Another Place In Time

Dickens

I live less than an hour away from Galveston, Texas, a heavenly island in the Gulf of Mexico with a storied history. On a lovely day it’s easy to understand why it was one of the fastest growing and most influential cities in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. It’s avenues boasted lovely Victorian homes, many of which still stand, and panoramic views of sandy beaches and the ever changing sea. It was a mecca for entrepreneurs and folks hoping to enjoy a better life. It certainly seemed to be a place that would fulfill all of the hopes and dreams of its citizens. In 1900, a storm approached that would destroy much of the city and kill more individuals than any other hurricane ever has. The terror of the night when nature turned what had been a model city into splinters dashed the optimism of many, but not the underlying spirit of the city of Galveston itself.

While the neighboring town of Houston became the behemoth of growth and progress Galveston settled for transforming itself into more of a sleepy resort and home for a determined populace that would forever boast of the courage and ingenuity of those who were BOI, born on the island. They literally raised the entire city and built a seawall as a defense against future hurricanes. While the citizenry has seen destruction from storms again and again it always finds a way to bounce back from the momentary setbacks and to enjoy and celebrate life on the island.

There are a number of festivals that have become traditional in the city that is a little bit New Orleans, a little bit refined gentry, a little bit touristy, and always bold. It feels as though life in Galveston is a year long party, a determined celebration of life. Perhaps it is so because the people there understand just how tenuous the human experience actually is.

My favorite of the Galveston festivals has always been the Christmas themed Dickens on the Strand. The buildings of commerce from long ago Galveston still grace the landscape near the city’s port, a place where immigrants first saw the land of the United States and where titans once ruled. Lovely shops and restaurants now attract visitors from places near and far. It’s a wonderful weekend haunt for residents of Houston and its suburbs and for vacationers from other parts of the country and sometimes even the world.

In early December the Strand is decked in Christmas finery and peopled by actors in regalia from the time of Charles Dickens complete with visits from Queen Victoria herself. Those who attend the annual party often wear period costumes filling the street with a long ago feel as they walk among wardens from London, men in top hats, and ladies boasting their finest bonnets.

There are craftsmen and merchants selling all form of goods from Christmas ornaments to art and fine clothing. The smells of roasting chestnuts and cinnamon treats fill the air along with the music of bagpipes and the tunes of Irish jigs. It’s a kind of frivolous way to simply enjoy the season without the worries of time constraints and shopping lists. For a moment it feels like Galveston may have seemed in the long ago when Victoria was still on the throne and a lovely December day in the city was filled with soft sea breezes and brilliantly blue skies. It’s a time when everyone is friendly and happy and seemingly without cares.

The event extends from a Friday evening preview until late afternoon on Sunday usually on the first December weekend before the big Christmas rush begins. Each day features a parade and St. Nicholas wanders through the crowd ready to pose for photos and a recitation of Christmas wishes. One might encounter a band of pirates or a group of steampunk dandies, There are British Bobbies and Scottish clansmen. In other words, its a feast for the eyes and the imagination.

My husband Mike and I have generally arrived incognito in our modern attire but this year we decided to join in the fun of dressing as characters from the past. Mike was particularly impressive with his striped grey suit pants with matching vest, his long coat, top hat and paisley cravat. His neatly polished shoes and silver handled cane made him a Victorian dandy for certain. I found a long black skirt to pair with my high collared white blouse which I adorned with a cameo pin that came from either my mother or my grandmother. I found a hat worthy of a visit with the queen and wore a black shawl in case the fickle weather turned cool. I also happened to have a pair of black boots with three little button fittings to secure them. On the whole we looked rather authentic and turned a head or two as we strolled down the Strand.

It was amusing to be approached by strangers who wanted to take their pictures with us. There was even one child who held us in as much awe as she might have done with Mickey and Minnie Mouse. I found myself getting into character and wishing the people that I passed a good day in my most refined accent.

Our afternoon was a much needed diversion from the hectic demands that seem to overtake us the closer we get to December 25. It reminded us to focus on the fun and meaning of the season, perhaps more so because we silently remembered the Galveston citizens of long ago who had so innocently believed that they had found heaven on earth before their lives were ended so brutally and abruptly . Life is indeed short and unpredictable so we have to grab delight wherever and whenever we find it. Dickens on the Strand is a wonderful way to remember to have fun and to love.

What’s In A Name?

