A House Divided Will Not Stand

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Most of my life has been dedicated to educating young people. Even though I am no longer in the classroom I still teach mathematics to a number of teens including my grandchildren. As an educator and mom I always felt duty bound to address both the academic and emotional needs of the young folk who are in my charge. I take my responsibility to care for them quite seriously. Most do just fine, but now and again I encounter an individual who is gravely troubled. Some of those sorts are actually scary. I sense that they are so disturbed that they are capable of outbursts that are harmful. It is difficult to reach them and so I confer with their parents who almost always admit that they are afraid of their own son or daughter. Things rarely end well with such teens and I always have a sense of defeat in such cases even though I have gone to great lengths to help.

I remember one student in particular who has always haunted me. He had been sent from one household to another from a very young age in an effort to improve his behavior. He found a measure of solace with his grandparents where he lived a quiet life on a farm. Things began to turn around for him during that time and he was calmer and happier than he had ever been. Sadly his grandmother had a heart attack and died. His grandfather felt unable to care for him alone. He was sent back to his mother who was struggling with her own emotions. He spiraled down into a state of depression and anger that resulted in violent outbursts both at home and at school. His mother and step father admitted that they were so fearful of him that they took turns sleeping lest he kill them while they slept. His mother sincerely loved her boy and wanted to help him but had no idea what to do.

It literally made me cry to think of how horrific it was to be that young man. I wondered what sickening thoughts raced through his mind. I worried less about what he might do in my classroom and more about what might ultimately become of him. He and I bonded somehow and I spent many hours in conferences with him and his mother hoping to help them both to resolve his many issues. They took my advice to find professional help but the road to the boy’s recovery was long and twisted. Even after he left my care I often thought of him and found a measure of solace in not hearing reports of his downfall or demise. I told myself that in his case no news was probably good news. I like to think  that he found his way and is living a good and loving life.

Our news feeds are littered these days with stories of violence and terrorism. In so many cases the individuals perpetrating such destruction are young men who are filled with abusive anger. They have allied themselves with groups that practice hate and vengeance against societies that they believe have somehow betrayed them. They convince one another that their heinous acts are justified. They are generally miserable loners who feel uncomfortable in normal circumstances. The demons that rage in their heads tell them that the loathing that they feel is reason enough for  killing. They do not see their victims as innocents, but rather as part of a vast horde that has abandoned them and left them to make their way alone.

If we are to deal with the issue of mass shootings it will take far more than simply enacting some legislation to curb the sale of guns or to arm and secure ourselves. We have to strive to get to the root causes of the hatred that foments instances of random killings. We have to use many different means to forestall such violence before it erupts. That will require vigilance and a willingness to provide necessary treatments and interventions for those who sit stewing on the fringes of society.

It is not difficult to identify such persons. In virtually any school or work setting or neighborhood where they reside there are observant people who know of their potential to blow a fuse at any moment. We all need to agree to alert authorities whenever we sense that something about an individual is not quite right. We can no longer afford to ignore the signs because in virtually every case of a mass shooting there have been people who worried about the perpetrators. It’s time that we take their concerns seriously. The red flags that go up in our minds must be investigated and as a society we are bound to take action before really bad things happen.

There were teachers and students and parents who complained to school administrators and law enforcement about the two young men who killed at Columbine. The mother of the shooter at the elementary school in Connecticut had told friends that she needed help dealing with her son. Many who knew the killer in the recent El Paso attack recounted instances in which he had expressed his desire to do violence on others. Somehow nothing was done in any of these cases until it was too late. Perhaps it is because we often worry more about infringing on the rights of a single individual rather than the safety of the many. Perhaps the time has come to crack down hard on any form of threatening behavior.

We also need to be more aware of the kinds of groups that preach hatred and violence and do everything we can to eliminate their influence particularly on our young. They search for individuals who are desperately searching for a sense of belonging. They prey on the anger and feelings of abandonment that such souls often have. We all must be aware of the existence of such organizations and root them out. They must be condemned for the hatred that is theirs.

As a nation we must also begin to tone down our own disagreements with one another. Of late I have found it painful to watch our supposed leaders behaving with such a lack of honor and decorum. Our young are watching and sadly emulating, and lest anyone think that the bad form is coming from only one person or party or direction I would respectfully submit that it has found a place on all sides. There are too many people dusting up anger in efforts to gain power or viewers or business of some kind. The divisiveness is tearing us apart and fomenting violence in unstable people. It’s time that all good men and women do their part to encourage us to come together. The old saw that a house divided will not stand is still very true. Anger and violence whether in word or deed only begets more anger and violence. Our rhetoric and tribalism must end. Generalities are not only useless but may become lethal. It’s time we insist on a return to kindness. 

