A Fall Tradition

pumpkin

Fall is filled with a number of traditions for me. I don’t ever see leaves turning glorious colors unless I travel away from my home near Houston. Everything stays green here until the leaves eventually dry into a crispy brown and fall to the ground, so I bring out all of my artificial wreaths and garlands to remind me that somewhere the colors of fall are glorious. I decorate with pumpkins, acorns and pine cones, festooning my home with shades of orange, yellow, red and brown. It’s quite lovely and in many ways I enjoy the decorations of the fall season even more than those of Christmas.

I take an annual fall pilgrimage to The Cheesecake Factory to share a piece of pumpkin cheesecake with husband Mike. The treat is only available for a short time each year so I make careful plans to be certain that I don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy the creamy goodness while I can. I used to purchase an entire pumpkin cheesecake for my birthday but the days when I might eat entire slices without adding inches to my waist are long gone. Sometimes it feels as though simply looking at a slice of pumpkin cheesecake adds a pound or two to my girth. Now I eat sensibly and sparingly, but always include at least one shared slice of my favorite taste of fall.

I rearrange my closet each fall to bring jackets and sweaters within reach in case the weather finally turns cool. I store shorts and sleeveless tops farther to the back. It’s like getting a whole new wardrobe and I always find myself feeling a bit giddy about the way that the clothes hide a multitude of sins in my eternal fight to maintain a healthy weight.

So much about fall makes me incredibly happy save for one tradition that never fails to come around. Ever since I can remember there is a time when my throat begins to feel as though it is going to close up so tightly that I won’t be able to swallow. Almost without warning I am unable to speak in a normal tone of voice. My laryngitis forces me to weakly whisper any communication that I wish to convey. No lemon or honey or medication seems to help until it has run its course. For a few days each and every year I learn what it would be like to be trapped in a state of muteness.

Now that I am retired I am able to simply stay home until my body adjusts to whatever allergic reaction I have had to things floating in the air. When I was still teaching my problem was far more serious. I never felt so bad that I need to retire to bed or stay at home, but attempting to teach a lesson in mathematics with a voice so small that it sounded as though it belonged to a tiny mouse was almost impossible. Sadly each school year of my career I found myself attempting to manage students while keeping them in a learning mode without the aid of my voice that would carry across a room. It was always a challenge.

Amazingly my students always rallied to help me. They immediately sensed my predicament and rather than taking advantage of my inability to actually control the situation they resorted to extreme kindness toward me. No matter how rowdy the group of kids might have been under ordinary circumstances they rose to the occasion and proved themselves to be helpful in my time of need. It was as though their natural tendencies to be good overcame any temptations to use my illness against me. I always let them know how much I appreciated their efforts once my voice finally returned, and they assured me that they would save their shenanigans until it was a fair competition.

I find that all people, not just my students, trend toward kindness. This year when my annual bout of laryngitis came I was scheduled to have my driver’s license renewed. Upon my arrival the workers at the DPS were determined to be as surly as they are known to be until they realized that the squeak in my voice was real. Each person suddenly became incredibly helpful and even smiled at me. They actually seemed to enjoy having an opportunity to be nice. Instead of barking orders they treated me gently and even made suggestions as to how I might treat my illness.

On an evening when I was slated to help my grandsons review for a Pre Calculus test I stopped at a Starbuck’s to get some hot tea in the hopes that it might keep my voice going long enough to be of use to the study process. The barista was quite patient as I attempted to squeak out my order. The expression on his face told me that he was feeling my pain. When I was searching for the change I needed to pay my bill he anxiously waved away the few pennies that I was unable to locate and wished me godspeed and a quick recovery.

I suppose that my point is that each fall when my allergies wreak havoc on my system I am reminded that people are truly good. It’s always been that way and I am certain it always will be. It’s easy to focus on the ugliness in the world but it is the exception, not the rule. That’s why we notice it. What we often fail to see are the thousands of moments when we humans take care of one another without even being asked to do so. Being nudged to remember this each fall is just one more reason that I so love this time of year.

