Another Ding, Another Scratch

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I saw a woman on television laughing about a dent in her car and philosophically shaking off her concern by exclaiming, “Another ding, another scratch, just another chapter in the story.” I had to laugh along with her because in truth she had summed up life quite brilliantly with that little utterance. It seems as though each of us carries dents and scars on both our bodies and our minds that ultimately contribute to becoming the persons who we are. In spite of our own efforts to take control of things, we are continually blindsided by accidents of nature and disappointments from relationships. As we travel through our individual stories we experience collisions with diseases and toxic people, along with all of the regular intersections and interactions that bring the wear and tear that is a normal part of being human.

Some of the things that happen to us are quite natural. As children we may skin our knees or break a bone or two. We form friendships and experience disappointments. We learn and dream and if we are truly lucky we get through our childhoods without too many traumas or losses and work on embracing adulthood. We search for loving friends and partners and attempt to fulfill the dreams and goals that push us to become better each day. We may choose wrong and have to rethink our plans or accept that someone that we loved has betrayed us or simply grown weary of us. If we are lucky our troubles are average, and our health is good so that we make it to our so-called golden years of retirement. We grow older and feel the aging of our bodies a bit more. We must say goodbye to departed friends and look a bit less toward the future and more at finding contentment in each day. Eventually every single one of us reaches an ending, and if we are lucky we will be able to look back on what we have accomplished and the relationships that we have fostered with a sense of contentment and maybe even a bit of pride.

The truth is that living is a bit more complex than that. We are faced with challenges at times that feel almost unbearable. It becomes difficult to write them off as just another ding or scratch. We feel as though our collision with some horrific force has totaled us out, reduced us to heaps of junk. Unless we are extraordinarily lucky each of us has faced a moment in which we might even ask God where He is because we feel so alone in our pain and suffering. I have had my own share of troubles that threatened to overwhelm me, events so terrible that they rendered me almost useless for a time. In those moments I had to rely heavily on faith, hope and love wherever I was able to find it. I was always humbled in learning who my most loyal angels were, because often they were not the people to whom I had given the biggest chunks of my heart, but instead unexpected souls who miraculously came to my aide. Of course there were also a handful of people so reliable that I was able to call on them time and again to rescue me from many difficult situations.

I recently watched a movie called Hostiles. I had not heard of it before, but it had a good cast with Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike, as well as a very decent Rotten Tomatoes rating. It is a western and thanks to my Uncle Jack I grew up loving those kinds of stories. This one reminded me a bit of the old John Wayne movie The Searchers, but with a more modern and philosophical twist. While there was plenty of adventure, the tale was mainly about people caught up in the kind of accident of life that transforms them and provides them with the answers that they have needed. It speaks to the idea that sometimes in our most tragic times we find the faith, hope and love for which we have been searching.

An event can be so unnerving that it causes us to reassess everything that we have believed about ourselves and the people around us. It rips us apart and threatens to destroy us, but we somehow find what we need to repair ourselves and come out whole again. The process of fixing our very souls can be gut wrenchingly painful and lonely. We may not even want to continue down the road because the darkness does not allow us to see what lies ahead. We may cry out and hear no response, lie down and wish it all to be over. That is when we somehow find the tiniest bit of encouragement as though the hand of God Himself is reaching down to rescue us.

We humans are fragile creatures who are nonetheless stronger than we realize. For centuries we have endured the dings and scratches and wrecks that mar our journeys, but also provide us with the character that makes our stories more real. Still there are those among us whose suffering is so intense that they cannot repair themselves alone. They need someone to help them to restore the faith and hope that they require to continue into the future. Love is the panacea that they seek. We need to be aware of them and be the person who gently demonstrates the compassion for which they have been searching.

We all have a ding here, a scratch there, and sometimes a big gaping hole. Some of our injuries are of our own making, but most come from out of nowhere like a speeding Mack truck driven by a drunken driver. We endure collisions that test us more than we believe that we are capable of handling. That is when we often feel the most alone, but in truth there is always someone who will miraculously help if only we allow them to hear our cries. As humans we have two duties. One is to humble ourselves just enough to ask for assistance, and another is to be ready to provide aide whenever someone calls. If we follow these guidelines we are less likely to wind up forgotten and alone in the junkyard of life. We have the power to rewrite our stories and those of the people around us. When we embrace our dings and scratches they take on a lovely patina that brings out the true beauty of life.

