We’re Going To Make It After All

main-qimg-cfcd2be4553501573abe06c5ab52df53-c

I’m slowly remembering how to sleep again. I had just begun to totally relax after my husband’s stroke when the big Houston flood came along. I don’t think that I have dozed for more than five or six hours for at least a week. Getting back to normal is going to be difficult. We have all changed just a bit, but thankfully I believe that it is for the better.

Yesterday I went on errands for the first time since last Friday. Everyone was so nice and cheerful you would have thought that it was Christmas time. Employees welcomed us to the stores with big smiles and hearty greetings. Strangers were asking each other how they had done in the storm. It was almost like living in a tiny town rather than the fourth largest city in the United States. Most of the people were purchasing items to donate to those who had been affected by the flooding. They had their carts piled high with personal care items, food, cleaning products, water and school supplies. I had a difficult time finding pencils because we all had the same thought that we needed to replace the items that kids will need when schools open once again.

The day was absolutely gorgeous and so we ventured across town to visit with my father-in-law who had been on pins and needles with concern for all of his family. He was surprised and delighted to see us, and we had fun exchanging war stories for a couple of hours. He had done quite well even though the rain had been furious. He lives in what is no doubt the highest neighborhood in the city, so if he had flooded it would have been Armageddon. Still he spoke of a couple of moments when the water in his street was raging like a river, something that he had never before seen. Luckily there were enough breaks in the deluge to allow the rain to drain in between the downpours. Ultimately his home was never threatened.

Our conversations were accompanied by the sound of helicopters flying overhead, an experience that has become sadly commonplace. We’ve seen Blackhawks and Chinooks and every possible variety for several days now. For the most part we ignored the implications of what those choppers meant even though in the back of our minds we prayed for the souls who were onboard. We joked that we each want one along with a landing pad on the roof for Christmas, or at least a flat bottom boat with a set of life jackets. It’s crazy how humor helped us to relax.

Our homeward route took us through the heart of downtown Houston which seemed almost like a ghost town or a set for The Walking Dead. Now and again we saw crews pumping water from underground parking garages, and there were a few hearty souls walking along the mostly deserted streets. I saw a homeless people here and there sunning themselves and wondered what they had done during the storm. I marvel at how resilient they are and don’t think that I would fare nearly as well. I hope that they are not overlooked when relief is being provided for the citizens.

The official word yesterday was that Houston ISD students will not begin school until September 11, a somewhat meaningful date for all of us. It is not certain what other districts will decide to do, but it is clear that both teachers and students will need to ease into the process. Everyone is rattled whether they had damage to their homes or not. It will take some time for a sense of security and normalcy to return. I also believe that school districts will have to think out of the box to fulfill their needs. I’d like to see them hire more counselors and keep classes smaller perhaps by using retired teachers to work a couple of hours a day to ease some of the burdens. Maybe they even need to consider getting waivers to have shorter school days, at least during the first semester when everyone is still so stressed.

Everyone who does not have to repair his/her home wants so desperately to volunteer to help someone else. Offers of aid are flooding into the city. It is nice to realize that we humans are still quite nice in spite of recent indications to the contrary. We have been fed a steady diet of stories of terrorists, white supremacists, and hatefulness between opposing viewpoints for too long of late. It’s nice to hear of people intent on being kind and generous rather than fighting with one another. I sure wish that the attitudes that are apparent all around in Houston right now would infect the rest of the country like a virus. We desperately need to come together with a unified goal. The invective that has become so commonplace needs to go the way of Harvey.

I don’t want to rush things, but it feels as though Houstonians will eventually come out of this disaster even stronger than we presently are, as long as armchair quarterbacks don’t over analyze what has happened here. Just as teenagers don’t like nagging from their parents, we citizens of Houston are rather frayed and really don’t need critiques. We’ve done our best and prefer that people just leave it at that. Later we might analyze levees and drainage systems and routes for evacuations with an eye to improving them. For now we just need to survive.

I love that so many things are settling down in ways that might seem insignificant to some, but are major to me. I saw RVs returning home from wherever they had taken refuge. It was good to see people with enough confidence to come back again. A neighbor mowed his lawn yesterday, a rather mundane act but one that made me smile from ear to ear. We have to do all of these little things to feel good again. Bit by bit, step by step I think we are going to make it, and hopefully we will have learned much to guide us in the future. 