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Speaking in Many Tongues

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As a student I took courses in Latin, German and Spanish. I remember telling friends and relatives what I was doing and often being challenged by the request,”Say something in German (or Spanish or even Latin). I would go into a kind of brain freeze and only be able to stutter something totally inane.

The thing about learning a new language is that it often takes a very long time before the brain actually begins to think in that vernacular rather than starting from English and then translating. It tends to be a slow and often tedious process unless it is used with regularity. Once the instruction phase is complete and there are no more assignments or tests it’s unlikely that there will be continued progress without a concerted effort to use the acquired knowledge on a regular basis.

My father-in-law was a native Spanish speaker from Puerto Rico. When he first came to Texas he spoke English somewhat haltingly. The family still speaks of some of the mistakes in vocabulary and grammar with which he struggled. My mother-in-law had hoped to one day be an interpreter so she was able to help him along with the process of becoming more proficient with his speaking. Ultimately he was using English far more than his native Spanish at work, in social situations, and even while at home. He watched television and read voraciously all in English. At some point he was no longer translating from Spanish to English, but instead just naturally speaking the language that he has now used daily for almost seventy years. He recently admitted that while he is able to converse with his Puerto Rican relatives in Spanish he sometimes now finds himself thinking first in English and then translating words and phrases into Spanish.

Mike and I had a dear friend who haled from Germany where his father was born. His mother was Norwegian. He had an amazing facility with languages. He spoke English with no sign of an accent, but also was fluent in both German and Norwegian. He was able to slip easily into other languages as well, like French and Spanish.

Once my Chinese sister-in-law was attempting to teach some words to all of us. We struggled to achieve the correct pronunciations of the very difficult phrases. Only our German friend was able to repeat things exactly as they were meant to be. I suppose that somehow his brain had been trained to pick things up more rapidly than most of us have the ability to do because he first began speaking in different languages when he was a very small child. It was the only way that he was able to communicate with both his German and Norwegian relatives. Later when he attended the Gymnasium he took English and picked up the nuances of that language quickly just as he did with virtually any tongue.

I have the greatest admiration for anyone who is bilingual. Most of us in the United States exert little or no effort to become familiar with other languages, which is truly a shame. We live in such a global symbiosis in which the actions of one country invariably have some sort of effect on others. Those with the capability of communicating in many languages have a distinct advantage over the rest of us.

I have a certain facility with words and languages but I have never been able to reach that magical point at which I easily begin to think in a language other than my own. It is akin to struggling with a mathematical process without a clear understanding of how and why it works. It’s easy, for example, to find the areas of any figures once the concept is grasped. It becomes no longer a matter of remembering formulas and then plugging and chugging. So too is the process of feeling comfortable speaking another language.

I was well on my way to mastering German when I entered college but several things happened that destroyed my confidence. I was corresponding with a German pen pal and doing my best to write all my letters in German. I asked him to write to me in German as well. I hoped to become more and more proficient by not relying on English. Sadly, he became frustrated with my efforts, complaining about my horrendous grammar and poor word choices. He begged me to use only English in the future. I was quite embarrassed and shut down to the point of discontinuing my communication completely.

At the university I took a placement test and was put into a third year German class with a quite arrogant professor and a room full of classmates who had spoken that language with their parents from the time of their births. Our instructor praised them mightily for their proficiency while continually calling me out for what he considered to be a kind of barbarous south German pronunciation. I attempted to explain to him in my best German that I had only begun learning the language two years before landing in his class unlike my lucky peers, but my attempts at a bit of understanding were spurned. He sarcastically suggested that maybe I needed to start anew since I had not learned the basics in a manner consistent with his standards. I eventually decided to take Spanish instead of German so as to avoid any further ridicule of my efforts.

We are often quite haughty in our considerations of anyone attempting to learn a language, particularly our own. We are more likely to note what they can’t do rather than what they have mastered. We lose patience and then wonder why they choose to revert to whatever tongue they learned as an infant. We sometimes don’t consider that it becomes far too hard to continually feel like a fool.

We have many different cultures and ethnicities in the United States today. While English is indeed the predominant language, we should be more than willing to help those who are still learning its nuances. Anyone who even attempts to become bilingual is to be applauded, and those who are struggling should be patiently encouraged. It takes time and great effort to become proficient in anything. Learning a new language is commendable and worthy of pursuit without fear of ridicule. Being able to talk with one another leads to understanding and a realization that when all is said and done we are all pretty much alike.

They Live On

York Minister is a glorious example of medieval craftsmanship and mankind’s efforts to glorify the religious experience through great feats of art and engineering. It is also one of the most remarkable repositories of stained glass windows which tell stories of the past and provide a look into the humorous nature of humans. Located in the city of York north of London it is a grand architectural marvel that is alive with the tales of the people who built it. In its pillars, massive windows and fanned ceilings are quirky little jewels of commentary about the way things once were. It has withstood wars, fires and the erosion of time, but still stands as a voice of determination to overcome life’s setbacks and vagaries.