Therapy

rose

There is something about working outside in my yard that is primal. I throw myself so totally into the tasks of planting and feeding and weeding that I eventually resemble a wild woman with my matted hair and dirty fingernails. My arms and legs and clothing bear the stains of the dirt in which I luxuriate. I’m no Martha Stewart with cute rubber boots, a fashionable hat and perfectly coiffed hair as I tackle the tendencies of nature to challenge me in planning a lovely vista for the plot of land that is my domain. By the time that I finish my work I resemble someone who has been living on the streets without access to soap or water. My muscles, my back and my knees ache from the contortions to which I must subject them in order to keep my garden in tip top shape. There is nothing glamorous about the labor I do in my yard, but somehow it brings me so much contentment that it works quite well to soothe any anxieties that might be stalking me. It’s rewards are immediate and tangible unlike so many of my other duties.

I sometimes feel as though I carry genetic tendencies to luxuriate in the back breaking labor of gardening. All four of my grandparents thought of growing and caring for plants as a glorious pastime. My grandmothers tinkered with their flowers daily and my grandfathers dreamed of becoming independent of markets with the produce from their bountiful crops. Both men toiled on less than satisfying jobs for decades, dreaming of a time when they might own enough land to be known as farmers. One grandfather eventually achieved that goal. The other died before it became a realization. There is something in my own nature that compels me to hold dirt in my hands and watch my plants bursting forth with color or bounty from one season to another.

I remember going to visit my paternal grandmother as a child and taking walks with her to gaze at the wonders of what she had grown. She was known for an ability to reproduce any kind of plant. Someone once joked that she could take a dry dead stick and bring it to life. She rarely purchased vegetation at a nursery. Instead she worked with seeds and cuttings from friends. Both she and my maternal grandmother caught rainwater in barrels and took the time to lovingly water each plant by hand. They collected egg shells, coffee grounds and unused portions of fruits and vegetables to enrich the soil of compost heaps. The food they gave their flowers and bushes and trees came from the recycling of nature’s bounty. It took time and much effort to grow the magnificent specimens that decorated their yards but theirs was a labor of love and a desire to keep the earth beautiful.

Neither of my grandmothers had much formal education. They were unable to read or write, and yet the knowledge of gardening that they held in their heads was encyclopedic. Sadly I was too young to take full advantage of what they knew. I never dreamed that I would one day be as taken with growing things as they were. Had I known that my obsession with gardening would grow as much as it did I might have taken notes and garnered their expertise. They certainly were unable to leave a written record of their practices. Experience was their only guide.

I had a lovely compost heap at my last home. I lived in a neighborhood unencumbered by rules from an HOA. I chose a spot behind my garage that was visible to my neighbors who seemed unconcerned with the unsightly mound. They instead used the times when I added scraps to the soil to talk with me over the chain link fence that separated our property. We conversed quite often and got to know each other well. The loveliness of such moments made my gardening experience even more precious. It took on a communal nature that brought me happiness and security.

Now I generally work behind a wooden fence that is lovely but has the unexpected consequence of keeping me from really knowing the people who live around me. I have privacy but few opportunities to talk with them as we all come and go in a continual rush to complete the tasks of our lives. Most of them hire people to mow their lawns, put mulch in their flowerbeds and generally tend to the upkeep of their yards. When they are outside it is usually behind the wall of the fence so that we hear them but cannot see them. Like the neighbors in the old television show Home Improvement we may catch a glimpse of the tops of their heads if they are especially tall, but little more. We make promises to get together but time passes quickly and the right moment rarely comes to do more than just smile and wave as we go about our individual lives. I sometimes long to tear down the barriers that separate us but instead I just toil quietly on my own.

Working in my garden is a joy. It releases so much serotonin into my brain that I feel as though I have taken a powerful happy pill. I feel close to the earth, to my ancestors, and even to those neighbors that I cannot see. I enjoy the sounds of life and laughter along with the buzzing of the bees and the chirping of the birds. I like the idea of providing a home for butterflies and hummingbirds and tiny lizards and dragon flies. It’s a dirty job in the heat of the south, but one that brings me more happiness than I might ever describe.

