We Are Losing Some Good Ones

 

Life goes on even as we struggle through days of watching the virus find its way into every corner. We continue our routines even as we watch protesters crying out for justice. Birthdays come marking the completion of another year of life. Easter reminds us to be hopeful. Graduations in different forms than we are accustomed to seeing celebrate hard work and accomplishment. Our planet dutifully rotates on its axis bringing us new days and nights. We revolve around the sun moving from spring to summer just as though everything is as normal as can be. People whom we have loved and cherish die, some from Covid-19 and others from disease or accident.

We muddle along for the most part, adapting to our present situation, but death gives us pause. It is perhaps more difficult to accept than ever. It is a kind of insult added to our injury. Covid-19 forces us to endure it without the rituals or the comfort of hugs and human touch that we have come to expect in such moments. Of all the things that we miss about our days of isolation and uncertainty people are surely at the top of our list. Most of us are working so hard to keep the ones we love safe and virus free, so when one of them dies no matter the cause it is almost too much to bear. 

I have watched from inside my living room as people very special to me have endured the deaths of loved ones. I grieved for a teaching colleague who lost her beloved mother at the beginning of the pandemic, not from the disease itself but from the completion of a long life. My friend continues to long for the beautiful woman who taught her how to love and gave her a lifelong and beautiful relationship with God. So too does another friend long for her sister who left this world all too early only this week. A young man that I know is heartbroken over the death of a dear friend who will not be able to share the joys of senior year in high school with the rest of the class. 

I watched with great sorrow as two of my high school classmates and friends lost their beloved brother, John King. He had been sick for a very long time but he had overcome his disabilities again and again with a valiant spirit. He was a dedicated and admired teacher, a man who devoted forty eight years of his life to guiding the young into wisdom and grace. His students adored him just as his family did. He will be quietly laid to rest this week but his legacy will be celebrated for years to come by those who knew of his dedication to education and creating a better world. He was an optimist in a time of great cynicism and his example will live in all of  the hearts that he touched. 

A man who attended my high school while I was there has also died. I did not know him well but I knew of him. His name was Steve Waldner but his friends called him Wes. He was a member of one of those large Catholic families from the Baby Boom era. He lived across the street from Our Lady of Mt Carmel Catholic Church and School. He was a sweet and happy fellow, someone people called a nice guy. My husband, Mike, would eventually meet Steve and learn just how amazing he had turned out to be.

Mike was loaned out to the United Way one year as part of their program to use the talents of executives from businesses to help with the various causes that it supports. That’s when he met Steve who was the director of the Bay Area United Way. The two of them hit it off immediately. Both had attended Catholic schools and both were avid alumni of the University of Houston. Steve had first graduated from the University of St. Thomas and then earned a Master’s of Social Work at the University of Houston. He and Mike shared a love of Catholic education, the Basilian fathers, the University of Houston, and the work being done to help the less fortunate in our midst.

Mike learned of the devastating consequences of addiction and homelessness from Steve who worked tirelessly and compassionately to be of service to those who are often ignored and misunderstood. Mike was impressed with Steve’s optimism even in the face of human tragedy. Here was a man so incredibly devoted to the causes of those who were lost and broken. I began to learn so much about someone who had shared the hallways of my school with me without our ever getting to know each other. I was humbled by the stories of his work and his dedication.

Steve Waldner was eventually recognized for his contributions to the downtrodden of the city of Houston. The Department of Social Work at his alma mater, the University of Houston named him as one of their most outstanding graduates. He even taught classes for a time at the University of Houston campus at Clear Lake. He continued to give of his talents in work that focused on those with disabilities and disorders of the body and mind. Like his father before him he was dedicated to being a point of light in some of the darkest corners of our city.

John King and Steve Waldner will be missed for their magnificent contributions to the betterment of our world. In our dark days we long for such shining lights of selflessness and devotion. Both men used their time on this earth to touch the minds and hearts of countless individuals who became better for knowing them. We might all take a cue from them for leading our own lives.