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The Banquet Table of Anthony Bourdain

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(It’s taken me a bit to consider what I wanted to say about Anthony Bourdain. I suppose that is okay, because all too often we mourn the loss of someone and then seem to move on to other things. I think that he is someone worth remembering, and we would do well to model his approaches to learning about and loving people. His suicide will never define the incredible person that he was. Mental illness all too often steals some of the best among us away.)

When I think of good times with family and friends it almost always involves food. My grandmother Little was a country woman through and through whose dishes focused on things like fried chicken, fresh fish that she caught herself, pot roast and oodles of vegetables from her garden. Eating Sunday dinner with her was more than just a consumption of cuisine worthy of the Pioneer Woman. It was a communion of love that was special from the Happy Village dishes on which she served her recipes to the strawberries and cream that she spread on thin slices of cake. We understood that those gatherings were a gift from our grandma that we have never forgotten. Our senses somehow manage to recall the bounty that she spread on her mahogany dining table with clear detail. Even decades later we are able to recover the tastes, aromas, and sights from the memory banks of our brains. They serve as a the trademark of the wonderful moments that we shared with her. Those memories keep her alive in our minds decades after she was gone.

We so often associate food with our relationships. My mouth waters just a bit when I think of Ed’s “fancy” that included oysters Rockefeller, red beans and rice and conversation that I will never forget. I smile at the thought of Linda’s perennially delicious dishes over which we sat for hours raising our families together and building  lifelong relationships. Bieu’s pig roasts and crawfish boils always bring a diverse group of people together even when we sometimes have no idea what everyone is saying. Monica gives us a taste of Europe and a feeling of welcoming warmth. Michael grills his burgers as the children play and we reminisce about times past and celebrate those yet to come. Granny’s tea time was a backdrop for serious discussions. Uncle Paul’s  green eggs and ham were the stuff of our jokes that in truth were somehow strangely delicious. The tangerines and nuts that filled bowls at Christmas time reunions represented the bounty that our crazy immigrant family had achieved. Grandma Ulrich with her weak, milky, sugary cups of coffee taught us how to bring elegance and joy to the most simple fare. Food is most certainly intimately intertwined with family, friends, relationships.

Anthony Bourdain was one of those people who understood the power and symbolism of sharing food. He traveled the world, breaking bread in places where many of us would not dare tread. He introduced us to the loveliness of our humanity and also taught us the importance of being respectful to all cultures. He truly loved people not for how he wanted them to be, but exactly the way they really were. His enthusiasm for the unusual was always apparent in his stories and interviews. He understood that there is not one right or wrong way of doing things or being. He was a beautiful man in that regard. There was a complexity of his intellect and ability to use words, but there was also a simplicity in his delight over very small joys.

We need more people like Anthony Bourdain, a man who appeared to be judgement free. One of my favorite stories of him was about his defense of an older woman who wrote a restaurant review column for a newspaper in North Dakota. She became the butt of snarky commentary and jokes after she published an earnest piece about the opening of an Olive Garden in her town. She was polite and complimentary of everything from the decor to the professionalism of the server. For her efforts she was virally ridiculed. It was Anthony Bourdain who came to her rescue by noting quite gallantly that she was providing us with a portrait of a part of our society that we sometimes don’t see, and doing it very well. He eventually invited her the New York City and encouraged her to publish her best work. He took the time to get to know her better over coffee in a moment that so special for her. Ultimately her book became a hit with his help, but what was most telling about this incident was his compassion and understanding that each of us has something to offer, something new that will enrich lives. This I believe was the key Anthony Bourdain’s success.

The best people, like Anthony Bourdain, not only regale us with good food and exciting stories. They also show us how to treat one another. My grandmothers and my mother both modeled the same kind of behavior for me, demonstrating how to find the beauty in every single person. They encouraged me to open my heart free of preconceived notions. I have been all of the better because of that and I have attempted to pass down that way of embracing the world to my children and grandsons.

I often recall a time when I took my eldest grandson to a small neighborhood grocery store that often attracted an odd assortment of characters. As we pushed our cart through the narrow aisles we heard a gaggle of languages and witnessed some rather odd forms of dress. All the while music sung in a multitude of foreign languages blared over the loud speakers. After we had been there for a few minutes my grandson beamed his most glorious smile at me and exclaimed, “I like dis place. It’s happy!” His comment swelled my heart with pride.

