The Other Side Of The Stars


‘It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.’

—Stephen Hawking

On the day I was born a little six year old boy was running around in Great Britain oblivious to the amazing future that he would eventually enjoy. Stephen Hawking was a bright child who would over time stun the world with his grasp of astrophysics, but in 1948, nobody might have guessed that his story would become the stuff of movies. Not even when Stephen had demonstrated his intellect while engaged in his university studies did the full potential of his life reveal itself. The feeling that he was a kind of shooting star, rare but brief, only became more likely when he was diagnosed with ALS while in his twenties. Doctors told him that his lifespan would be short, but somehow he defied the odds and rather than spending his time worrying about his impending death he went on to become one of the world’s most respected scientists.

Stephen Hawking merged Einstein’s theories of the universe with the Big Bang theory, explaining the workings of the universe in an almost lyrical style. His best selling book A Brief History of Time while tackling topics often difficult to comprehend made his theories more accessible to ordinary souls like me who usually struggle to understand the complexities of how the vast world of space actually works. He became an icon in the scientific community and an approachable and fun loving character in popular culture, all while confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak without the aid of a computerized voice simulator. He possessed a love for life in spite of his physical difficulties and enjoyed poking fun at himself. He was a living miracle in our midst who demonstrated more than anything the power of optimism and an unwillingness to allow problems to dictate his destiny.

I first heard of Stephen Hawking when his book became a best seller. I purchased and read it with a bit of caution because its subject was not of the sort that I generally enjoyed. I love mathematics but my forays into the domain of physics and astronomy had been lackluster at best. They simply were not topics of great interest to me. That changed as I turned the pages of A Brief History of Time and began to grasp the workings of the universe in a manner that had previously been unattainable. I had to know who this brilliant individual was, and how he had managed to use words to so beautifully explain ideas that were almost beyond my human comprehension. I instantly became a fan.

Stephen Hawking was an unlikely rockstar. His shriveled body and strange robotic like voice should have made him odd, but instead they made his achievements feel even more incredible. He taught all of us that overcoming even the most difficult obstacles is possible. He ignored the naysayers who counseled him that his disease would severely limit his capabilities and his lifespan. He continued his work against all odds. His approach to life was perhaps even more remarkable than his brilliant mind, or perhaps it was because of his ability to envision a world beyond the limits of earth that he was so successful.

Stephen Hawking made it to the age of seventy six before he succumbed to his illness last week, an unheard of span of time for those afflicted with ALS to the extent that he was. Somehow it seems to me that he was one of those people who are sent to the rest of us for a very dramatic purpose. Like an Abraham Lincoln, a Leonardo da Vinci or a Martin Luther King he gave us all the gifts of his abilities, inspiring us to reconsider our own contributions to the world around us. His legacy should push us to do more with ours.

I have always believed that each of us has a purpose no matter how small it may seem. We may not ever have the reach of someone like Stephen Hawking but as long as we have breaths to take we have the capability of somehow making a difference. Ours may not be lives as mind blowing as Stephen Hawking’s but even bringing a smile to someone’s face is an accomplishment. If we multiply our goodness and our talents millions of times over this universe becomes a better place that we might call home with the people that we love.

Rest in peace, Stephen Hawking. You challenged us to think, to be stronger and to understand and appreciate our universe. Your imperfections were many but you overcame your challenges and demonstrated the kind of courage and determination that we should all seek. Enjoy your new view of the universe. We will one day see you again on the other side of the stars.


A Kind of Angel

pexels-photo-414586.jpegThe first time I saw her I was struck by her elegance. Her hands were particularly lovely with long slender beautifully manicured fingers. She used them for effect in conversation and they were mesmerizing. She was kind and welcoming, but I somehow still felt inadequate in her presence. I found myself fidgeting and trying to think of something intelligent to say, some remark that would prove that I was worthy of her company. Nothing came to me so I just sat quietly listening to her confidently speak of this and that. I liked her, but I was in awe and so I felt uncomfortable and hardly tasted the food that was set before me. It would be a very long time before I understood that her strength and confidence made her kind and loving. She would be a lifelong ally, a kind of angel protecting me and those that I loved. That’s the way she was, a selfless person.