It is difficult to lose good people anytime, but somehow it is doubly so in a moment like the present. It saddens us to know that we are losing the best among us when we need them so dearly. We will remember these good souls and use the models of their lives to guide us and we will comfort their loved ones who have been left behind. May these angels who dedicated themselves to love and service rest in peace.   

A Sad Time In History

Could-the-South-Have-Won-the-Civil-War

I was born and raised in Houston, Texas. Nobody in my family ever said much about the Civil War or my family’s part in it so I just assumed that my ancestors had fought for the Confederacy. I had a rather childlike attitude about the whole incident with the exception of feeling a bit uncomfortable about slavery, a practice of which I did not have a great deal of information. To say I was naive about the whole thing is an understatement.

When I was a bit older my paternal grandmother gave me some documents that had been handed down to her from my great grandmother. They were the discharge papers of my great grandfather, John William Seth Smith, who had served with the Union Army. I was rather surprised to learn that my relations who had almost always lived in the south had supported the Union. As I did more research I learned that Kentucky, where my great grandfather enlisted, was a state that was quite divided in allegiance to one side or another. I found myself wondering what had prompted John W. S. Smith to choose not just to stand with the Union but to join the battle. Secretly I heaved a sigh of relief that he had chosen to fight for the preservation of the nation. He became a kind of hero to me even though I know little about him and don’t even have a photograph to picture how he looked.

Being a peacemaker at heart and someone who encourages free thinking I have tended to be rather forgiving of those who so foolishly decided to secede from the Union. Like many I have romanticized the battles of Americans fighting one another and I have been rather magnanimous in forgiving the Confederates for the reasons that they tried to set up a government of their own. Over time I have found less and less reason to support their cause not just because some of them may have been shooting at my great grandfather, but because the foundation of their reasoning was based on the ugly existence of slavery.

Economics and states rights are often cited as the basis for the anger that lead to a break from the United States of America. Even given that bit of moral latitude the discussions always came back to the financial aspects of slavery, an argument that was used even at the beginnings of the country as a reason to allow slavery. To think that finances came before human life is upsetting beyond reason. Not only was the cause a foul one draped in phrases about freedom, but the act of declaring war was in itself outright treason. As I critically assess the incident I can say that the only good thing that came from it was the freeing of the slaves and no matter what any sons of the south may say, the northern states were rather magnanimous in their forgiveness when all was said and done.

Sadly many of the heroes of the Confederacy had once been soldiers in the United States military, educated and trained at West Point. Try to imagine how we would react today if a group of American soldiers allied to declare war on the rest of the country. We would no doubt consider them to be terrorists attempting to launch a coup. There would be few of us who would even think to support their cause.

So this makes me wonder why we have been so understanding in allowing the Confederate flag to continue to fly and for monuments to be built in adoration of the heroes of the Confederacy. In many ways our permitting such things is akin to letting people fly the Nazi flag and put up monuments to Hitler and his allies in the town squares of German towns. We would surely think that such a thing would be crazy.

Some argue that Confederate memorials are simply a part of history and even a culture that should be honored and allowed. Statues should be about people who are worthy of glory, not those who had a very misguided attitude about slavery and the importance of continuing as a nation. The Confederate leaders were determined to leave the Union, keep slaves and even allow the expansion of slavery to new states. There was nothing particularly noble about any of that.

The fact is that the Union held. The Confederates lost and Lincoln wanted to welcome them back into the fold. The slaves were freed and that should have been the end of that, only it wasn’t. We know that many of the southern states enacted Jim Crow laws that segregated Blacks and limited their freedoms including the right to vote for another one hundred years.

I am all too aware of egregious things that I saw as a child in the 1950s. I remember the Blacks sitting at the back of the city buses. I vividly recall the signs designating water fountains and restrooms for “Coloreds” and “White.” I all too often heard the “N” word being bandied casually about. I knew that there were certain parts of town where Black citizens were forced to live. I even have a memory of hearing a man explain that Blacks had to depart from certain areas where they worked at maids and laborers before dark or risk being arrested.