Our tour of York Minster was hosted by a lovely woman who had once been a teacher but is now retired and spending her time as a volunteer in the church where she worships. She was as interesting a character as the building itself with her distinctive northern England accent and her teacher like attention to interesting details. She delighted us with insights into what York Minster meant to the people who built it and the parishioners who worship there today.

York Minster is even more massive than Westminster Abbey. Over time one section after another was added to the original plan creating a space filled with chapels and archways beyond the main worship area. The medieval workers left their own quirky messages to the future in the shape of monkeys, political jokes, dragons and other features that speak of a different time.

The church began as a Catholic edifice that included statues and homages to the Virgin Mary that were later destroyed by protestants who believed such icons to be sacrilegious. Only one small image of Mary remains, somehow left unnoticed by those intent on removing any signs of such reverence. It has the typical structure of such churches with a high altar separated from the area for worshipers by the choir section that was being renovated at the time of our visit. Much of the stained glass has been taken apart, cleaned and reinforced with modern methods that alleviate the dark black lead that distracts from the lightness of the colored glass. The cost of such projects runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars and the upkeep of the grand building is a constant effort to insure that the ravages of time do not cause the building to deteriorate.

York Minster has had a number of devastating fires and the caretakers of the building have a keen understanding of how to rebuild after such disasters. At the present time they are offering their expertise on such matters to those charged with repairing Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Our guide assured us that it will indeed be possible to rebuild the damaged areas of Notre Dame, but she is convinced that it will take far longer than the four years that has been set as a goal for the project. She noted that the process of renovating an historical treasure must by its very nature be painstakingly careful and slow to insure that everything is done properly.

York Minster has only one saint that pilgrims of old came to see. His is an interesting story born from a need to attract visitors and with them monetary offerings to take care of the expense of keeping up the grand structure. Way back in time there was a bridge over a nearby river that collapsed sending a crowd of people in the water. When it was discovered that none of the victims of the disaster died the incident was deemed a miracle and the thinking was that a local cleric was surely the reason for this wonderful outcome and so he was declared a saint. Thus York Minster had its own patron saint and the pilgrims began to come. Other than that the crypt in the basement is the eternal resting place of the remains of mostly local dignitaries and heroes who were not familiar to me.

Perhaps the most touching moment of the tour of York Minster came when my husband Mike revealed that he had recorded the voice of our guide because she sounded so much like his Granny. I had never met the woman who held such a special place in his heart. She had died while he was still in high school. Nonetheless I had heard so much about her bubbly personality and her kindness to everyone who was acquainted with her. I had learned of her journey to Texas from Newcastle England when she was only eight years old. I knew that she had been proud of her English roots and had never again seen her homeland. She enjoyed afternoon tea and prepared roast beef and Yorkshire pudding on Sundays. She was a devout Episcopalian who wore lovely dresses, stockings, hats and gloves for her weekly shopping trips to downtown Houston. Mike adored her as did all of her many friends and family members. Her legacy lived long after she had died at a rather young age. What I had never realized is that she had retained her English accent even after years of living in Texas. It was a special treat to now have a better idea of how she sounded when she spoke and to truly understand how important her English roots had been.

For Mike the trip to England was a kind of pilgrimage in its own right. He felt his Granny’s spirit everywhere that we traveled and he liked to think that she was smiling down on him as he thought, “Granny here I am at last!” Now I too have a better idea of who this remarkable woman had been and of the history of people from my own background as well. I sensed their struggles and their determination throughout the passage of time and into the present. I know that their sacrifices and hard work have led to my own good fortune, and I somehow hear the voices of all of the people who came before me. I have a better feel for the hopes and dreams that are so present in the things that they built and the customs that they developed. Now I believe that they live on and always will.

And Still I Try

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I don’t just like to write. I also love to read. I am in awe of great writers, and they are many in number. Some of them are friends of mine while others are strangers who become like friends through their words. There are those who have a knack for choosing just the right words, the most stunning imagery, the clearest poetic phrasing. I am often moved by their ability to convey a universe of ideas in the space of a sentence or paragraph. These are the true masters among us whose canvases are blank sheets of paper and whose art is created from combinations of letters, words, and punctuation. It’s a simple enough exercise, and yet some of us still draw stick figures when we attempt to write, while others join the infinite with their masterpieces. I am transformed by their work, even while I am a bit jealous of it. I want to reach their level of of excellence knowing that my own efforts are mostly feeble, and still I try.