She was a tiny thing, only five feet tall, but she somehow always seemed statuesque. When she drove her car her head barely peeked over the dashboard. Sometimes it appeared that nobody was behind the wheel, and the sight of it made me laugh. She taught me many things about people and their natures. She was a great listener, someone who truly cared. Her advice was right on target, but I didn’t always take it. Perhaps I was hard headed or maybe a bit silly or even a tiny bit jealous from time to time. Still, I loved her so and took our moments together for granted as though she would always be around.

She had often told me of her health problems. She had already lived far longer than she should have. She was born with a heart condition. Not even surgery would guarantee that she would live as long as most of us do. I suppose that knowing that the clock was ticking made her more aware of the need to get as much out of each day as possible. She lived with optimism and a generous spirit, but she was unwilling to put up with hypocrites or fools. She was intensely loyal and protective of those that she loved. Like a mama bear she went after anyone who attempted to hurt the members of her family. She was not someone with whom to trifle.

I hung on to her words and tucked them away in my memory for future use, which was wise because she is gone now, and I miss her so. There are occasions when I need her wisdom and wish that we might have just one more opportunity to discuss the things that worry me. She had a way of setting things right by helping me to find the answers that I sought. She was stern with me whenever I was being foolish. She reminded me of my own strength and pushed me to be the person that I was meant to be.

I know that I am very fortunate for having known such a remarkable woman. Her spirit still lives inside my heart. When I waver I can almost hear her voice urging me to be courageous. It’s almost as though she leaves me little hints that tell me that she is still watching over me like a guardian. A few nights ago when I was stewing over a situation unable to sleep I listened to music from Pandora, and out of the blue came Fur Elise a song that she often played on the piano with those exquisite hands. I smiled as a calm came over me. I recalled the words she had used to soothe me when I became stressed and certain that my world was crashing down. She taught me how to control whatever I might and ignore those things that were beyond my reach.

It is something that she had learned as a child after she was told that she must relax or run the risk of dying. Instead of stewing over the possibility of an early demise she decided to pack as much wonder into each day as she might. She understood that she did not have time to waste on worry if her days were numbered. She did all of the things that she was instructed to do to stay as healthy as possible and then really lived. She ultimately survived far longer than her doctors had predicted. I suspect that was because she did not waste a single moment on cynicism or sadness.

She died peacefully. One moment she was hugging her husband and telling him how much she loved him. In the next second she had a violent headache and then went into a stroke induced coma. As she lay dying she appeared to be a sleeping beauty. It almost seemed as though she would awake and smile at us and give us her laugh of delight that literally brought sunshine into a room. We didn’t want to believe that she was taking her final breaths because she meant so much to all of us. She waited until we had all gone for some dinner to partake of her heavenly reward. It was so like her not to upset us by leaving while we watched. She would not have wanted us to be hurt.

It has been almost sixteen years since she left but somehow I feel her presence again and again. I see her in her granddaughters and great grandchildren. I retell them her stories and know that she would want me to remind them of what is important. Family and friendships were the focus of her life. Nothing was more important even though she was a woman who might have done anything. Those of us who knew her rank her among the greatest heroines of all time. Those who did not will never understand what they missed. She lived her life with integrity and compassion. I was lucky to be her daughter-in-law and her friend.

The Next Chapter

You can’t get to the next chapter if you keep rereading that last onepexels-photo-776646.jpeg.

When I write I am often tempted to seek so much perfection that I am unable to get past the first paragraph. I have had to train myself to just keep writing until my thoughts are completed and then I go back to edit. Life can be much like that. We sometimes find ourselves stuck in an uncomfortable rut because we keep repeating the same mistakes, or even more awful, we are so afraid of making things worse that we stay in a situation that makes us miserable. Making changes of any kind is difficult, particularly when our confidence has been battered. It’s why people often remain in abusive situations even though they want more than anything to escape from them. It takes courage to move forward and to leave our familiar routines behind.

I’ve known people who appear to have no fear, and others who can’t seem to extricate themselves from terrible situations. I’ve found myself in a rut now and again, a place that was painfully uncomfortable from which I can’t seem to move forward. On those occasions I desperately wanted to end the pain that I was feeling, but the fear that overcame me was paralyzing. It was only when I took a deep breath and turned the page that I managed to find the sense of accomplishment that I sought.