During the time from about the 1890s to the 1950s treatment of Black citizens was horrific. In the same era many of those statues and monuments were erected. Schools, streets and even military bases were named after the so called heroes and while those honors proliferated people mostly looked away. Few dared to suggest that it might have been in poor taste to do such things and so there was an implied if not spoken agreement that those who attempted to destroy the United States were not really so bad after all. They had been forgiven and if people wanted to honor them for their service in an attempt to overthrow the government of the United States surely there was no problem.

We have reached a point of maturity in our thinking. We have begun to understand that the silent message of all of these memorials is that those who lead a civil war had an honorable undertaking despite the ugly aspect of using it to keep slavery flourishing. Little wonder that those symbols have made some of our citizens feel as uncomfortable as constantly driving past a statue of Hitler in Times Square might make World War II veterans or Jewish citizens feel.

The time has come for us to be mature enough as a nation to take down, rename and move on from the darkest chapters of our history. We certainly must continue to learn lessons from what happened, but we should not keep making excuses for those who were unwilling to rid our country of the scourge of slavery and then use war to keep it. There is nothing noble about what they did. Many citizens of the south who had never owned a slave in their lives were forced to fight battles that should not have occurred. They were used as cannon fodder for an inglorious and lost cause. It’s time that we rid ourselves of the stain that has stayed with us far too long. Let’s rename our military posts after other real heroes who fought for this country, not against it. Let’s do it in the name of respect for our flag, for our veterans and for all Americans.

Love Is A Verb

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We are all weary. To say this is a crazy year is an understatement and I hold little hope that we will soon be rocking along just as we may have been in January. I still know so many who are unemployed who have been working diligently to find jobs that do not now exist. They are in a state of panic since the extra help with unemployment they have been receiving will expire in July. They are not  just sitting at home enjoying the time off from work because their unemployment checks are so terrific. In fact, most of them are receiving so much less compensation than they were when they were working that they did not even receive those twelve hundred dollar checks that so many are crowing about. My heart bleeds for them as I watch them valiantly attempting to find a route back to the careers that they so enjoyed. They are willing to relocate if necessary even though it will greatly disrupt the lives of their families. We cannot forget about them just because we are secure. It is not yet time to celebrate the return of our economy.

The virus is still raging in some parts of the world and its very existence anywhere threatens all of us. I do not believe for a moment that we have seen the last of it and I constantly worry about what the fall and winter will bring. I hope that we are ready for whatever happens but the cavalier attitude of so many worries me that we may get caught unprepared once again. I grieve for those who have lost loved ones and for all the the might have beens. Like everyone I want to go back to church but even my pastor is asking us to be cautious and stay away if we belong to any of the vulnerable groups. It is certainly not over and yet I see people taking group photos with friends, large gatherings at the beach, disregard for social distancing on a grand scale. I desperately want to be wrong about my concerns. I hope to one day laugh at my foolishness in being unduly anxious.

I must admit to being sad a great deal of the time because our country is so divided and the anger is palatable. The last time it felt like this I was young and strong and enthusiastic about being able to help my country to grow and change for the better. I walked in marches for civil rights while a student at the University of Houston. I protested for peace in Vietnam, not because I did not love my country or the soldiers fighting for us, but precisely because I have always thought that this is the only place on earth that I ever want to be. I am a sold gold American but I am not so foolish as to believe that everything about my country has been right or good. I am imperfect and so is everyone and everything on this earth. Only God is unflawed. The rest of us have room for improvement and that includes our nation.

I have always believed that if you love someone or something you do not abandon nor enable them when they are wrong. Love is a verb that requires action, not just blind devotion. Just as I have had to have some difficult conversations with myself, my mother, my husband, my children and my students so too have I tried to be honest about the United States of America. Every person and every organization has room to grow and my beloved country is no exception. If we do not honestly address problems we do little more than sanction bad behaviors.