Houston_skyline_security

The challenge was to give my city/town a new name, but what is the place that I call home? I was born and raised in Houston, Texas where I spent all of my years until I moved to the suburbs in a town called Pearland. To this very day when asked where I live I instantly respond with Houston. Even though I can’t vote there I think of the Houston mayor as my own. Most of my doctors have their offices in Houston including my dentist. I get my hair styled and cut in Houston and I still do at least fifty percent of my shopping in Houston. I don’t really think of myself as a Pearlander even though by strict definition I am. So should I rename the bedroom community where I awake each morning or the city where I was born and grew old? Perhaps I can do a bit of both.

I’ve struggled with the idea of rebranding Houston. Just as with my own name the habit of being called a certain thing somehow seems to become almost a definition of a city or a person. Houston is Houston and calling it anything else feels as absurd as changing my own name this late in the game. I have become Sharron whether I like it or not and so it is also with Houston, a city named after Texas hero, Sam Houston and more or less forged by a couple of brothers with a bent for selling real estate,

There was always something a bit audacious and confusing about Sam Houston and the same is true with Houston. Sam had once been heralded as a rising star in Congress and a potential future candidate for President of the United States but he had a wild streak, a bent for adventure and the exotic, and a bit too much enjoyment of drinking to follow a straight path. Instead he ended up leading a rag tag group of rebels against a powerful Mexican army in an effort to gain independence for an area in the far northern reaches of Mexico. After a stunning win at San Jacinto in which his army captured General Santa Ana, he indeed became president of the new republic of Texas but eventually settled down to a quieter life in Huntsville, Texas.

Sam Houston was a conundrum. He lived among native Americans and seemed to prefer them and their lifestyle over his own kind. He was an advocate for the dispossessed but owned slaves whom he eventually freed and even helped o start businesses. He was brilliant but suffered from bouts of severe depression. He had so much potential that never really came to complete fruition, and so it seems to be with the city that was named in his honor.

Houston, Texas has always been a bit rough around the edges in spite of efforts by city leaders to make it more refined. It has wonderful centers of art, music, theater and learning but it is also plagued by a tough and tumble underbelly that sometimes threatens to become its face and definition. Just when Houston seems on the verge of becoming respected by the rest of the country something always seems to happen to make those who do not understand it shake their heads in derision. Lots of assumptions are made about Houston by those outside its city limits but few of them are true. It’s a southern city with a liberal democratic government and more diversity than any other place in the entire United States.

So how would I go about renaming Houston? Is there a moniker that is more appropriate than the one that links it to a man who lead a confusing and often misjudged life? The place has had a number of nicknames over time. It was once known as “Bayou City” which is a reminder of the ribbons of waterways that trace throughout the area and sometimes cause disturbing floods. Back in the heydays of NASA it became “Space City, USA.” Somehow that seems too much like a passing reference to become a new name. These days its mostly called “H town” which has a friendly vibe but is a bit too informal to become an official designation.

I thought of famous individuals who had contributed greatly to the progress of Houston but none of their names sounded right. William Marsh Rice was a visionary who gave the city a great university and the land for one of the best medical centers in the country as well as the property that would one day become NASA but Riceville, Riceland, or Rice City doesn’t seem to describe the city at all.

The same is true when considering other prominent Houstonians like Jesse Jones or George H.W. Bush. Such considerations are far too ordinary for a place like Houston which is home to areas more quirky than anything that weird Austin has. In fact Houston has a little bit of San Antonio (with considerably more Hispanics), a little bit of Dallas with its multiple thriving business areas, and little bit of Austin with an arts and culinary scene worthy of any great city. In fact there seems to be no way to adequately describe the dynamic and friendly place that is Houston other than keeping the name of it had at its founding.

As for my present town of Pearland I would not be audacious enough to suggest a change given that I have not lived here long enough to earn that right, so I suppose that I will forgo the challenge of changing the name of either place. In fact, it seems to me that human efforts to do so in other parts of the world have rarely turned out well. Perhaps its time that we simply stick with whatever we have become. I am Sharron and suddenly calling me Sarah Elizabeth would be absurd. So it is with Houston and Pearland. We are all three what we already are. Our dreams and personalities have become synonymous with the names that we were given to us long agoe for better or worse and somehow that seems okay.   

We Will Persist

da vinci

We hear about wars, violence, poverty and other ills almost instantly these days. The problems that people face with health and relationships are openly discussed. We debate how to deal with them while also feeling a sense of satisfaction that we are becoming a more “woke” society even as some cling anxiously to old ways of thinking and doing things. We are so anxious that we consume medications, alcohol and even illegal drugs to still our pain. We begin to wonder if we are somehow mucking up our own existences and those of our children. We believe that surely we are capable of doing far better in our efforts to make the world safer, kinder, more peaceful. We believe that we have the tools but somehow fall short. We hear lectures about our imperfections and feel guilt. At least we are led to believe that we have somehow been complicit in the demise of all that is good.

