A Piece of My Heart Stays In San Francisco

SFR_599_original

It’s easy to understand why Tony Bennet left his heart in San Francisco. It is one of those cities that never grows old for me. I return again and again to find that I am still enchanted with its beauty. I can’t imagine getting tired of looking into the bay or crossing over the Golden Gate Bridge. I am delighted by the undulating hills of the streets that are adorned with the most delightful houses. It is a city comparable to London, Paris or Rome in my mind, and it is only a short plane ride away from my home town of Houston. Periodically I get the itch to return, and luckily I enjoyed the opportunity to be there a week or so ago.

The nice thing about my actual destination of Sacramento is that it is really close to lots of great places most of which I was able to visit in between my grandson’s races. I was actually a bit disappointed to learn that next year’s Junior Olympics will be held in a different locale because Sacramento was just perfect in every possible way.

Our brief sojourn in San Francisco was made even shorter by a massive traffic jam that we encountered on the way to the city. Our two hour drive time was almost doubled by some kind of difficulty that we never actually saw. As far as we knew it occurred just because so many people were traveling to the city by the bay on a beautiful Friday afternoon. Whatever the reason we ultimately reached the outskirts and were directed by Siri to travel in an unusual direction that gave us the opportunity to see the bay from the viewpoint of an industrial port. It was a great reminder of how and why San Francisco developed over time and it also happened to be quite interesting.

Eventually we circled around to a high end area on the Sausalito side of the Golden Gate Bridge. There were lovely homes nestled in the hills and exclusive shops that spoke of a clientele with excellent incomes. The traffic on the bridge was moving freely but fog covered the structure even though it was an almost cloudless day. The usual gorgeous view was obstructed, but there was nonetheless something quite appropriate about seeing it in this different way. I had always heard about San Francisco fog but never seen it in any of my former visits.

We were specifically searching for the Rothy’s shoe store in downtown so that we might purchase a particular pair of pumps for our daughter who has become a big fan of the trendy flats made from recycled plastic water bottles. The style she wanted is only available in the store, so we knew that she would be quite excited to receive them. We got a cook’s tour of the city as we turned here and then there to reach the tiny shop that was jam packed with excited women trying on their favorite colors and styles. I was able to bypass all of the commotion because I knew exactly what I wanted and luckily they had what I needed in stock. The very accommodating sales lady gave me a wonderful canvas bag to carry my purchase and I was soon waving Mike down as he circled the street again and again.

I had heard vicious rumors about San Francisco streets littered with homeless people and human feces. I saw nothing like that as we drove from one end of town to the other. In fact everything was impeccably clean and all of the residents and tourists seemed to be having a great time. There were smiles all around.

Of course a brief look at real estate prices showed me that few people can actually afford to live in San Francisco. The only home that I found that would cost the same as my house was a six hundred fifty square foot studio. It’s difficult to imagine how much someone must make to afford the luxury of living in that grand city.

We continued our drive down memory lane by traveling over the bridge into Oakland and finally into Berkeley. I saw something there that was both dismaying and at the same time rather nice. A kind of homeless tent city had been set up near a park. There was a sign indicating that a concerned group was managing the care of the people who lived inside the cloth structures that were neatly lighted up in rows. Someone had installed solar panels to create electricity and there was a Porta-potty for the use of the homeless souls.

A few of the people were sitting at a table playing dominoes and all in all it appeared to be a safer and cleaner alternative to the homeless encampments that I have seen across America. Since few of those who are homeless like the idea of being confined in shelters with lots of rules this solution was a rather ingenious one, something that we might immolate everywhere. Because so many of the people in these conditions are either suffering from some kind of addiction or a severe mental illness they need to be actively monitored while at the same time granting them the dignity of freedom. I mentally applauded the group that had taken the initiative to help in small but powerful ways.

We ended our excursion with a visit to Rudy’s Can’t Fail Cafe in Emmeryville where we enjoyed burgers and onion rings. We were happy to see Pixar flourishing across the street and marveled at all of the improvements in the once downtrodden area. What had at one time been an almost abandoned industrial disaster is now looking modern and upbeat.

I was quite happy to be able to visit San Francisco before returning to Houston. I hope that I will be able to see it again and again. There is something magical about it that soothes my soul. A piece of my heart always stays there even if I will never call it home.

Our Unique Selves

the-danger-of-uniqueness-1058x426People are fascinating to me, and I don’t just mean the rich, the famous or the accomplished. I am interested in the common everyday person like myself. I long to hear people’s stories. When I go to Walmart I’m not looking for crazies so that I might laugh. Instead I find myself wondering how each person got to this moment in time and what his/her past and future may be. I understand that some of the most compelling histories are found in the lives of the most ordinary people and that it is virtually impossible to judge a book by its cover.