Advertisements

Stubby

20621877_10214162618681608_1562985905440264416_n

Who knew that a tiny gecko was capable of bringing so much joy? No, I’m not speaking of the Geico gecko even though he is a rather dashing fellow. I am referring to a resident of our backyard whom we have named Stubby.

Stubby lives underneath a potted hibiscus plant that sits on top of two bricks on our patio. We first noticed him several weeks ago when he found the confidence to come out from the safely of his abode to sun himself while we ate dinner. Part of his tail was missing and not even the passage of time has remedied his affliction like we thought it might. He’s a rather ordinary fellow all in all but he has a charisma that draws our attention to his antics. Since we eat outside most evenings we now look for him, and so far he has not failed to greet us.

He is quite fond of entertaining us by climbing onto the seat of a wrought iron chair near his domicile. Once he reaches his perch he celebrates by puffing up his mouth until it reveals a brilliant red color. He’s a bit of a show off but that’s actually what makes him so much fun to observe. He’s quite a character with a penchant for being a star. We’ve noticed a number of tiny offspring wandering not too far from him and wonder if he is their proud father.

I suppose that it may sound a bit sad or even crazy that we derive so much joy from Stubby, but our interest is easily explained. We’ve had quite a round of trauma of late. We’ve had to change our lifestyles as well as our outlooks. We’ve come to appreciate the blessings that we have, and one of them is having a remarkable creature like Stubby right in our own backyard. We are actually quite happy that he has so graciously accepted our hospitality. I suppose that his antics are one way that he demonstrates his gratitude for our largesse.

I worried a bit about Stubby when our grand dog Cooper came to visit recently. I didn’t know if the little pup would chase or harm our resident gecko. Luckily Cooper is a bit overweight and as a result slow on his feet. If he even noticed Stubby he didn’t let on. Instead he ran straight for the fence where our neighbors’ dog greeted him with a bark. He proceeded to mark his territory and let out a warning salvo. After that he simply went in that direction every time we let him out just to see what was happening next door.

Cooper is quite fun in spite of his lack of athleticism. He is a very polite and laid back dog so he doesn’t perform any daring feats like Stubby, but he has the warm heart of a lover. He likes to sit next to my husband Mike and only requires a little scratch or two now and again for thanks. I suspect that he is still pining a bit for his brother dog Shane who recently crossed the Rainbow Bridge. We try to be very accommodating to Cooper’s every need in this difficult time for him. Mostly he’s willing to placate us as long as we feed him at the correct time.

It is little wonder that even soldiers with PTSD are often advised to get a service dog for companionship. Pets have a way of diffusing stress in the most amazing ways. They make us laugh and fascinate us so well that we forget the cares and woes that may be demanding our attention. They are actually as good at making us feel better as a cocktail of psychotropic drugs. I don’t advocate eliminating medications in favor of a pet, but I think that adding them to the pharmaceutical mix is a powerful antidote to anxiety and sadness. I know that it works quite well for me just to allow myself to be almost hypnotized by the things that they do so well.

Birds also have an incredible capacity to  bring us peace of mind. We have a single hummingbird that flits from one side of the yard to another. His speed is so remarkable that sometimes it’s difficult to keep up with him. I never fail to smile when I see this wonderful creature, but my favorite among the feathered friends is a dove who perches on our roof and sometimes dares to get rather close to us as he balances on the rim of our fountain preening himself and partaking of a drink. I like hearing his cooing which is as soft and comforting as a lullaby. He has a mate that has been absent of late. I wonder if she has been busy nesting or raising her young. I long for her return because the two of them are so much more magnificent together. I hope that she has not run afoul of some terrible injury, but for now I have no way of knowing what has happened to her.

We’ve got a rather impressive colony of bumblebees in our yard contrary to the thinking that they are almost extinct. I managed to step on one a while back and learned that I am allergic to its venom. I got quite dizzy and my tongue began to swell. Sadly I suspect that my attacker didn’t do so well either. I felt guilty for walking around without shoes and causing the demise of a worker who was only doing the job that came naturally. Now I am more careful as I stroll through the grass. I know that the lovely flowers that adorn my garden are enhanced by the bees who spread pollen even as they enjoy the nectar.