Now that I am retired I have time to indulge in classes in history, travel to places whose evolution of thought shaped the world in which we live today. I have learned that if there are any strict conclusions to be drawn about the state of the society in which we now exist it is that we have come a very long way from the darkness that once ruled. In centuries of old not even kings and queens were immune from travails that were devastating and deathly while the common folk were at the mercy of the whims of a ruling class into which they had little hope of gaining admittance. Slowly but surely the marvelous imagination of humankind has changed all of that.

Queen Anne, of the Stuart line in English royalty, endured seventeen pregnancies only one of which resulted in the successful birth of a child. That son died at the age of eleven. At the close of the seventeenth century life was often brutal even for the wealthiest. Families toiled with little hope of reprieve from their labors. It was not uncommon for a worker to earn less than twenty pounds in a year. The idea of freedoms was only beginning to take hold and would burst forth in the next century in an imperfect but revolutionary form that would slowly but surely change the trajectory of potential for all people.

I think that we all too often underestimate the miracles that are all around us. While we have yet to achieve human perfection in any of our social constructs we have come farther than even our most courageous and enlightened ancestors dared dream. Women still lose babies but not to the extent of long ago times. When a child is born there is a sense of assurance that he/she will grow into adulthood, a luxury that we take for granted in ways that would astound the parents who came before us. We complain about injustice, just as we should, without celebrating enough that we already have so many freedoms that did not exist in the long ago. In other words we may be living in the best of times without even realizing it.

That does not mean that we should be content with the status quo. There is always room for improvement, but our guilty breast beating may be overly dramatic. The truth is that most of the evil and want in the world is an anomaly rather than a way of life. When I drive down a crowded freeway in my city I notice the jerk who weaves in and out of the traffic without regard for safety because he is the exception, not the rule. Millions of people across the globe are living with a sense of decency, thus we take note of those who are cruel and unjust. We see them because they are so unlike what we have come to expect.

I only need sit in the room where I write to witness the ingenuity and glory of humans. I hear music coming from a device that brings the greatest talent of the world into my home. I work by the lights that were unknown for thousands of years. I tap my fingers on the keys of a computer that holds more knowledge than the great library of Alexandria. I am immune from cruel diseases that my grandfather saw firsthand. I have works of art hanging on my walls that might have once been only the possession of kings. I am warm in the winter and cool in the summer because machines that keep me comfortable whir away. I hear the buses conveying the neighborhood children to schools where they receive educations that were at one time only the purview of the wealthiest. I am free to worship and think as I wish and even to openly tell people my thoughts without fear of being imprisoned. How can I not be thankful for my many privileges when I think of how wonderful life has become for an ordinary soul like me?

No, we are not yet perfect, but we are far from being deplorable. We are moving forward continuously and often at a pace more rapid than at any time in history. We will no doubt see many more great wonders that are products of our human capacity to think and invent. There are geniuses and thinkers and visionaries among us who will lead us forward and past the turmoils that threaten our well being. It is our way and I have every confidence that we will persist.

We Must Never Forget

Midway

Much of the world was at war in November of 1941, but the United States remained decidedly isolationist. While there were many in the USA who were convinced that such a stance was untenable, the prevailing feeling was that the war in Europe and the Pacific was not our business and so our nation warily watched from afar, feeling protected by the two oceans that seemingly insulated us from harm. On December 7, 1941, all of that changed with the brutal attack on American naval installations at Pearl Harbor. Suddenly we were thrust into a war for which we were far from ready to enter.

The first American forays served to illuminate just how ill prepared we were for the conflict. The Japanese forces outdid us on the seas in quality and number of ships and aircraft. The troops of both Germany and Japan were far better trained than our hastily thrown together soldiers. Our initial battles highlighted all of our deficiencies and many believed that we might be defeated before we even got seriously started.

Six months after Pearl Harbor there appeared to be little hope of stopping Japan’s dominance in the Pacific. Then an American intelligence force believed that they were hearing the heavily redacted and coded plans of the Japanese. The analysts felt certain that Japanese forces were headed for the American airfield at Midway.

If their beliefs were true and the Japanese were victorious there would be no line of defense between Midway and the west coast of the United Sates. Cities and citizens there would be vulnerable to attack, and the old view that the oceans protected our nation from harm would no longer hold. It was a tense moment in history with no assurances that the analysts were right.

With little more than a wing and a prayer the American naval forces surprised the gathering Japanese fleet with attacks that were devastating. Midway was saved, Japanese warships were lost, and the tide in the war turned to genuine hope and belief that the United States would not only hold its own but might even be able to defeat the powerful nation of Japan.