Of late it has become popular to hark back to some mythical time when everything in the United States was exceptionally perfect but anyone who has even a small understanding of history knows that there have always been difficulties that have affected different groups in their quest for freedom and justice. Our laws were created with the idea of changing things as needed but now so many want to keep everything set in stone even when it is apparent that even our laws have to evolve with the times. Some find fault with anyone who even suggests that America needs to address certain problem areas, acting as though anyone who does so is somehow disloyal to the ideals of democracy when in truth it takes great love for country to attempt to bring about positive change and improvement.

When I was studying for my master’s degree I took a course in organizational development. I learned that any group that denies active discussion of problem areas is doomed to die. Organizations must be dynamic and disagreements that are treated seriously and with interest in all points of view are the ones that succeed. It is critical that we encourage the varied voices of our citizenry to be heard rather than silenced simply because we feel uncomfortable with confrontation.

I have always had respect for the office of the President of the United States but I do not believe that my loyalty has to be so complete that I should never point out things  that I find to be troublesome. I have never been that circumspect with any other president so I don’t think that I need to be so with our present chief executive. According to the Constitution he is supposed to be working for the country as a whole and not just his loyal group of believers. His every effort should be aimed at bringing the disparate citizenry together, not driving them apart. If I critique him for perceived wrongs it is only because I love America and it is my unalienable right to do so.

We have much work to do. The virus must still be acknowledged. The Black citizens among us must be heard in their attempts to tell us what life in this country is like for them. Taking a stand to see them and understand them is not un-American, but the exact opposite if we are to believe in the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence. We cannot fall back on soundbites to forgive our inaction on this just cause nor can we be so enabling of a struggling president that we drown out or ignore the voices that are crying to be heard. The American revolution continues as it should. At this moment we must decide if it includes everyone longing to be free. When we say that we love this country we have to remember that love is an action verb. If we don’t continually do this to make certain that everyone is included then our love becomes only a word.

You Never Know What You May Find

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June 1, 2020

To my incredible children, grandchildren, students, nieces, nephews and young people who are like family,

I wrote a letter to you when we first began our stay at home orders here in the United States. At that time most of the Covid-19 cases were occurring in Washington State, California and New Jersey. Here in my hometown of Houston, Texas there were no more than a couple dozen folks who had tested positive for the disease so it was a bit difficult to believe that our area would get hit very hard with the virus. While we were locked away in our homes we watched as the illness penetrated almost every corner of the world in one way or another. The images of empty streets in London, Paris, Rome, and New York City were a haunting backdrop to the rising numbers of sick and dying. Now as I convey my thoughts to you the United States there have been 100,000 deaths even as we begin the process of reopening our cities and towns. At the same time the tragic murder of a Black man, George Floyd, by a police officer in Minnesota has led to an outpouring of grief and rage not just in our own country but across the world. 

So much has changed in such a short amount of time. The world as we expected it to be feels very different. People who able to do so are still working at home and students are finishing the school year from their bedrooms. The proms and graduations and track meets and school competitions were mostly eliminated from the end of the year calendar. Some of you took your Advanced Placement tests online without the usual review sessions from your teachers. Being part of this historical event has been tough and the coming times feel almost as uncertain as the last several weeks have been. Who knows what all of us will face as we begin to rebuild the world again? Now with the added difficulties of the protesting and the unfortunate destruction that has sometimes come with it, we are all asking ourselves what we might have done to prevent the suffering.

I have watched all of you working hard to comply with the directives designed to flatten the curve of contagion and protect the vulnerable in our midst. I have heard your impassioned pleas for justice and equality and the recognition of Black Lives. I’ve witnessed you continuing your studies and preparing for a future whose form is evolving even as I type these words. We simply don’t know what the next weeks and months will be like for anyone and yet all of you are maintaining your optimism and your resolve. Regardless of what the world is going to be like as we move forward I sense that each of you will be ready.