Anthony Bourdain continually challenged us to move out of our comfort zones so that we might find the enriching experiences that truly make life so much more interesting and enjoyable. He showed us that the way to do that is to sit down and enjoy a meal with strangers who in the exchange might even become friends. There’s a whole world of people out there who very likely would love to spend a few hours sharing their stories while supping on the stuff of life. Anthony Bourdain showed us how to do that and how to really live. May he now rest in peace with a special seat at the great heavenly banquet table.

People In Boats

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I recently experienced a bout of insomnia that not even a dose of Tylenol PM was able to combat. As I lay tossing and turning I had one of those Roseanne Barr moments in which I began to think about several news items that I had seen and had an overwhelming compulsion to comment on them. Luckily I was a bit too lazy to rise from my bed to do anything destructive with my thoughts other than to use them as a form of sheep counting that eventually led to the slumber I had been seeking. I’d highly recommend the method to Ms. Barr if she ever again has the urge to sleep tweet in the middle of the night. Of course most of the damage has already been done in her case.

There had been several issues on my mind, but the one that I have not been able to simply forget, even in the light of day, is probably of little consequence to most people, but a very big deal to me. It seems that our president was praising the Coast Guard and the wonderful work that they do when he went a bit off topic as he is so often wont to do. His remarks were just fine until he made one of the most ridiculous statements that I have ever heard. “I don’t think the Coast Guard gets enough credit.  And I’ve said it, and I even say it to the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines. I said, I think this year the Coast Guard, maybe in terms of increased branding — the brand of the Coast Guard has been something incredible what’s happened. Saved 16,000 people, many of them in Texas, for whatever reason that is. People went out in their boats to watch the hurricane. That didn’t work out too well.  That didn’t work out too well.”

My eyes almost started to bleed when I read this commentary. I even checked it to be certain that it was true, and it was! I had to laugh at the sheer ignorance of the assertion. Sure there are gawkers in almost all situations but to imply that Houstonians were pulling out their boats for a little ride to watch the hurricane is too bizarre for words. First of all, those of us in Texas know that one doesn’t go out to watch a hurricane. We hunker down as our county commissioner likes to say. We await the conclusion of the event in the safety of our homes, hopefully with the electricity running and the television guiding us with the most current status of the storm. Nobody here has any idea where the president got such the idea that we were boating around for our own amusement during a very dangerous situation.

I have to admit that I was quite anxious during those many days of unending rain. I felt a bit like Noah and wondered if it would have been a good idea to have built an arc in preparation for the storm. I even wished that I still had the old flat bottom boat that we once used to navigate up and down Caney Creek behind some property that we often visited near Brazoria. I would have felt a great deal safer knowing that I had a way out if my home filled with water as was happening to so many of my friends. Their descriptions of the terror of attempting to flee the rising water were breathtaking and for many of them those people in boats were not sightseers, but heroes who took them to safety.

As far as anyone around here knows the private citizens who spent days and nights rescuing people were as wonderful as the members of the Coast Guard who were also invaluable to our cause. In fact things had become so dire so quickly that many of our elected officials encouraged anyone with boats to come to the aid of the thousands of stranded people in our town. There were simply not enough resources from the usual governmental sources to deal with the unfolding tragedy, and so ordinary people did extraordinary things. I have never been so proud of my city and its residents in all of my days. To insinuate that they were only watching the hurricane is not just ludicrous, it is insulting, and we need to loudly and proudly set the record straight.

President Trump has a rather inventive mind. Perhaps he is so busy that he lacks the time to check his ideas before he utters them, but in the case of his remarks about people watching the hurricane in boats he is dead wrong. His words demonstrate a total lack of understanding of what actually happened here. Perhaps he has been so isolated by the cloak of wealth and privilege throughout his life that he does not actually know what it is like to deal with the realities of daily living. He is simply not in touch with the day to day truth of not just my city’s situation but also those of ordinary citizens around the country. He lacks enough empathy and understanding to see problems through others’ eyes. Everything seems to revolve around his own needs, and so he comes across as an uncaring kind of clown.

Like much of the country and the world President Trump has no idea what Texans and Houstonians in particular are really like, We’ve learned to laugh at the insults and stereotypes that are hurled our way. We know how wonderful it is here and not even the heat or the mosquitoes will drive us away. We understand that being a Texan and a Houstonian is one of God’s greatest blessings. We are part of a great big family of people who will not let us down even in times of great need. They will come with their boats and their big hearts to rescue us and it matters not to them who we are or how we look. People in boats came out last August to save strangers. It actually worked out really well, Mr. President, contrary to whatever you may believe. We will never forget those people and their boats, and we thank God every single day that they were willing to place themselves in danger just out of the goodness of their hearts. You might want to learn from them, President Trump. 

