Glory

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As I grow older I become more and more pensive. Perhaps it is because I am retired and have more time for thinking, or maybe it’s just a characteristic of my age. I watch the elders who served as my adult role models slowly die one by one, and I become more and more familiar with the inevitability of my own mortality. I no longer have the luxury of numbering my days in large denominations. I was reminded of this when I recently purchased carpet with a twenty year guarantee and realized that I’ll be ninety years old before I must replace it again. That of course is if I’m particularly careful and follow in the footsteps of many of my long living relatives. The reality is that while the carpet may have a guarantee, my own lifespan is less certain, as is everyone’s.

I have of late been thinking about the history of my seventy years here on this earth, and I keep returning to the struggle for civil rights that so dominated my very impressionable high school and college years. As a young child I had noticed the segregation that was still so common in my native south. Whenever I had questioned my parents about what I saw they would hesitate and appear to be uncharacteristically confused and even a bit frightened by my insistence that it seemed to be so wrong. I was an innocent child who was being taught by my religion to love all of mankind and by my country that we are all equal, and yet there were visible signs that this was not happening the way it should.

When I was in middle and high school the civil rights movement began to take hold in earnest. I recall hearing about the attempts at integrating schools when I visited my grandparents in Arkansas. I had much earlier traveled north to Chicago with my parents and witnessed blacks mingling without consequence with whites on the trains and in restaurants. It seemed to be the logical and just way of doing things, and so I began following the outcome of boycotts and marches and sit ins, gleefully celebrating each victory and dissolving into disappointment each time the warriors for justice were defeated. I knew in my heart that the slowly evolving changes that were taking place had been long overdue. In fact, I was never able to reconcile the idea that humans should ever be ranked in terms of value based on highly questionable characteristics like race, religion or place of origin, a tendency that has created great cruelty throughout mankind’s history. I was thrilled to believe that our society had become enlightened enough to disavow the ugliness and ignorance that was still so apparent in many corners of our country.

Sadly I was to learn that my optimism and naivety was a bit cockeyed and premature. It took a long while for real changes to happen and in the process many of my heroes were killed, leaving me more and more unsettled. Still I eagerly celebrated each small step on the road to progress as the decades rolled by. I knew that there was still an underbelly of prejudice that was alive and well, but in my circles people were loving and eager to set our history aright. I suppose that I was so insulated by the fast paced cadence of living that I failed to notice that the road to the Promised Land stretched farther ahead than I had imagined.

I have reluctantly removed my rose colored glasses long enough to discern that our problems with getting along with one another continue to abound. Particularly of late it feels as though the scabs that had so protectively covered wounds have been torn away revealing that there are many among us who still harbor bad feelings for anyone different from themselves. The sight of people marching through the streets of Virginia emulating Nazis was particularly stomach churning for me, but even worse was our president’s reluctance to condemn them without reservation. I became more observant at that point and began to contemplate things that I had seen that niggled at my conscience but didn’t really rise to the surface. That is when I understood that if we are very honest with ourselves we will admit that there is still work to do in the area of civil rights. In fact, today there are many different groups of people who are treated as though they are somehow subservient, and this trend is sadly occurring all over the world.

I don’t believe that overt prejudice is as prevalent as it was when I was a child, but the truth is that there should never be room for any of it. When we are silent when others are being abused, we become partners in the crime. There is a disconnect when we attend church and pronounce our love of God, but then voice ugly commentaries regarding His children or allow others to do so. We must all have the courage to do what is right, rather than drawing the curtains so that we don’t have to see what is before our very eyes. We may all be wary of conflict, but there are times when we must face it down with truth, and the truth is that there are still individuals being judged not so much by who they are, but by how they appear to be.

I once went on a journey to the heartland of the civil rights movement of the nineteen sixties. I was accompanied by students who had learned Algebra I from me. I saw the places that had been blurry black and white images on the tiny screen of my family’s television in a time when I was only fifteen or sixteen or seventeen years old. I found myself becoming emotional over and over again as I stood in the kitchen of Dr. Martin Luther King and touched the vey table where he often sat to pray. I shed tears in the basement of a church in Birmingham where four little girls had been killed by a bomb blast set off by a racist. I touched the prison bars that had caged Dr. KIng’s body, but not his spirit. I walked across the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma and nearly collapsed with emotion. I walked down the street with my students toward the state house in Montgomery and remembered that glorious moment when so many brave souls had finally joined together to demonstrate the need for true equality for every human.

I’ve been wanting to take that civil rights trip once again. I want to share those moments with my husband and at least one of my grandchildren. I think that we all need reminders of our past if we are to continue moving toward a better future. I don’t believe that it behooves us to ever become complacent because that is when we get fooled into thinking that everything is as good as it is ever going to get. Somehow our human nature tends to slide back into old habits unless we exercise care.