As I grow older I am less able to spend hours working outside. I recall the time when my grandmothers eventually abandoned their adventures with nature. They became unable to tackle all of the work that a splendid garden requires and their lovely collections of flowers turned to seed. I dread the thought of becoming that way so I know I must take advantage of the energy and good health that I still possess while I can. Yard work is a lovely therapy for me. I intend to enjoy it while I can. 

Push!

boulder

I’m an old dog who continues to learn new tricks. I’m truly thankful every single day for having a mind that is still working relatively well. My knees hurt all day and all night and my bladder is weak, but so far I can still make those little grey cells in my head do their thing. it’s a blessing to maintain my ability to think clearly that I tend to believe I inherited from my paternal grandfather and seemingly from my mother’s side of the family as well.

My Grandpa was still reading massive biographies and quoting them when he was one hundred eight. When he ultimately lost the clarity of his mind it was painful to watch because he had indeed been so wise and brilliant for all of the time I had known him. His clouded thinking came on rather suddenly after an unexpected illness. For the last few months of his life he no longer seemed to understand where he was or why certain things were happening to him. He became like a confused and frightened child. Luckily his pain did not last too long. He was spared the horror of living in a dazed condition for years.

The old adage is that the mind is a terrible thing to waste, but it is also a terrible thing to lose. The confusion that results from diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia steal the joy from both those who are afflicted and those who care for them. The journey into loss of memory or understanding can be terrifying for everyone concerned. Whereas my grandfather had the good sense to stop driving his car when he was in his nineties, those whose minds become confused often insist on being allowed to do things that are dangerous for them and those around them. It becomes a battle of wills to reason with them.

There is still a great deal to learn about the brain and how it works or fails to work. We don’t yet have the understanding that we need to reverse the effects of aging or diseases of the brain other than rudimentary ideas. One of those is to keep the mind active. Just as with exercise for the body, continuing to challenge the mind is essential for good health. Reading, writing and even “ciphering” as my Grandpa called it keeps things working as long as they have not been affected by disease. It’s important to challenge ourselves by continuing to learn just as we might push to tone our bodies.

I was a mathematics teacher by profession but I never taught anything past Algebra II. As a result I recall little or nothing about the more advanced courses that I took when I was still in my teens. Back in the day we had Trigonometry courses but Pre Calculus was not a thing. Even our Calculus offerings were rather sparse compared with what students learn in today’s classrooms. The acceleration of learning for modern day students is awesome but also somewhat unimaginable for those of us who learned “back in the day.”

I do a great deal of mathematics tutoring. I feel quite comfortable working with students in Algebra I, Algebra II and Geometry, but I begin to lose my confidence with Pre Calculus and Calculus because it has been more than fifty years since I mastered the material in those subjects and in some cases the information in those courses goes far beyond what I learned in the long ago. For that reason I have shied away from working with students who struggle in those areas, preferring to stick with what I really know and understand.

Recently I’ve been called upon to help one of my grandsons with his Pre AP Pre Calculus class. I have literally been studying mathematics every single day for weeks now, learning the concepts in tandem with him. Fortunately there are instructional videos on virtually every topic known to mankind that I can watch on my laptop. I’ve managed to rebuild the structures in my brain that had gone to rot from neglect and to stretch my knowledge to places that my brain had never before ventured. It’s been both a challenge and a pleasure to realize that I am still quite capable of pushing my mind beyond what I already know. In many ways I feel younger and more excited about life than I have in quite some time.

I’ve always found comfort in the process of learning. Often it has not come easily to me but it has been a most enjoyable pursuit. I am passionate about reading and writing and a bit proud that I also have a fairly good understanding of mathematics, or at least an ability to learn what I do not yet know. It’s been fun to work alongside my grandson and to accomplish something of which I was initially afraid.

We humans are truly remarkable creatures. We have the ability to remold ourselves in both mind and body, but doing those things takes effort. We can’t just sit back and hope that the fat in our bellies will miraculously go away or the dust in our brains will disappear. All good things associated with improvement take hard work and that is a fact. The successful folks among us were rarely just born that way. They have had to consciously strive to better themselves. That’s why the person who loses fifty pounds is so proud, or the individual who masters a knew concept literally glows with a sense of accomplishment.