Save the Children

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When my mother was only three or four years old her mother had a mental breakdown. The full details of the event are sketchy, but the certainty of what happened to my mom is very clear. The little tyke loved her mama and felt safe with her. When medical personal came to the house, restrained her mother, and then drove away in an ambulance the child that my mother was felt confused and betrayed. This event had a lasting impact on her that was so traumatic that it haunted her the rest of her life. She often spoke of the disdain that she felt for her father whom she held responsible for what she viewed as the imprisonment of her mom. She insisted that her mother had been a good woman who did not deserve the horrific treatment that befell her. Unlike her older siblings she was never able to accept that her mama had been very sick and in need of treatment. She had been so very young when she was torn from her mother’s loving care that it impacted the very essence of her thinking. The scars left by the separation never healed.

My youngest daughter endured a similar situation that was less dramatic but nonetheless frightening to her. When she was not yet three years old my husband contracted a fungal disease that required hospitalization and a long regimen of chemotherapy. Our family was thrown into a kind of chaotic state when we learned that the disease was often fatal. We spent months in a new routine of hospital visits and uncertainty. Years later my girl endured a bought with severe anxiety and depression. Her psychiatrist asked what had occurred at around the age of three that had seemingly caused the her to have an enduring sense of uncertainty and fear. He noted that something had so affected my daughter that she had buried deep seated emotions that were finally coming to the surface and causing her despondency. It was shocking to learn that something that had happened more than a decade earlier that was seemingly resolved had such a profound affect.

Young children see and hear and feel far more than we sometimes know. They are aware of what is happening around them to a larger extent than we imagine, but they do not always have the capacity to interpret the interchanges with their environment, particularly when the security represented by a parent is taken from them. They are unable to fully express the need for the warmth and love of a mother or father that is so essential to their healthy development. It is critical that they have all of their most basic needs addressed, and there is generally no better person to do that for them than a parent who genuinely cares for them. So much of the basic personality is formed during early childhood and every event plays an important role in development. As children we all cling to our parents and look to them to supply our most essential needs. When that relationship is suddenly severed children lose all sense of safety. Unless they are carefully counseled and loved the event will have a lifelong impact.

My father died when I was eight years old. People often marvel that my memories of the days following his death are so crystal clear. I am able to vividly recall people, conversations, the weather, and most of all my own jumbled feelings. I was far more aware of what was happening that the adults around me ever imagined. That being said, without the maturity of adulthood I am certain that I often misinterpreted my situation, and not in a good way. I became a fearful child, someone unwilling to take risks. I was afraid of people and life. It would take me twenty or more years to overcome the shock and awe of the sudden loss of someone that I so loved, and I became a somewhat neurotic and sad little girl. It was only through my study of childhood development and my association with truly caring people that I was able to eventually lay all of the demons that had so haunted me to rest.

For these reasons I am both appalled and concerned for the welfare of immigrant children who are currently being separated from their parents. I realize that we have laws, and the adults who come here illegally are breaking them. In that regard there are many needed discussions regarding the issues, but it seems certain to me that taking children away while their parents are being processed is deeply wrong. The consequences of such inhumane decisions will impact these little ones for decades. The trauma that our government is inflicting on them is morally untenable, as anyone familiar with children understands. In spite of efforts to provide food, beds, education, games and other such amenities to care for them the one thing that the little ones require is missing. They must have their parents to feel secure. What we are doing is so egregious that we simply cannot justify the actions with by quoting laws or even the Bible. We must know that we are bending the truth and God’s word when we attempt to do such things.

I love my country and believe in its innate goodness. It has of late been overtaken by an incivility that is toxic. There seems to be an attitude that winning is more important than being just. The good people in our midst are being pushed aside by bullies, and the ideals of honor and respect are all too often being eschewed by those who insist on all or nothing in their political dealings. As citizens we must join together in the common cause of decency, following the lead of heroes the world over who insist on standing for what is right rather than what will make them popular. We must end the ugliness by demonstrating our best natures. Now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of our country. We can no longer allow tactics that so scorch the earth. If we don’t save the children of the world regardless of the circumstances we are doomed to a dark future. Our best hope is in finding our natural goodness again and doing what we know to be right.