I watched the movie Selma on Mother’s Day. It was a magnificent production and a reminder to me that I never again want to allow overt racism to exist in a legal form in my country. Because I believe that there is a constant danger of this happening I am vigilant and vocal. All good people must be advocates for justice lest those who are filled with hate and spite lead us down a dark path of division. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord who showed us how to trample the grapes of wrath. I will follow Him. 

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Grace

Nancy

I have always loved the name Nancy. I called one of my favorite dolls Nancy, and when I grew older I read every single Nancy Drew mystery that I was able to find. One of my all time favorite friends is named Nancy as well, so it was only natural that I would instantly like Nancy Marquina when she was a student in my Algebra I class. Her easy going nature and ever present generosity became immediately apparent, and so I truly enjoyed being in her presence.

Like me, Nancy was new to the world of KIPP charter schools, but she had adjusted to the academic rigors and steadfast rules rather easily. I would learn that her flexible attitude is one of her greatest strengths, but she is also a very determined sort. Each afternoon she attended my tutorials even though I sometimes suspected that she had already mastered the concepts. I think that she enjoyed the review time, but mostly she came to encourage friends who struggled a bit more with mathematics than she did. She became a kind of assistant to me, helping other students who were struggling to learn different ideas.

My favorite moment with Nancy came one afternoon when I was doing my best to once again explain the Distributive Property. I had tried arrows and pictures and all sorts of examples and there were still students who were confused by the concept. Nancy very politely suggested that I use a chant that she had learned from one of her former teachers. She drew a little bunny next to the problem that we were solving and then said, “Hippity hoppity, Distributive Property” as she sketched little footprint tracks as though the rabbit had come to the rescue. She patiently explained that the little creature needed to multiply both of the numbers inside the parentheses, not just one.

I was about to thank her and note that this was a high school class and using bunnies probably would not be appropriate when I saw the smiles of understanding on the faces of the students who had seemed hopelessly lost only minutes earlier. A few examples later proved that they had indeed finally caught on to the process. Since that time I’ve shared Nancy’s cute little idea with many students, and each time they respond positively and with utter delight. I always tell them that it was not my notion, but one from a favorite student. 

I have been fortunate enough to stay in touch with Nancy Marquina as she progressed through high school and later entered college. What I know is that she is someone who is humble and loyal and kind, bringing joy into the lives of the people that she meets with no expectations of having her kindnesses returned. It seems so appropriate that the name Nancy means grace because that is what she brings to people, and with her natural beauty both inside and out she is the very image of grace.

Shortly after I retired form education my nephew asked me to help tutor some of his students in preparation for a high stakes mathematics test. I readily agreed because I still enjoy being able to unlock the understanding of the world of numbers in those who see them as a mystery. I soon learned that so many students had signed up for the Saturday morning sessions that there was a need for one more person to work with them. I made an appeal to some of my former students who had been especially good in math, and Nancy responded almost immediately. She was eager to do her part and I knew from my own experiences with her that she would be great.

Not surprisingly the students fell in love with Nancy. She arrived each Saturday with a big smile and tons of encouragement for her charges. She often stopped to purchase donuts for her crew which only sweetened her relationship with the kids. Mostly she used her caring and empathetic nature to instill the kind of confidence in them that had been missing before she came into their lives. That’s just how Nancy is, someone who is always thinking of others more than herself, quietly making a difference without asking for credit for her good deeds.

Nancy eventually enrolled in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Houston. She took more and more difficult engineering and mathematics classes with a sense of purpose that drove her to be unafraid of the challenges that lay ahead. Over time she felt that something was missing in her major, so she did some research and spoke with some experts to see if there was another line of study that might better suit her interests. That’s when she found the world of Geophysics and it took little time for her to be hooked.

There was nothing easy about majoring in Geophysics, but Nancy has rarely avoided difficult situations. She dove into the task, taking science, mathematics and engineering courses one after another. With a kind of grit that motivates the most adventurous among us, Nancy moved closer and closer to achieving goals that she had quietly set for herself long ago. Today she will graduate from the University of Houston with a major in Geophysics and a minor in Mathematics.

I am so happy and proud for Nancy Marquina. I always knew that she is a remarkable woman. I have admired her spunk and her concern for others for many years. I have little doubt that she will enjoy many more successes in her life. She is one of those people who perseveres when others have quit. She is an unafraid warrior who pushes herself and helps others along the way. She has reinforced my belief that Nancy is a name for very special people. She is grace incarnate.

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.