I’ve often thought that I might have enjoyed a lifetime of interacting with animals. ( I can hear my teaching colleagues laughing as they think that maybe I did work on an animal farm now and again. Of course I’m just kidding.)  Nature’s creatures can be so very interesting and I think they actually teach us a bit about ourselves. They remind us to enjoy the beauty and variety of the natural world. They demonstrate how much bounty is to be found in the plants, the trees, the sun and the rain that we all too often take for granted and don’t even notice. They invite us to slow down and live a bit in the moment so that the scales that are blinding us from seeing our blessings fall from our eyes.

I know that Stubby will one day reach the end of his days on our patio. I’ll be a bit sad when he no longer joins us for dinner. He’s helped me to deal with situations that are so difficult with a much bigger smile on my face than might otherwise not have been there. He’s adorable and I’d like to believe that he likes us as much as we like him. Of course I understand his anatomy and realize that he does not have the capacity for such feelings, but I guess that if a gecko can become a television celebrity, so too is it reasonable to think that maybe just maybe Stubby knows that he is bringing us happiness. Either way I’m just glad that he is here right now. He’s the right guy in the right place at the right time.

The Playlist

hqdefaultWhat if you attempted to create a playlist for your life. What songs would be there? Would the collection describe you or would it be composed of music designed to motivate and inspire you? How would the selections actually apply to the person that you are? I decided to attempt such a project and it was a bit more difficult than I at first imagined. There is so much music that I love just for the pure fun of listening to it. Finding songs that really speak to who I am, who I have been and who I want to be is a bit more difficult.

While I am a big planner I have found that life is full of surprises, many of which seem intent upon challenging us in ways that sometimes seem insurmountable and even unfair. The kinds of traumatic things have have happened to me made my first choice of music to be You Can’t Always Get What You Want by the Rolling Stones. The most important idea in the lyrics has always been one of my mantras, namely that while I may not always get the things that I think I should, sometimes I get exactly what I need. As Garth Brooks so beautifully reminds us in Unanswered Prayers we sometimes fail to realize that a plan even better than the one that we have imagined is unfolding even as we struggle to free ourselves from pain. It is in our darkest hours that we often come to realize what that we are made of sterner stuff than we may have thought or as Kelly Clarkson notes in Stronger what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

I wouldn’t wish some of the tragedies that have befallen me on anyone, not even myself, but they happened and I only had two choices when facing them. I might either have just given up and let them defeat me or I might have attempted to find a way to carry on. Each time I somehow embraced the will and the courage to keep going, usually With At Little Help From My Friends as the Beatles say. Like Learning to Fly by Tom Petty I took a leap of faith in myself and dared to do things that I never imagined, often because I was forced by fate to do so. I generally emerged from such experiences feeling pretty good about myself, even a bit proud. I was actually a better person for having to stare into the darkness and defeat it. I feel that I have become a warrior over the years and so another of my theme songs should be Roar by Katy Perry. “I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter dancing through the fire.” The Mother of Dragons has nothing on me!

I suppose that the key to my victories over difficulties has been my unswerving faith that somehow, some way I will always overcome my problems or at least learn how to make the changes needed to deal with them. I’ve always loved Don’t Stop Believin by Journey because my mantra has always been to keep on trucking regardless of how dire a situation seemed. The crazy thing is that I have seen and endured great suffering but because I truly believed that I was never alone I tended to Always Look On the Bright Side of Life just as the guys from Monty Python. That tune has always made me laugh even when things looked rather grim. In fact, I suppose that without humor, sometimes of a very dark nature, I doubt that I would have made it this far. A good chuckle can make a difference in even the dreariest of days and I so love being around beings who know how to help me to release my feelings with a good old fashioned joke, especially when that bit of comedy pokes fun at me and my worries.