I vividly recall how frightened I was when I agreed to be an instructor in a class for middle school mathematics teachers. As soon as I had accepted the position I literally wanted to run away or feign an illness. I worried that I would be viewed as a fraud, someone who only pretended to know how to teach. I was so nervous in the first couple of classes that I probably did appear to be less than qualified. My voice wavered and I found myself drawing a blank when fielding questions. It was not until I confided in my supervisor that things began to improve. She suggested that I work with her before each session to share ideas, create plans, and even ask questions. She also recommended that I share my own nervousness with the teachers who attended the class. She assured me that they would learn from my honesty, Surely enough before long I was relaxed and truly enjoying my foray into teaching adult learners. It prompted me to take a graduate class in training and development where I learned even more techniques that I used when I was the Dean of Faculty at my school.

Over the years I have been challenged again and again to take control of the direction of my life. When my mother first showed signs of her mental illness I mostly cried and felt sorry for myself for having to help her. I was young and inexperienced with such things and would have preferred having a helpful adult step forward to counsel me, but none were forthcoming. I ignored my mother’s symptoms as long as possible, hoping that some grand miracle would occur. When even our parish pastor turned his back on my predicament I understood that either I would screw up my courage or my mother might never be well again. I did what I had to do, learning even from the mistakes that I made. By the time of my mom’s death I had spent more than forty years coming to her aid each time that her mind once again became ill. It never became easy, but I grew to feel more and more comfortable that I was doing what was best for her. I learned how to navigate the world of psychiatry and I became unafraid to challenge doctors on my mother’s behalf.

I suppose that given a more comfortable alternative there have been many times when I would have preferred not to push myself to do disagreeable things. Like Bartleby the Scrivener I might have been content to simply refuse to participate in the challenges that beset me. My nature is such that I imagine what it might have been like if I had found peace and quiet and routine rather than placing myself in supercharged circumstances. As I think about life I suspect that none of us are ever so lucky that we are never faced with having to deal with experiences that are painful and maybe even tinged with guilt. Each of us come upon turning points that demand that we move forward or devolve into a state of misery.

I greatly admire people who are courageous, resilient, willing to take risks. What would we do without them? Throughout history there have been individuals who were willing to attempt the seemingly impossible. They become our leaders and our inspirations, the speed readers who turn the pages so quickly that they take our breaths away. Eleanor Roosevelt once suggested that we do one thing that scares us each day. She followed her own advice by overcoming the shyness that had almost paralyzed her in her youth and she ultimately used her voice for those who were all too often ignored.

Sometimes just taking the first step is the most difficult aspect of changing for the better. There are certain situations that are wrought with dangers. We may make many mistakes before we finally set things right. There is nothing easy about eschewing an unhealthy routine or attempting to fulfill a dream, and each of us should be supportive of anyone who is trying to do so. We might begin by teaching our young that they never have to be stuck in a place that makes them unhappy. We each have more grit than we may think. We really do have the power to control what the next chapter will be.

The Strength Of Joining Forces


Last Thursday was International Women’s Day. Coincidental with that event were a number of articles and programs dedicated to women’s issues. Among them was a piece discussing a women’s conference that was held in Houston, Texas back in the nineteen seventies. It was attended by the feminist stars of the day including Bella Abzug, Barbara Jordan, and Gloria Steinem. My good friend Marita was among the thousands of attendees and she gushed for weeks about what she had seen and heard. With her ever present Irish humor she also purchased a couple of towels at the event bearing an image of a pig and the words “male chauvinist pig.” She impishly presented them to her husband and mine causing all of us to laugh because neither of the two men had a chauvinist bone in their bodies. They were instead very supportive of both of us and proud of whatever path we chose to travel.

Marita ultimately became an attorney and I went all in for education. We were independent women who wanted different things which to me was the real point of women’s rights. Sadly not everyone, including Marita agreed with my thinking. In fact, one of the surprises of the Houston Women’s Conference was that it ended up with a schism among the ladies that has never really healed. As Gloria Steinem explained there was a rival conference across town designed to discuss issues important to women with more fundamentalist religious views. It was chaired by Phyllis Schafly and is sometimes credited with being the moment of when the religious right movement was born.