The Dwellings In Our Minds

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I know for sure that what we dwell on is who we become —- Oprah Winfrey

Have you ever noticed that some people who have very little manage to be quite happy while others who seem to have it all are miserable? How we view life has everything to do with how much joy we experience. The evidence that we are in charge of our feelings abounds.

I have a dear friend who has experienced more tragedies and setbacks than most of us. She has lived with a chronic illness for decades that has required frequent blood transfusions and limitations on her activities. She and her husband of many years divorced just when she was battling her disease, leaving her to survive on her own. She ultimately remarried and things appeared to be taking a turn for the better when her new husband had a series of strokes that left him bedridden. She has become his caretaker and as such is mostly isolated inside her home which is far away from family and friends. Most people would complain about the unfairness of such a situation, but she instead remains optimistic and grateful for the smallest of pleasures that enter her life. People like my friend refuse to be ground down by challenges no matter how difficult they may be. They serve as shining examples to those of us who know them or hear about their inspiring behaviors. 

As I was driving around last Saturday doing some errands I listened to a story on the radio about a young man whose hockey team was involved in an horrific bus crash. Several members of the team were killed in the accident. He survived, but broke his back and was left paralyzed from the neck down. His whole life was centered around being active and at least for now he will be confined to a wheelchair. With the loss of both his friends and his ability to play the game that he so loves it would be only natural for him to become deeply depressed. Many of us would descend into a pit of despair given the circumstances, but he is determined to beat this setback, just as he always managed to come out a winner in sports. He is grieving for his teammates who died, but also eager to begin the hard work to regain his strength and athletic abilities. He does not intend to be defeated, and my guess is that somehow he will find a way to accomplish his goals. It is evident that he is never going to give up and simply languish in self pity.

The champions of this world are people who manage to make the most of whatever hand life deals. They have the ability to pick up the broken pieces of their lives and turn them into beautiful mosaics. Des Linden is one of those people. You might know her name if you are a running enthusiast because she just won the Boston Marathon, the first American woman to do so since the nineteen eighties. Her Twitter feed features her mantra, “Some days it just flows and I feel like I’m born to do this, other days it feels like I’m trudging through hell. Everyday I make the choice to show up and see what I’ve got, and to try to do better.” Des understands that from moment to moment there will be ups and downs, but the main thing is to stay in the race. What was most remarkable about her victory is that she even halted her run to assist a fellow participant who needed to make a pit stop. Des not only has learned the importance of just showing up to each day, but also realizes that ultimately the true measure of each of us is in how we treat the people around us. Her philosophies have made her not just a champion but a happy person as well.

There is no job, no kind of existence that is perfect and without troubles. Every single person experiences difficulties, failures, temptations and tragedies. Those who show up, keep trying, and focus on relationships rather than transitory values are the happiest among us. Winning is not about accumulating laurels or riches. It is all about finding the real secret of life which is to carry on with a sense of purpose and gratitude that there are thousands of second chances to get things right. Grit is the factor that keeps people moving forward through even the most horrific times.

I have often wondered what in the human spirit keeps people hopeful when they endure the most terrible aspects of inhumanity. How did enslaved people find even a modicum of joy? What did Holocaust victims do to keep from going insane or giving in to a deep dark desperation? How were they able to live and work after they were saved given what they had seen and experienced? What keeps refugees from war torn countries optimistic when they have lost everything that they ever owned and have become nomads in countries where they are often unwelcome? How do people manage to smile again when all that they have known is taken from them?

Somehow the true survivors among us find a way to make the best of the things that they cannot change. They smile and just keep reminding themselves that as long as they are still breathing there is hope for better days. They refuse to give up, and like the young man whose family home was inundated with mud from a collapsing mountain top they just keep repeating, “I am alive. I am alive. I am alive.” Then they clean up the mess and manage to smile at their good fortune.

It’s not easy to become a person who sees opportunities in the impossible. It takes a bit of work to dwell on the things that bring us happiness rather than focusing on our sorrows. We just have to show up each day with a determination to change our thinking from sorrow to joy. Sometimes that means finding a tiny shred of hope to pull us from the negativity that stalks us. Just as we can retrain our bodies to become strong, so too may we redesign our thinking to become the happy people that we want to be.

A Woman of Character

Barbara Bush

She had a beautiful heart that was big, generous, loyal, loving. On Wednesday it stopped, and ours broke as we considered the loss of Barbara Bush and the hole that she has left in her family, our city, our country and the world. She was not just an extraordinary First Lady, but one of the truly great human beings, now dead at the age of ninety two. She had seemed almost immortal, immune to the illnesses that never seemed capable of stealing her spirit, so her passing was doubly difficult to comprehend. Somehow we had come to depend on her smile, her wit and her forth rightness to carry us through whatever happened with a kind of dignity that was inspiring. We had grown accustomed to seeing her at her husband’s side, a place that she cherished for well over seventy years. She and George were matching bookends, two people so perfectly compatible that their love brightened every room that they entered. Now her husband, her children, her grandchildren and all of us who felt as though she was the beloved neighbor next door will have to carry on without her, and it is so hard.