A Hero Indeed

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I grew up on a rather heavy diet of reading, and my first forays into the written word were fairytales followed by stories of the lives of the saints. I admittedly felt that perhaps those icons of religion were more superhuman than I thought possible, and so the ones like St. Theresa and St. Augustine who were flawed like I was became my favorites. Eventually I developed an addiction to biographies of famous people in which I learned of the human frailties of some of my heroes who nonetheless impressed me with their courage. In those critical moments when the world needed them to overcome their weaknesses, they rose to the occasion. Profiles In Courage was like a kind of historical Bible to me that outlined some of the finest stories of humans who were willing to risk everything to do what they believed was right. I suppose that I learned much about character from the many volumes that I devoured, and in the process I began to believe that there are special people among us who have the same imperfections that we all possess but also a moral foundation and strength that separates them from the pack.

The list of my heroes is long and eclectic but one of the traits that all of them shared was a willingness to admit to wrongs. They understood their own imperfections and fought internally to eliminate them, but in their humanness they sometimes lost those battles. Mostly though they were able to follow a path of righteousness no matter how difficult it sometimes became. People like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, and Gandhi have sometimes been picked apart by people who have concentrated more on their mistakes than on the totality of their dedication to justice and compassion. I prefer instead to view them from an assessment of their willingness to make difficult and even dangerous decisions in order to do what they believed to be right.

Sometimes it seems as though we have a dearth of heroes in today’s world. I admire Pope Francis for his loving candor and I think that Jimmy Carter is one of the kindest people on the planet, but in general there is far too much tribalism and anger. Those who apologize for their missteps are often deemed to be weak or wishy washy. Instead we seem to prefer people who barrel ahead with bravado even when it is obvious that they are wrong. We mistake anger for courage, bullying behaviors for strength. From out of the crowd of puppets and posers a true American hero has emerged, and his name is John McCain.

John McCain is an interesting fellow. He’s from a military family who expected him to serve his country, something that he initially did willingly but with little enthusiasm. It was not until he became a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War that he began to truly understand what it means to be a patriot. His injuries were so extensive that to this very day he is unable to lift his arms to comb his own hair. When offered the opportunity to be freed simply because he was the son of an important military figure, he insisted on following the tradition of going in proper order. After much torture he broke at one point, a fact that haunts him to this day, but on the whole he demonstrated a kind of bravery that few of us would have been able to muster.

Upon his return to a normal life after the war was ended he struggled to know what to do with his life. His marriage foundered, another flaw for which he takes full credit. When he finally found himself he knew that he wanted to be a public servant and began a decades long career as a Senator from Arizona. His military background led him to believe in the necessity of working with his colleagues rather than fighting them. He often disagreed with their ideas, but was willing to find ways to allow everyone to win for the sake of the country. He was admired by his fellow lawmakers regardless of party affiliation and created lasting friendships along the way. He was a principled man who believed that it was indeed possible to stand for certain ideals without ignoring differing points of view and finding common ground.

Twice John McCain decided to make a run for President of the United States. In 2000 he lost his party’s nomination to George W. Bush, but came out on top in 2008. He had wanted to choose Joe Lieberman as his running mate but was talked out of that idea by his handlers, a moment that he still regrets. His campaign never really got off of the ground because he lacked the charisma of his opponent Barrack Obama, and his own party viewed him as being weak, lacking the kind of fighting spirit for which they were searching. He instead gave them fairness even to the point of defending Obama against false accusations. The fact that he was a good man seemed to have little appeal to the electorate.

John McCain has continued to be his own person, even as his party has taken a direction so unlike him. He votes according to his conscience, a trait that is all but lost in the present political arena. He voices his beliefs even when they are unpopular. He refuses to be beholden to the pressures of a base or the leader of any party, and while I may not always agree with his ideas, I am in awe of his conviction. Now he is dying and in his last moments on this earth he continues to show us how we should live. He is truly among the greats in my estimation and I hope that other politicians are taking note of his character because men and women like him are all too lacking.

I would like to think that the madness that is present day Washington D.C. is temporary, and that one day we will come to our senses as a nation and insist that our country be run by men and women who understand the necessity of working together for the welfare of all of us. I would like to believe that collegiality and respect will return. John McCain has demonstrated how to do that throughout his lifetime. Notwithstanding comments from our current president, he is indeed a hero.