I’ve had conversations with some of you regarding your concerns about the environment, the cost of attending college, the inequities of this world. I know that you are thinking well beyond your own needs and you have proved your mettle in this difficult time. With little or no guidance you have worked as hard as you would have if there had been directives and deadlines. Nothing has stopped you and that is the mark of greatness. I have also been exceedingly proud of your compassion and willingness to speak out for those whose lives are being turned upside down.

I recently heard a woman speaking about the effect of Covid 19 on the psychological health of the nation’s youth.  With a smile on her face she insisted that those of you who are young possess an inordinate amount of grit, the quality of maintaining determination even when life is challenging. She assured her audience that true grit will propel people like you forward regardless of what kind of changes are wrought by this pandemic. She pointed out that some of the greatest discoveries and positive developments were born in tough times. Isaac Newton invented Calculus when he was sent home from the university during an outbreak of plague in the 1600s. That same terrible time resulted in sanitation improvements and new medicines. She believes that it will be the young men and women of the world who will define the problems that the pandemic has exposed and then invent new ways of enhancing the world. You are the explorers, entrepreneurs, creators and leaders of the future.

I know that you have faced so many disappointments and the possibility of even more as the virus and the unrest dictate how we will return to a new kind of normal. I really hope that the older generation will listen to and consider your ideas. You are dreamers and your thoughts have the potential to fuel a worldwide renaissance. You have seen the possibilities and now it is time to begin to bring them to fruition.

You still have dues to pay and hoops through which you must jump but you are quickly earning your wings and respect for your hard work and patience. The sacrifices you are making now and  the challenges you will most certainly face in the coming times will make you strong as long as you refuse to allow them to defeat you. You are creative and flexible. Use those natural tendencies to keep your optimism flourishing. Think beyond the confines of the way things have always been. Continue to be curious and unafraid to notice problems and address them.

I smile when I think of you and my chest puffs up with pride. Learn from this experience but do not allow it to pull you down. Be ready to teach some tricks to old dogs like me. Be open to unexpected opportunities and be willing to take a side trip down a bumpy road. You never know what you may find.  

Yours,

Mama, Gammy, Aunt Sharron, Mama B. 

We Must Lead Ourselves Into the Promised Land

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I began my personal journey through the pandemic back in March. When I decided to write my thoughts on what was happening in my tiny corner of the world I did it to leave a record for my grandchildren and great grandchildren yet to come. I would have liked to have had a written day by day account of how the Spanish Flu of 1918 affected my grandparents, but of course they were too busy simply surviving to have the luxury of journaling about their experiences and thoughts. Neither of my grandmothers were literate and both of my grandfathers were laborers who only got paid when they showed up for work. I feel certain that they simply pushed through that pandemic hoping that they would stay well so that they might provide for themselves and their families.

My writing has not so much been an unbiased historical account of Covid-19 as a depository for my feelings. In describing what I see happening I almost naturally draw on a lifetime of experiences and perceptions. At first I viewed the virus as a kind of adventurous challenge. I would surely show my mettle in being able to stay well and navigate through the restrictive days of isolation. I saw it after all as mostly a matter of staying busy and creating purpose for myself, but over time my emotions overtook my resolve. I looked outward and saw suffering on a grand scale. It became more difficult to simply enjoy the quiet time in my home when the numbers of sick and dying steadily increased. These were people and I could not even begin to imagine how their lives had been turned upside down. My goal became less and less about protecting and entertaining myself and more and more about doing whatever I needed to do to flatten the exponential curve of disease.

I was bemused and saddened as I saw great rifts developing within our population over how seriously to take Covid-19. I am a mathematics teacher and from a family of engineers and scientists and doctors. I suppose that I am inclined to make decisions based on research and data from experts and so it seemed ridiculous to listen to anyone other than those respected for their work with medicine. As the anger in the nation grew and armed citizens stormed state capitols I found myself harking back to the year in which I married.