Ms. Steinem recently opined that the conference that should have launched a huge shift in women’s rights ultimately fizzled when the report that they sent then President Jimmy Carter was never addressed, but the fever of conservatism actually caught fire and began to burn brightly. “We lost,” she recently proclaimed. The conference that had been so hopeful for her became the important meeting that was seemingly forgotten.

I recall thinking at the time that the competing meetings represented a tendency of women that has been troublesome for centuries. Namely, for some reason too many of us of the female persuasion seem to believe that we must achieve all or walk away with nothing. We continually compete rather than compromise and our divisions make progress more difficult than it needs to be. We might find true power if only we were willing to honor all women regardless of differences. Instead we quibble and lose our advantage of numbers. We are not only fighting the status quo, but also battling with each other.

As someone who taught in middle school for a number of years I vividly recall the verbal spats between the girls that often became ferocious. In their adolescent frenzy they formed cliques that were akin to battle lines and attacked one another with hurtful wars of words. On any given day I was drying tears and attempting to arbitrate between conflicting groups and vicious comments. In some ways the continued divisions in the world of women remind me of those junior high days.

I suppose that if we had the power of going back in time to redo critical moments I would suggest to the female leaders of both the left and the right that women need to genuinely join hands to honor one another. It should not matter what choices each female makes, but that every girl is supported in her quest to live life to its fullest. I was intensely proud of Marita not because she was a lawyer, but because she achieved her own personal dream. I marvel just as much over my friend Linda who stood by her belief that the most important work that she might ever do was to be found in caring for her family and home. I have found few people as dedicated as she is and I am continually humbled by her example.

The truth is that many progressive women will fiercely defend a Muslim woman wearing a burka, but then poke fun at a fundamentalist Christian female who is pro life, somehow never noticing the hypocrisy of such thinking. At the same time, some very religious women are unwilling to accept or understand those who support Planned Parenthood or a lesbian lifestyle, They seemingly forget the parts of the Bible that tell them not to judge and to follow the commandment of love. There is a great wall between the two sides with most of us stuck in the middle feeling like I did when I attempted to quell the furor between my middle school girls. Until women everywhere stand up for each other without judgement or rancor we will all feel as if we have failed just as Ms. Steinem does.

The truth is that we really have come a long long way, but we still have problems that we must address. Culture is very difficult to change, but it is happening. There are now more women attending universities than men. Women are more and more often choosing majors and careers that were once male dominated. The barriers keeping women from breaking the glass ceiling are falling away. It’s a far better world for women than it was back in the nineteen seventies. That conference really didn’t fail after all. We have much to celebrate, and we need to do so together.

I long for the day when we women are capable of honoring Condoleeza Rice along with Hillary Clinton, Sara Palin with Elizabeth Warren. Our heroines should not be just those who think like we do. They should be all women who become successful at whatever they have chosen to do. The true women of distinction do not fit into a particular mold, but instead represent every possible point of view. Their strength is not found in their philosophies but in the capacity to love and survive.

Neither of my grandmothers were able to read or right, and yet they are two of the most powerful women that I have ever known. They taught me that I have the capacity to be as strong as any man. The showed me how powerful love can be. They helped me to understand the importance of honoring every single person.

I suppose that I will never forget a time when my grandmother Minnie Bell took me to see one of her Arkansas neighbors, a woman with ten children who lived in abject poverty. Before we arrived Grandma cautioned me to treat the lady with the utmost respect. She insisted that I was about to meet one of the greatest people ever, and in fact I was so taken by my grandmother’s admonitions that I was able to see past the dreary environment in which the woman lived. Instead I noticed her understated elegance and heard the intelligence in her conversation. I suppose that my grandmother in spite of her lack of education was a bit wiser than many of the leaders of various political movements aimed at women. She had the right idea and I have never forgotten the lessons that she taught me. We women are capable and beautiful just as we are. If we stop long enough to actually listen to one another I think that we will begin to make the progress that we seek. There is power in our diversity, strength in joining forces.