There are three women who served as First Ladies who are among my heroes. Abigail Adams might have been one of the founders of our country had women been accorded more respect in that time. As it was, she reminded her husband John to remember the ladies when drafting the design for a radically new kind of government, and she worked shoulder to shoulder with him in the family unit as more of a co-equal than a servant wife. Eleanor Roosevelt was Franklin’s conscience, often arguing in favor of justice over political appearances. She was the one who insisted that he invite black Americans to the White House. She was the angel who never forgot the common men and women of the country. Hers was a brilliant and thoughtful mind that influenced many of the decisions that Franklin ultimately made. Then there was Barbara Bush.

Barbara was born a Pierce, a descendant of President Franklin Pierce. When she was only sixteen she met George H. W. Bush at a dance. She thought that he was the most beautiful person that she had ever seen and he was smitten with her as well. Their love would only grow from there and never falter in a story for the ages. George would join the effort during World War II as the youngest pilot in the American fleet, all the while thinking of his beautiful Barbara and proclaiming his unending love for her. After he returned from the fighting they would marry and begin an adventurous life noted for its togetherness and emphasis on family. Barbara would travel wherever George’s dreams lead them and their love and their family would grow.

They ended up in Texas, a place where George would start his business and launch his political career. Somehow it seems quite fitting that Barbara would end up in the Lone Star state because her personality was the epitome of the big hearted, honest talking nature of the people in her new adopted home. She was a down to earth good neighbor and friend so she got along well with the people that she met. She approached life with purpose and a sense of service which carried her through times both joyous and tragic, exciting and disappointing. She became the glue that kept her family together even as her husband’s goals expanded. Like Abigail and Eleanor she became George’s rock and the source of some of the best advice that he ever received. She understood and loved people and they in turn responded to her sincerity in kind. She was the perfect partner in what would be an incredible life.

Barbara Bush was ever at her husband’s side even as she forged her own identity. She was unafraid to speak her mind and she always managed to do so in a way that was enlightening rather than hurtful. She reminded me so much of my own mother and my mother-in-law, two women who were her contemporaries in a time of history that spanned decades of challenge, change and promises of a better future. They were strong women who carried themselves with dignity and manners, steel magnolias who proved to have powerful influence in shaping the people and ideas in their corners of the world. All three were known for their elegance, but even more so for their wisdom and loyalty. They were feisty and accomplished all without whining or complaining. They were the towers of strength within their families, and just as I have sorely missed my mom and my mother-in-law so too will I miss Barbara Bush.

It always brought a smile to my face to see Mrs. Bush out and about in my city long after her husband had left the White House. She was known to walk her dogs with her neighbors and was always open and friendly with anyone who came across her path. One of her favorite restaurants was a pizza parlor that was as unpretentious as she was. She loved our Houston Astros baseball team and one of my favorite images of her shows her wearing Astros gear complete with a baseball cap and those pearls that she never seemed to leave home without. She was a friend to our favorite Texans player J.J. Watt and cheered for the team as enthusiastically as any of our hometown fans. She joked with the Rockets and asked them to help with a campaign to bring attention to her literacy foundation, a cause which was dear to her heart. She was ferociously determined to bring reading into every child’s life and believed that a better future lay in the ability to decipher and comprehend the written word. To that end she was devoted to visiting schools and reaching out to young people, many of whom were inspired by her genuine interest in their lives.

Barbara Bush died as she had lived, with dignity and humility. Her husband held her hand all afternoon as her body slowly succumbed to the illnesses that had plagued her. She will lie in state on Friday and the public will be able to say their last goodbyes to her. On Saturday friends and family will remember her at a funeral ceremony and later that day she will be laid to rest at the George H. W. Bush Library on the campus of Texas A&M University next to her beloved daughter Robin.

Barbara Bush was an incredible woman in her own right, not just the wife and mother of presidents. She loved deeply and laughed much. She was forthright and gentle, a person of the highest character who left a positive impression on those who knew her. She was devoted to her husband, her family and her country. She was an icon whose life was well lived. Women the world over would do well to emulate her morality, her sense of fairness, her courage, and most of all her selflessness. While she was so much the product of a remarkable era, her qualities made her timeless. May she rest in eternal peace for she has surely earned a special place in her heavenly home. May her family know how much we all loved and cherished her as they struggle to lift up their hearts after such a terrible loss. Our thoughts and prayers will be with them because we appreciate that they shared this beautiful woman with us. We are all the better for having known her.