I truly learned from each of the happenings that almost seemed unbearable at the time. I became wiser and more compassionate. I realized how much spunk I actually had and my confidence soared. I have always loved I Can See Clearly Now by Johnny Nash because it encapsulates my evolution from being a more self centered, silly and frightened child to becoming someone who manages to feel brave most of the time and to understand that everyone is burdened with struggles. I know now that I am not unique in my cares and woes. It is part of the uncertainty of living. One thing of which I am certain is that eventually things always get better which makes my next song one of great hope. Here Comes the Sun by the Beatles makes me smile and lifts the weight from my heart each time I hear its lilting optimism. Ironically another Beatle’s composition is also one that brings a smile to my face every single time that it is played, particularly as I grow older. Good Day Sunshine reminds me to be grateful for the blessings that I have and to see the good in the world rather than focusing on the many hardships that still plague all of us. I consciously choose to be Happy and so I dance away when I listen to Pharrell Williams’ tribute to feeling lighthearted. 

The world is still so imperfect and there are serious issues that are cause for concern, but I am still convinced that in the end we humans will choose good over evil. I tend to agree with Sting in his lovely creation Russians that people of all societies love their children just as we do. As such they will ultimately strive to build a future that will be better for all of us. We just have to Imagine as John Lennon says and continue to look for leaders and ideas that take us into a more perfect version of life. We might begin by reflecting on ourselves and asking what we may each do to help eliminate injustice and hatefulness. Man in the Mirror by Michael Jackson should be an anthem for everyone. We should start each morning by repeating, “I’m starting with the man in the mirror. I’m asking him to change his ways.” It is only in attempting to perfect ourselves that we will truly impact the rest of humanity.

Ultimately I see the beauty of life. Like the Beatles’ In My Life I have seen so much love that I truly feel that it will be the power that transforms us. I would like to think that the most optimistic song that I know becomes a reality for mankind. When Louis Armstrong sang What A Wonderful World I don’t think that he realized what hope it would give us. Listening to its strains and stanzas describe all that is lovely and wonderful reminds me to look for the beauty that is everywhere. My hope is that others will find that moment of contentment that I seem to encounter more and more often as I look back on a life of which I am proud. I Hope You Dance just as I now do. There is great joy in the most unexpected places if only we learn how to look for it. If we are lucky we find also the most Amazing Grace which is ultimately the greatest gift of all.

The Very Best Way

Image-credit-Aldo-Tapia-A.-via-Photopin-CC

There are so many things in life over which we have little or no control. Rain may ruin the outdoor party that we planned. A loved one may die leaving us feeling alone and bereft. We may not get the job that we so wanted to land. The candidate that we worked so hard to get elected loses. Someone we thought was a friend betrays us. We may be diagnosed with a life threatening disease. A criminal steals from us or even worse murders someone about whom we care.

Each of us will face terrible moments throughout our lifetimes that have the potential to leave us feeling devastated and powerless. We will find ourselves wanting to whine or cry or rage about our bad luck, but the truth is that we are not alone in facing great challenges. It is part of the human journey to encounter difficulties. It is our reaction to such things that determines how we will feel about ourselves and the people around us. If our only thoughts are of anger or self pity we may be continually whining that life is unfair. If on the other hand we accept that everyone faces disappointments, we might instead think less about our misfortune and more about what we might do to deal with the realities of the situations.

Last fall I learned that one of my favorite cousins was dying. He had battled heart disease for decades and had tried multiple medications, surgeries and life style changes. His doctors told him that he had run out of options. His heart was failing and there was nothing anyone might do to change that reality. He was sent home to spend his final days. Amazingly whenever I spoke with him he kept his ever present sense of humor and made me laugh in spite of wanting to cry for him. He spent his last days saying his goodbyes to the people that he most loved. He prepared for his passing in every possible way, and made it clear that he was ready for what was to come.

I always loved my cousin. We had shared our childhood together and had so many stories of the fun times that we had experienced. I knew that he was a very special person, but I found myself nonetheless in awe of his faith and the way in which he so unselfishly gave so many of us the gift of peace and comfort. He had taken what might have been a horrific time and somehow transformed it into something beautiful and inspiring. In the process he had actually seized control of his life rather than allowing his circumstances to dictate his reactions.

My own life has been disrupted on so many occasions. Losing my father was life changing, but my mother demonstrated so much courage and determination to keep our family safe that I was able to keep moving forward with a sense of security. Later when she was overtaken by bipolar disorder I was  given a role that I did not want. I was put in charge of her care by default. I made a number of mistakes, but ultimately learned how to get her the help that she needed and how to monitor her progress. It was neither fun nor easy to spend four decades watching her go up and down again and again, but I knew that I would always be able to get her back on the right track if I did what I had to do. Eventually my brothers joined me in keeping her as healthy as possible. As a result our memories of our mother are filled with far more happiness than sorrow. We found a sense of accomplishment in knowing that we never let her down.