It was 1968, and at nineteen I was far too young to be making a lifetime commitment and yet events from that year had convinced me that reaching for love was the best decision I would ever make. In that fateful year Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Not long after presidential candidate, Robert Kennedy, was gunned down following his primary victory in California. The year was filled with student protests and when the Democratic Convention was held that summer in Chicago things turned violent as protestors clashed with the police. I would always remember 1968 as both the year that I married and perhaps the worst year in the country’s history during my lifetime.

At my wedding the priest who gave the homily spoke of how much courage and optimism it took for two people to look to the future given the violence and divisions that seemed to permeate every corner of the nation. He applauded Mike and I for demonstrating the certainty of our love in uncertain times. I felt and understood every word that he spoke and prayed on that evening that peace and justice would one day become the rule for America.

Now more than fifty years later I was spending day after day inside my home with Mike and we both somehow felt as though what was happening was profoundly worse than anything our country had endured in our lifetimes. Little did we know that in the very week when the nation recorded its one hundred thousandth death that ghosts from our past would rise once again.

I wonder how it can be that only about a week ago we watched in horror as police officers took the life of George Floyd in a brutally cavalier fashion. He was only forty six, young enough to have been one of my children. He had grown up in Houston, my hometown. He attended Yates High School and played on their football team. By all accounts from those who knew him he was a sweet man who traveled to Minnesota to get a fresh start in life. On the day he was murdered he had used a counterfeit twenty dollar bill to make a purchase. We don’t know if he was even aware that it was bogus but that is neither here nor there. The manner in which he was ultimately mistreated is all that really matters and as I watched the painful last moments of his life it felt as though all of those years when I chose to set the pain and injustice of 1968 aside had been a selfish unwillingness on my part to face bitter truths. We have problems that have yet to be addressed and no slogans or hats or pretense that they are not still with us will make them go away anymore than pretending that Covid-19 is a hoax will allow us to resume business as usual without fear of more sickness and dying.

I have forced myself to watch the unfolding tragedy of pent up anger night after night. It is a painful thing to see. I do not like it. I want it to stop, but I know deep down inside that it will not go away permanently until we face it squarely and fairly just as we must face the virus. The tragedy of what is happening in our country today is not that we don’t have normal graduations or that our European vacations have been cancelled but that people are suffering and yet we are anxious to get everything back to normal even as we sense that nothing is normal. We are fooling ourselves if we just ignore the cries for our attention, for our help.

Using dogs and force to control human beings was a common method for those who enslaved the ancestors of many of the young people who are shocking us with their behavior in the streets of America’s cities. Vigilante lynching was used to keep the newly freed slaves in line after the Civil War. Even when Martin Luther King led peaceful protests the great grandparents and grandparents of today’s young people met with billy clubs and rubber hoses wrapped with barbed wire. When American athletes quietly kneeled during the National Anthem to demonstrate that Black Lives Matter they were loudly criticized and their efforts were mocked and ignored. I wonder how far any group of people can be pushed before their anger boils over in the kind of lawlessness that we are seeing? I wonder how we and our children and grandchildren would be acting if the tables were turned?

There are forty two million black Americans living in our country today. Only a handful of them have taken to the streets and even among those who are protesting an even smaller number are committing illegal acts. Nonetheless the vast majority of all African Americans are viscerally hurt and filled with grief and anger that even after all this time discrimination based on the color of their skin still exists. They are the group most affected by Covid-19 in this country. They are the most affected by the massive unemployment that has resulted from the pandemic. Nearly every problem our country has affected them more than any of us.

Our African American coworkers and neighbors and friends need us to finally hear their pleas and understand that while slavery was long ago the indignities associated with it have yet to be fully resolved. We cannot fool ourselves into thinking that just because we do not personally discriminate that there is no need to continue the efforts to eradicate the underbelly of racism. We can no longer rely on an Abraham Lincoln or a Martin Luther King to do the heavy lifting for us. We must lead ourselves out of this wilderness and into the promised land by setting things right once and for all. For surely if we only clean up the damage and go back to our normal lives the ugly stain of slavery will continue to haunt us all.