Life is filled with one challenge after another. Our need to push ourselves never really ends. We can make our bodies and our minds stronger but we have to work at it. There is no rest for the weary, but we can make our efforts fun with the right attitudes. Carving the pounds from our bodies or filling our minds with knowledge can be enjoyable pursuits. Pushing ourselves just a wee bit more is not just amazing. It is truly good for us.

Our National Treasure

familyIn my years as an educator I learned that family is the true bedrock of society. When families are socially, emotionally, and economically healthy they not only survive, but they actually thrive. The description of a family as a unit comprised of a man, a woman and their children has morphed over time. There are many configurations of family life these days that are highly successful in spite of being different from the traditional norm. I’m living proof that offspring living without a single parent can and do survive and develop into well adjusted adults. In fact, I can point anecdotally to people who grew up in nontraditional environments who are quite happy and successful. The key to a healthy family is not tied to a single definition but rather to the efforts of all of the members to build a sense of stability, security, and safety. Love is a key ingredient, but other needs must also be met.

I often recount stories of my mother joking that our little fatherless family had a money tree in the backyard. Her tall tale came about because we were smart enough to realize that she was struggling financially and she did not want us to worry. Obviously we did stew over our economic situation in spite of her reassurances. She used the moments when we were most worried to teach us how to save, sacrifice and budget. She showed us that teamwork, ingenuity and hard work were ingredients for getting us through the bumps that life sent our way. We may not have had the newest car or the latest fashions but she kept up the payments on the house and used creative recipes to stretch the food budget. Our lights stayed on so that we might study and prepare for the future. She prioritized at every turn and encouraged us to focus on our blessings rather than stewing over our wants.

When the most basic needs of food and lodging are in jeopardy a great tension is placed on a family. I have known homeless students who suffered both physically and psychologically because they lived in a car or someone’s garage. It’s a daunting situation for a family to deal with the loss of control and it comes about for many reasons that are not always the fault of the adults who head the household. While there are certainly people who are poor because they are addicts or simply lazy there are also those who encounter a run of exceptionally bad luck that often ends in physical or mental illnesses that preclude them from holding jobs. The family unit struggles to survive in such situations. When the most basic needs are not being satisfied it is difficult for children to concentrate on schooling or even social interactions. They become troubled and troublesome. So many of the problems that teachers observe began in the collapse of family health. Unless such difficulties are addressed immediately there are often lifelong consequences.

We worry about so many different aspects of society but all too often do little to address and support the family unit. We tend to be judgmental rather than helpful. We suggest rather than creating mechanisms that insure a basic level of security for all families. We are afraid to intervene in the most toxic families before real tragedies ensue. We make it far too difficult for families in crisis to find the help that they actually need.

The strength of families lies in helping them to rise in the hierarchy of needs. Self actualization rarely occurs when the most basic human necessities are not being met. A hungry, sick, or frightened person has difficulty focusing on anything beyond the mundane human demand for security.

So many of the present ills of our nation can be easily traced back to broken families. We want to help but it sometimes feels hopeless. We are unsure where to begin and we differ on how much to give families in need of help versus insisting that they pull themselves up on their own. We worry that our morals have deteriorated and that so many have turned away from religious guidance. We grieve the loss of our national innocence and despise the materialism that is seemingly overwhelming us. The traditional crowd longs for the yesteryears when families seemed more sound while at the same time doing little to help those that are struggling to survive. The progressive crowd wants to provide more financial security to families but also encourages the destruction of unborn life.

As people we are confused about how to proceed and we spend far too much time fighting each other rather than getting down to the work of saving our most precious natural resource, our families. It is certainly a complex issue but not one that can’t be addressed. We need to determine how to combat the crisis of addiction that plagues the very fiber of far too many families. We must make people our priority by helping those who are troubled before their situations become dire. Healthcare is critical and it must address both physical and mental ailments equally. We must walk out our front doors and embrace our neighbors. It’s time we returned to a community mindset rather than being one issue voters. The future of our nation is in our families and we must strive to make all of them as healthy as possible.

We will soon be engaged in a national debate over who our next group of leaders will be. In my mind the most important topics should relate to the health of families. People are our national treasure and their stories begin inside families. It’s time to focus on making them strong.

The Ticking Clock

Clock-600x363

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.