Now I’m faced with a new challenge. My husband had a stroke that was quite serious. My first instinct was to cry and feel quite sorry for myself, but ultimately I understood that the only aspect of the situation that I might control is my own attitude. I’m doing whatever I can to encourage him to adopt a healthier lifestyle, and I’m determined to enjoy each minute of each day. I’ve quickly learned that true joy comes from within myself, and I am finding ways to bring it into the open in the very simplest of ways.

We all get those terrible blows that seem to be so unfair, and it is only natural for our first reactions to be negative. Sometimes it appears to us that other people have it so much easier than we do. The truth is that when we begin to learn more about others we generally find that everyone is dealing with pain, illness, problems. The people who seem to be the happiest are often that way mostly because they have chosen to smile rather than to wallow in negativity. They understand that they have choices about how to live, and they choose joy.

At the end of her life my mother had little of material consequence. She kept her life quite simple  often out of necessity. She had lost her husband at the age of thirty. She battled mental illness for decades. She was told that she had lung cancer that was too far advanced to treat. A lesser person might have felt beset upon, but she continually spoke of how blessed she had been throughout her life. She was proud of her accomplishments that included raising three children alone all of whom had advanced college degrees. She loved the members of her family and was confident that they would always stand beside her, and she was absolutely correct in that assessment. She spoke of her adventures and travels with a big smile. She felt that hers had been a full and remarkable journey. She was as satisfied and content as she might have been if she had accumulated vast amounts of power and wealth. She had all that she ever needed, because she had chosen to be the mistress of her thoughts.

I have a friend who is attempting to simplify his life. During the month of July he began to remove many of the possessions that seemed to be occupying far too much of his time and attention. Each day of the month he donated the number of items that corresponded to the date. By the end of the cycle he was scrambling to find thirty one things that he no longer needs. It was such a freeing experience that he plans to repeat the process in August and until he no longer feels as though possessions are impeding his happiness. I think that his is a delightful idea that all of us might consider, and we might also begin to apply it to our attitudes as well.

If we feel as though life is terribly unfair and that we are continually on the wrong end of luck, then maybe it’s time that we begin to change the way that we think about our situations. We need to ask ourselves what we might adjust or do to reorient ourselves. Perhaps we might begin with small steps and then slowly accelerate our efforts as time goes by until our attitudes begin to lean toward the positive exponentially. To do that we will need to be as good to ourselves as we are to the people around us. We have to be willing to extend our sphere of kindness to everyone.

It may take time for the dividends to pay off, but when we begin to see that we really do have the power to determine our own destinies everything becomes more beautiful, even in the midst of trouble. We will learn how to refocus our fears and our pain and our anger in ways that make us feel good about ourselves. We will begin to view the world from a perspective that makes us feel powerful rather than powerless. Those who have mastered this art will tell you that it is the very best way to live.

Put the Fun In Dysfunctional

Jumping with balloonsI recently attended a Hans Zimmer concert (which would be a great topic for another day) and toward the end of the event he urged all of us to find the playfulness in everything that we do. He used the performances of his musicians as examples of how that might look. It wasn’t difficult at all to see that they were working hard but also having the time of their lives. They had taken their jobs to the ultimate level of fulfillment by actually finding happiness in the very act of executing their skills.

We often fail to find the fun in the tasks that we must do. So many people are stressed by jobs that seem to be a daily drudge, or they find themselves in situations that bear down on them unremittingly. It would be so nice if each of us were able to find ways to make the best of whatever we happen to be experiencing at any given moment. All of us have known individuals who appear to be  quite adept at doing so. We sometimes confuse their upbeat personalities as being a kind of innate trait that they were simply lucky enough to possess from birth. We rarely consider that they may have consciously worked to develop playful spirits that allow them to navigate even the roughest of waters.

