents that you possess and build on them. Each and every one of us is a precious and unique creation and the key to the contentment that we seek is first to cherish ourselves just as we are and then to do whatever we might to share our rejoicing with others.