Fittingly a movie about this battle began showing in theaters the weekend before Veterans’ Day. Midway is a stunning view into the raw courage and sacrifice of our troops in a time when our very freedoms were being challenged by powers intent on dominating the world. Our country was in murky waters without the equipment and training of our enemies, and yet through the sheer will of young men who would rather have been home with their families the Japanese were overcome.

The movie is a wonderful historical piece that honors the men and women who endured that dark time of long ago. It reminds us of the horrors of war and the glory of fighting for a worthy cause. It shows how the once “sleeping giant” of the United States came together to join the fight for freedoms across the globe.

We take so much for granted these days, often doing more complaining about what we don’t have than showing appreciation for the wonderful things about our country and our world. While we enjoy our hundreds of television channels, our four dollar cups of coffee, our sports teams and our vacations there are still American troops at the ready to defend our shores at a moment’s notice. They are a volunteer force trained to go into harm’s way wherever they are needed. We don’t always take note of them or truly appreciated what they are doing for the rest of us.

The world is still a very dangerous place in many corners. War is a way of life for some nations. There are children who have grown into adulthood with the specter of violence ever present. Our troops are often sent to try to help. They go to parts of the world so unlike our own and see horrors that will give them nightmares for the rest of their lives. They witness violence and loss as a matter of their jobs. They see things that we are able to ignore. Sadly some of them lose their lives or their health with little fanfare or glory.

We honor our troops and our veterans now and again, but we also tend to forget them in the times in between. We don’t always have a clear understanding of how difficult their tasks can be. When a movie like Midway comes along we get a visual and emotional look at the frightening world of war. It’s something that we must never underestimate or forget. We are safe for now only because we have courageous individuals who do the hard work of protecting our nation. We can never forget how important they are.

Harriet Tubman

Portrait-Young-Harriet-Tubman

The first time I learned about Harriet Tubman I was stunned by her story. She was born a slave as were her mother, father and siblings. Her father eventually earned his freedom but was unable to free his children. Over time he bought his own wife when she had grown old and confused and was of little use to her master but many of his children still languished as property.

Harriet was originally known as Minty. She married a free man but still had to live on the plantation of her owner. Nonetheless she dreamed of freedom and hoped to one day join her husband as a free woman and start a family. She watched helplessly as her sisters were sold and sent to some unknown place. She suffered under the yoke of slavery and finally reached a point of preferring to die rather than remain enslaved. Somehow she managed to travel over a hundred miles all alone to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where she finally lived as a free woman and chose her own name of Harriet.

Most people would have simply enjoyed their good fortune and lived happily ever after without chains and the whims of slave masters but Harriet was not happy knowing that her husband still lived so far away and that the members of her family were suffering. She decided to return to the place of her captivity risking her very life to be reunited with her husband and bring him north with her.

What she found was that he had married again when he thought that she had died. He was unwilling to leave his new wife who was with child. Harriet soon found that her brothers were about to be sold and so she decided to help them escape just as she had. Others joined her in the journey north which was hazardous but ultimately successful.

Over time Harriet worked with the Underground Railroad returning south again and again to free as many as seventy slaves. During the Civil War she served as a spy for the Union Army and even became involved in combat. She is credited with freeing another seven hundred slaves during that conflict.

In spite of risking her own freedom Harriet was passionate about helping others who lived in bondage. She understood what might happen to her if she were caught but she nonetheless felt compelled to fight for others who were still suffering under the chains of slavery.

Harriet Tubman is indeed one of the most courageous women in the history of the world. I cannot even imagine the kind of bravery that it took for her to accomplish as much as she did. She was a fearless warrior for justice and I think she should be honored as much as historical giants like Abraham Lincoln. I seriously can’t think of another woman in the story of our country who compares to her.

Now there is a wonderful movie about this amazing woman. Harriet is a beautifully crafted film that tells her inspiring story with a cast of actors who seem to be passionate about their roles. It is one of those films that I recommend to everyone, young and old alike. It is also one that I will probably watch again and again because its story is one of faith and grit and honesty. I can’t think of when I have been so moved by a movie, and knowing that it is true makes it even more wonderful.

I once visited a landmark in Memphis, Tennessee that had been part of the Underground Railroad. The guide told us how the slaves developed a way of communicating through their songs and with quilts that alerted them to which locations were safe. There was a whole world of intrigue that helped thousands of slaves find the freedom that they so deserved. It both a tragic and touching story of the human spirit and all people’s desire to live free.

The holiday season is upon us and people will be going to movie theaters for the annual round of family entertainment. I know that there will be cute little films reprising the Frozen story and even action and adventure movies, but I can’t think of a better way to spend time with the family than watching Harriet together. It is a story that has been longing to be told and everyone needs to see it.