The Italian movie Life Is Beautiful tells the story of a Jewish father and son who become imprisoned in a concentration camp during the German occupation of Italy. The loving parent finds ways to protect his child by using humor and turning their ordeal into a kind of game. It is a moving account of survival even under the most horrific conditions, and it showcases the power of the human spirit in dealing with evil. In fact, many Holocaust survivors often speak of having found ways to laugh as a means of dealing with the daily horrors that they witnessed. Psychologists have in turn suggested that the people who willed themselves to joke and smile were far more likely to make it in such inhumane conditions. It is in our playful natures that we often find the courage that we need to overcome our most critical challenges.

The first born cousin in our family is a man imbued with optimism. He recently underwent a serious treatment for his heart. When a nurse told him that he was going to receive the anesthetic propofol he remembered that this was the substance that Michael Jackson was using as a sleep aide when he died. My cousin jokingly inquired if he would wake up from the surgery with amazing abilities to sing and dance. In other words he transformed a tense moment into one in which everyone in the room no doubt laughed and then relaxed a bit. His antics demonstrated both his confidence in the team that was operating on him and his own belief that all would go well.

I used to love the television program M.A.S.H.. It was a situation comedy featuring characters who were part of a M.A.S.H. unit in South Korea during the Korean War. The doctors and nurses were charged with the responsibility of saving the lives of soldiers under almost impossible circumstances. To keep from going insane with the pressures under which they worked, the crew turned to humor in the form of sarcasm and practical jokes thereby easing the tension. While their humor was sometimes over the top, so were their responsibilities. It was in their playfulness that they found the courage to do their duties. The show was not just based on the imagination of some writer. In fact, an uncle of mine who also served in a M.A.S.H. unit in South Korea confirmed that the behaviors portrayed in the show were indeed based on reality. In fact, he noted that many surgeons even in modern day hospitals rely on fun to keep the seriousness of what they are doing in perspective.

I know that every teachers’ lounge in which I partook of my lunch was filled with lighthearted banter and laughter. Our lunch time antics were a relaxation technique that evolved naturally from the stressful nature of our jobs. We released so much of the tension that we were experiencing with the inanity of our conversations. Lunch with my peers was an almost sacred time for renewing our collective spirits. Luckily there always seemed to be at least one soul with an especial knack for making us chuckle. I’m certain that we would not have been nearly as effective had we not been allowed to behave as playfully as our students sometimes did. Even better was when we felt confident enough to banter humorously with our students as well. I often accomplished more after my pupils and I had laughed than when I was all seriousness.

My happiest times at work were often the craziest. I recall one school where the end of school year tradition was to hold water gun and balloon fights in the hallways after the students were all gone. We behaved like the teenagers whom we had taught all year. The building was filled with joyful screams and belly laughs while we hurled balloons at each other. It was a grand celebration of our accomplishments during what had sometimes been very difficult school years. It bound us together and brought out the best in all of us.

Life can become quite unbearable at times. There are even moments when laughing and joking would not be appropriate. Still we need to allow ourselves the gift of being light hearted now and again. I actually have signs in my home to remind me not to be too somber. One urges me to live, laugh and love. Another simply tells me to laugh. Still another says, “I put the fun in dysfunctional.” I have such impish reminders all over my home. Some might see them as kitsch, but I know that they are not so subtle hints that I often need to remember to lighten up.

There is a playful spirit inside all of us. It is there to help us to keep our perspectives properly aligned. Having fun and learning how to really laugh is actually quite healthy. As the old adage says “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” It’s a platitude of which we all need to be mindful. It really does help to find the lighter side of life as often as we can. I sometimes wonder if many of the problems that we witness in today’s world are the product of being too darn serious all of the time. I fear that we have somewhat lost our societal sense of humor. Even our politicians can’t seem to take a joke in stride.

My father in law has a number of long playing albums from the sixties that are filled with hilarity. They mock the Kennedy family, the pope, and even the death penalty. Mostly they are satire that made us laugh at our human foibles. Luckily back when they were popular we all seemed to understand that they were not so much meant to hurt anyone as to point to our flaws in a very amusing way. I recommend that we all learn to laugh again or we will be doomed to buckets of tears.

Find the little bits of playfulness that abound in each and every day. It really is okay to use humor to struggle through the difficult times, and it can often be the best way to deal with our most serious problems. Smile. Be impish. Have fun. Don’t think of life as being short, nasty and brutish. Find ways to make it delightful and humane. It will make all of the difference in each of your days.