I knew a woman who cleaned houses for a living. She rarely wore anything other than torn jeans and stained t-shirts. Her hair was long and stringy. She appeared to be little more than a good ole Pasadena gal, but upon further research I learned that she had an MBA from Harvard and a very successful business caring for homes in River Oaks.

I once had a student who appeared to be little more than an arrogant bad boy who drove his teachers to the brink of insanity. He befriended me and ultimately told me stories that made me cry when I was alone in my home. He had a single mom who struggled to keep the family from being homeless and wandering the streets. Life was as tough as it gets, and yet this young man found the time to attend church with a friend. The services provided him with solace in a world that was mostly cruel to him. He had been born again and wanted more than anything to be a good and Christlike person. He confessed to me about something that was bearing down on his conscience and desperately wanted to know what to do.

He and his mom and sister had been on the verge of being evicted. There was no food in the house. Things looked quite grim. They walked to a nearby Walmart to see what groceries they might afford with the few dollars that his mother had left. While they were perusing the aisles the boy’s mom noticed a cart with an expensive purse sitting in the child seat. The woman who owned the handbag was far away with her back turned as she searched for a particular product. Her bulging wallet was visible and just begging to be taken. My student’s parent grabbed the billfold and whispered for her children to follow her quickly away from the scene. When the coast was clear she opened the wallet to find over five hundred dollars inside. She immediately cried tears of joy and told her children that they would be able to keep their apartment and eat well on that day.

My student, her son, was conflicted. He knew his mother to be a good and honest woman but she was desperate. He also realized from his recent religious conversion that what his mom was doing was very wrong, and yet he remained guiltily silent. The theft bore down on his mind and he was not sure what he should do. His dilemma easily explained his surly behavior and the fact that he was unable to focus on his school work. It would have been easy to simply write him off, but in hearing his story I understood the depth of his morality and the pain that worrying about his mom had wrought.

People are always so much more than they seem, but we don’t often hear their entire stories. That is where my most passionate interest lies. I truly enjoy discovering the essence of the people that I meet and I suppose that I have always been that way. My mother used to chide me for staring at strangers. I certainly meant nothing by doing that. I simply wanted to know them better. I liked to read faces and body language. I desired to know why someone was angry for no apparent reason. I realized that we are who we are because of a totality of experiences.

I think that it would be quite wonderful just to sit across from someone and say, “Tell me all about your life. I want to know what it has been like for you.” I suspect that if I were to do so I would find out that almost everyone begins with similar hopes and dreams, but the serpentine nature of reality often sends him/her along routes that challenge and sometimes even defeat. Those people who seem ridiculously strange are more often than not just victims of situations over which they have lost control.

Fighting one’s way out of poverty or abusive situations is much more difficult than it may appear. The sad truth is that we are not all equal in terms of intelligence. I have encountered so many individuals with major learning disabilities who struggle mightily to learn. Others are afflicted with mental illnesses that stalk them so often that they are unable to create routines for working and achieving success. Then there are those with major health problems. The list of reasons why some people remain in a state of economic or psychological distress are quite real and often not of the individual’s making. As a society it is up to those of us fortunate enough to lead relatively stable lives to help those who are less able but we don’t always do that. We instead look the other way or poke fun at those who are different.

I’ve also known people who are far more remarkable than they are willing to let on. They tend to be quite humble individuals who rarely toot their own horns. Sometimes it is only when they have died that we really begin to know them through the eyes of the people whose lives they impacted. As stories of their generosity, contributions and talents are shared we realize that a saint or a rock star was hiding in plain site, but we had no idea because they would never have sought recognition for their incredible deeds. My cousin who passed away just before Thanksgiving was one of those souls. All of us were stunned to hear of the innumerable kindnesses to one person after another that he displayed all very quietly. We knew he was a good man, but never quite realized the extent of his largess.

Most people have a hobby of some sort, but mine is learning about others. I would love nothing better than to make appointments everyday to just listen to the folks with whom I have been acquainted and those that I have yet to meet. I can only imagine how many wonderful things I would learn. This world really turns from day to day not so much from the movers and shakers but from the millions of nameless individuals who rise with the sun and do their best to make the most of the cards that have been dealt them. It is in their stories that we find profound truth and maybe even inspiration. We need to hear from them because each person is a beautiful and unique gift to our world who deserves to be celebrated and understood.

The Content of Our Hearts

tenn_fireWhen my daughters were still children our family traveled to Smoky Mountain National Park. I have to admit that we didn’t find it to be as breathtaking as the Rocky Mountains or other scenic destinations that we have visited and yet there was something almost primally inviting about the place. I found myself wondering if the wilderness that I saw on our hikes resembled the world of my grandfather. He had grown up in the shadow of the area before the dawn of the twentieth century, describing his boyhood home as being quite primitive but lovely beyond the limits of words. He spoke of seeing the mountains in the distance and longing to travel there. Eventually he made it like we did and he thought them to be as enchanting as he had imagined.