It’s Not Too Late


There is a teacher shortage. Schools of education at universities across the country are finding it more and more difficult to attract students. Young people are entering the Teach For America program to eliminate loan debt, but rarely staying past the the required two year term. Even experienced educators are leaving the profession far more frequently than their counterparts of the past. Concerns that this trend will lead to a crisis in our schools are being whispered but only minimally addressed, mostly without the kind of difficult and honest discussions that are needed. Will we one day awake to find our classrooms packed with children, but understaffed with qualified adults to guide them in their educations?

The problems inside schools began long ago when the public took it for granted that intelligent women would provide the bulk of the heavy lifting in education. There was indeed a time when there were few career paths readily available for college educated females beyond teaching or nursing. A few brave souls became doctors, engineers and such, but mostly those avenues were exceedingly difficult to travel. The roadblocks for women were quite real save for the worlds of service. The best and brightest were often attracted to the idea of educating future generations, and many women found a way to display their intellectual talents in classrooms across America.

All of that began to change once pioneering souls pushed their way into what had always been male dominated professions, sometimes at great personal cost. Slowly opportunities in high status, well paying jobs opened for more and more women. Schools were no longer able to assume that the cream of the female academic crop would automatically opt for traditional roles in the nation’s schools. Teaching more and more often became a vocation with only the most dedicated individuals willing to endure the low pay and increasingly low opinions of the public toward educators. The mantra “Those who can’t, teach” became a national indictment of the teaching profession, and all the while did little or nothing to shore up the reputation of the career while also creating increasingly more difficult demands for those who stayed.

Teaching is a rewarding profession, but mostly in psychological rather than tangible ways. Most educators are akin to missionaries in their zeal, and like those who toil to save souls they rarely achieve the levels of financial success accorded to their college educated peers in other careers. Their work hours are much longer than the visibly prescribed school day, often extending into the late night at home and intruding on the time shared with their families. The public perception that teachers are paid sufficiently because they do not work for three months out of the year and are finished during the school year at three in the afternoon is a falsehood that somehow continues to be perpetuated by government bureaucrats who set teacher salaries at the lowest possible levels. Anyone who has ever taught knows of the late night planning and grading marathons that extend daily hours to ridiculous levels, not to mention the required training sessions that have reduced summer vacations for teachers to little more than a month. If educators were actually paid by the hour for every minute that they spend engaged in their work they would all be earning six figure salaries. As it is they are likely to find less financial security both during their active working years and later in retirement than those who work for the United States Postal Service.

If pay were the only concern for the teaching profession there would still be legions of altruistically centered individuals who would be attracted to the profession because of the sheer joy that comes from helping young people to learn. It is noble and important work. Sadly it has become so politicized that it has been made more and more difficult to endure. The responsibilities piled on teachers and the lack of respect accorded them have made the work less and less attractive to all but the most dedicated. Teachers constantly hear the insults of politicians and the public hurled at them. Our president speaks of them with disdain. Parents wince when their bright children indicate an interest in being educators. Reformers tend to listen to everyone but the teachers in crafting plans to improve the situation. All the while once willing teachers are driving away from schools never to return to what they view as a far too difficult and thankless task.

Perhaps the true caliber of our nation’s teachers is no better illustrated than in the horrific times that a shooter comes to a school intent on inflicting harm. Time and again educators protect their students with their very lives, taking bullets rather than allowing their kids to become victims. The heroes who do such things are not as unusual as they may seem. Teachers, like first responders, do not run away from such situations They stay to insure the safety of their charges. It is who they are, and yet we rarely see events honoring them the way we do our military, police officers and firefighters. Teachers quietly maintain the safety of our children day in and day out with little or no fanfare. Now adding insult to injury there are some who would have them train to use guns in the event of an emergency, all while we ridicule them and complain about how ineffective they are.

Teachers have been tirelessly doing their jobs with pay that does not fairly compensate them in conditions that are enormously stressful and without the kind of appreciation that they have duly earned because they understand the importance of their work. They are generous individuals who don’t require much more than the knowledge that they have made a difference in people’s lives. We as a society have taken advantage of their good natures far too long. Unless we begin to recognize their enormous contribution to society by honoring and compensating them fairly we may one day take our children to schools and find that they are closed for lack of manpower. The handwriting is on the wall. It is time to remember, appreciate and hear the dedicated individuals who provide the foundation of all that runs the engines of our society. It’s not too late, but if we wait too long it may be.