I’ve been quite sad to hear of the destruction in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, two towns that have struggled economically over the years but found a way to survive by catering to the tourists who have been flocking to the mountains for decades. Most of the businesses in those places are owned by local residents who operate candy stores, eateries and ice cream emporiums as a way of earning a living. There are hotels, mini golf courses and amusements for virtually every taste. I admittedly found the place to be a bit over the top and didn’t want to stay long but I know people who visit every single year and are absolutely convinced that it is a kind of heaven on earth. I tend to prefer natural beauty to manmade sights and sadly the raging wildfires are destroying both human structures and ancient forests.

The photos coming from that location are heartbreaking. Some of the townspeople are calling it Armageddon. Having a rather primitive fear of fire makes me especially sympathetic to those who have lost their homes, businesses and possessions, not to mention the unfortunate souls who have died. Today I looked at photos of exhausted firefighters literally collapsing onto the pavement after hours of fighting desperately to control the blaze. The look of defeat on their faces said more than any descriptions of what is happening there.

One of my aunts lost her home in a fire a few years back. She was happily decorating her yard for Christmas when she saw flames coming from her roof. She did her best to save a few treasures but the burning accelerated even before the firefighters arrived. Her house with everything in it burned to the ground, so many memories gone forever. She has never really moved on from the tragedy of losing so much of what she had accumulated over a lifetime. All of her home movies melted into celluloid balls. The family Bible that had been handed down for generations was a heap of ash. Nothing was spared but her life and that of her husband.

They moved to a senior living facility where they have found a semblance of peace but there has been a sadness about her that was never before there. She was ninety years old when it happened, far too old to think of starting over again. She is, of course, happy to still be alive and she realizes better than anyone that everything that burned was nothing compared to a human life and yet in each of our homes there are priceless items that we enjoy and that seem to define us in some ways.

I recall learning in English class that we have the power to “love” people but we should only “like” things. It is an important distinction that we should all observe because in the long history of humanity there have been many instances in which people lost everything but the clothes on their backs. They had to begin anew, start fresh. I think of the victims of the Holocaust whose very humanity was threatened for a time. I consider the citizens of New Orleans whose homes were swept away by punishing waters. I wonder how it must have felt to watch the tsunami instantly destroying a modern city in Japan. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, wars have stolen the humble belongings of countless people and time and again they have risen like phoenixes. It is in our human DNA to pick ourselves up and try again.

Still such events leave a scar on those who must endure them. I know people from New Orleans who lost their homes to hurricane Katrina. They become fearful when heavy rains pour from the sky. My daughter won’t light a candle in her house because she was once the victim of a fire started by an unattended candle in the apartment building where she lived. Just as I shutter when I hear of car accidents because such an event caused my father’s death, so too do those who have had horrific experiences relive them in certain circumstances.

My heart is heavy for the people who have had to flee their homes in the Smokey Mountains. It will be decades before the lovely beauty that they have enjoyed returns. Nature will eventually come back to life and they may rebuild but the precious sense of security that they may have felt is gone for a time, if it ever even returns.

I look around the home that I so enjoy and think of how horrible it would be to suddenly lose it. I remember a time when a priest asked us to imagine how we might feel if every thing that we owned were taken away and we were left standing naked but with our family and friends intact. He urged us to look into our hearts and decide what is truly important, hinting that what we own is never where our focus should be.

In this season of Christmas we should think of the young couple who traveled to Bethlehem so long ago, staying in a cold manger on the night of their child’s birth. Their earthly possessions were few and yet they had brought a savior into the world whose influence would live right into our present century. He would teach us that there is nothing that we ever do that is as important as loving ourselves and our neighbors. It is a difficult command that we do not always follow as well as we might. We become distracted by the pursuit of wealth, power and things that in the end turn to dust. It is only in how we truly live according to God’s word that we find the peace and contentment that we seek.

We should all look within especially when we see the constant reminders of how fragile our lives are. As terrible as those fires are they should send the message that what truly matters is the content of our hearts.

Home

Adoption-Home-StudyI’ve spent most of the summer away from home. I was a nanny-godmother to my godson and his brother in Boston, provided my granddaughter with a place to crash during her film camp in Austin, took a five thousand mile round trip to San Diego and back, and served as a dog sitter in San Antonio. From May until today I have only slept in my own bed for a little under three of the last nine weeks. My travels have been great fun but I almost feel like a stranger in my own house. It is amazing how many changes have occurred in the neighborhood in my absence. I have grown unaccustomed to the lights and the sounds that must surely have been there all along but which now feel so different. It seems that I will have to reacquaint myself with my surroundings before I wander off again in September. 

My father and his father were filled with wanderlust. They both moved around so much that it was often difficult to keep track of where they were. My grandfather boasted that he had lived and worked in all but a few of the contiguous states. I suspect that this explains why he doesn’t show up in a single census until he is almost fifty years old. My father had taken us on a cross country adventure just before he died. We were slated to settle down for a time but the evidence indicated that our sojourn would in all likelihood have been brief. In the eleven years that he and my mother were married they had lived in nine different houses and had traveled to dozens and dozens of states. They were on the verge of choosing home number ten when he died. Life with my daddy was definitely a moveable feast.

My mother was more settled. Her father built a home and stayed there for the totality of his adult life in this country. She selected a modest place for us after she became a widow and stayed there until we were all grown. She only moved once more when the neighborhood became a venue for rampant crime. After numerous robberies at her home she agreed that it was time to find a safer location in which to reside. She stayed in the next house long enough to pay for it in full just as her father had done with his homestead.

I am a mixture of my mom and dad. Part of me hears the siren call of adventure and the other worries that moving around too much leads to a dangerous instability, even if it is only the temporary movement of a trip. I cling to security but desire excitement. I have the urge to toss caution to the wind and follow the open road but then a sense of responsibility always pulls me back. Mostly though I think of how fortunate I am to have a home base and the means to travel when the urge overtakes me. In my journeys I have seen firsthand so many individuals without a home or a means of conveyance. They are modern day hunter gatherers moving along the streets and highways attempting to find scraps of existence from day to day and place to place. I have taught the children of such people whose situations were so dire that my heart nearly bursts even as I think of them today.

During the early years of teaching I encountered children in disturbing circumstances. One beautiful little girl lived with her family in a car. Her bed at night was the trunk. She was a pleasant child who smiled almost beatifically when expressing her gratitude that she was able to attend school each day and that she was not forced to sleep on the ground. She marveled at her parents’ ingenuity in caring for the family and boasted of the generosity of the owners of a funeral home who allowed them to park behind the business. She brought me lovely bouquets of flowers every single day from the dumpster refuse that she carefully culled. She enjoyed the free breakfast and lunch provided by the school but was still so reed thin that I suspected that her dinners were quite lacking. I often wonder what ultimately became of her. I hope that she is doing well and that she finally has a home to call her own.

Later I taught a little boy who was a handful. His behavior was akin to a wild child who had been raised by wolves. I struggled to keep his attention and wondered what made him so difficult. He eventually revealed that he and his mother were living in the garage of friends. They each had a twin mattress set on the concrete floor in between the lawn mowers and hardware that usually resides in such a place. They used a tiny propane stove to prepare meals and their hosts were kind enough to allow them to enter their home to bathe and relieve themselves. Unlike the optimistic child who had so inspired me with her homeless tale, this young man was angry at the world. At the age of nine he was already cynical and filled with hate. He wanted to find his father and beat him to a pulp for leaving them. He was embarrassed by his mother who seemed incapable of finding a job and earning the money needed to get a real place. He brought his rage into the classroom and once I realized what was fueling it I began to feel his pain. Eventually he and I achieved a separate peace as we spoke of the losses that we had both experienced. We somehow understood and respected one another. I convinced him that education would provide him with a way out of his horror. I hope that he made it and knows how much I cared.

We tend to take our homes for granted whether they be mansions in River Oaks or double wide trailers on Griggs Road, owned or rented. We have roofs over our heads at night and places to cook our food. We don’t often think about the people living under freeway overpasses or crouching behind dumpsters. We barely notice them during the day and they become almost invisible at night. Many of them are alcoholics, drug addicts or mentally ill. Some of them are simply experiencing temporary periods of bad luck.

Here in my hometown of Houston thousands of people have lost their jobs in the oil industry. Many have been searching for work for over a year. Those who have support systems to go along with their unemployment checks have hung on but their feelings of desperation intensify with each passing week. Those who have alternate skills have found part time jobs to make ends meet but just barely. Some have hit a wall and have nowhere to turn. They are one bad experience from being evicted with no place to go and no one on whom to rely. They are terrified of the future. This is how homelessness sometimes begins.

After my father died my mother reminded us every single day of how fortunate we were to have a decent and secure place to live. When the rain pounded on our roof she smiled knowing that we would be dry. Our house was small and often riddled with problems that needed repair. It was hot in the summer because there was no air conditioning but it was ours and there was little chance that we would somehow lose it.

Today I live in a comfortable suburban neighborhood in a house filled with memories of friendship and love. It is where I return again and again. It has been a source of comfort in difficult times and a retreat from the stresses of work. I don’t often appreciate it as much as I should. I sometimes forget that it is one of the great blessings of my good fortune. I must remember to be thankful when the winds are blowing and I am safe and warm. Because of the grace of God I am home.