I was listening to a program on National Public Radio that spoke of the emotions elicited by great art both visual and audible. Music by far is the most likely to stir something in our souls that brings us to tears. Studies show that paintings are often the most vivid representations of life, but we humans rarely gaze at them long enough to become as emotionally involved as we do when we hear songs or symphonies. When we read we often skim so quickly over the words that we absorb only a minimal appreciation for what they are conveying, but when those same words are acted by great players we may find ourselves sobbing. Music and acting are so fluid, while canvases and manuscripts may appear static, leaving us with little more than a passing idea of what they actually represent. When we actually take the time to allow our minds to feel the content of a great work of visual or written art we are transformed.

My father had an appreciation for all forms of art. He played music while he read, a daily routine that included hours of perusing newspaper columns, books of poetry, novels, and nonfiction. He returned to stanzas and passages again and again. Repeating the rhythms and phrases that most appealed to him. He memorized the best of them, ready to quote them in appropriate moments. Bookstores were his galleries, places where he found hidden jewels that appealed to his senses. He held books and printed papers as though they were treasures to be treated with the highest regard. He transferred his love for the written word to me. He showed me how to be discerning in my search for the artistry of a great poet or author, My high school English teacher, Father Shane, transformed my sensibilities into an art form of itself by insuring me that being a studied appreciator of great writing is a kind of accomplishment in its own right.

The best writers among us invert the world as we see it, turn it upside down and inside out making even the hideous beautiful. They appear to have a gift, a natural genius that makes it easy and inevitable that they will leave us breathless with their creations. Still we know from stories and examples that they have to work hard to hone their craft. They don’t simply peck out five hundred words in an hour to reveal thoughts and ideas so memorable that they will last through the decades and centuries. We hear of F. Scott Fitzgerald driving himself almost insane in his attempts to reproduce the beauty of The Great Gatsby. Shakespeare’s works were both brilliant and ordinary depending on which of his plays is being considered. The demon of perfection haunts writers and sends them into fits of desperation. There is no feeling as dreaded as having a block that creates an almost impenetrable wall between ideas and final copy.

I wonder how a J.K. Rowling is able to fashion and sustain a story and characters so perfectly that her books become beloved treasures, keepsakes to visit again and again. How does a Tolkien create entire worlds with a make believe history that seems so real, while others are one trick ponies or abject failures in spite of Herculian efforts? Is it possible to push ourselves to find our own inner genius and then demonstrate it to the world, or is the mark of greatness limited to only a select few?

I read, and read and read, learning new ways of saying old things. I practice and practice, but find myself falling short of the goals that I set for myself. My time is growing short. I am not a Grandma Moses who will suddenly stun the world with my talent, and yet I would like to be. I would so enjoy finding that sweet spot that might touch a place in a reader’s heart that makes them cry for joy. I want to transcend the ordinary and find my personal best, which I sense is buried somewhere inside of me. I suspect that I will know when I have managed to get closer to my ultimate goal, but I worry that there is some calculus that will keep me forever making only closer and closer approximations of what I want to achieve.

Reading and writing have become my routines. I push myself to exercise my mind the way some work on their bodies. I find peace in my experiments with words, and inspiration in the genius of those who have already accomplished what I hope to one day achieve. Writing is my Holy Grail, my Mt. Everest, my nemesis and my consolation, and still I try.

Building Bridges

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Our ability to think and to communicate is the great gift of our humanity, but it can also be the source of our most horrific misunderstandings. We are each products of a unique set of circumstances blended together into a complex a stew of heredity and environment. The way we view the world and its people is the product of hundreds of interactions in our personal lifetimes. A single word or statement is interpreted through a lens of DNA and experiences that twists and turns what we believe we are hearing. Two people in the same place at the same time may walk away with entirely different interpretations of the same utterance or idea. Unless we take the time to hear the rationale or emotion behind another’s thinking we may misunderstand them in ways that lead to schisms between us.

We live in a world of almost unending words and talk. At every turn of modern life we see, or hear or read of events and commentaries. We are inundated with facts and opinions. How we interpret them depends on the totality of our life’s journey. How we use and decipher certain words is determined by our individual circumstances. A single utterance may be subject to a multitude of translations in the minds of those who witness it.

Words have power and there are those who have a gift for using them to bring momentous change. Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used such talent for the benefit of humankind. Tyrants like Adolf Hitler used speech to create a nightmarish world. We are continually being tempted with words that reach into our hearts and cause us to hope, but what inspires some is abhorrent to others.

“Make America Great Again” means hundreds of different things depending on who is hearing that phrase. For some it is a reminder of a time when our country fought for the very life of a world overtaken by evil. To others it is a call for a return to injustices wrought upon members of the Black community. There are those who think it means having jobs and security and serenity. Still others insist that it is meant to deny freedoms to those escaping harsh conditions and hoping for better lives. Some even hear it as little more than a slogan designed to entice us, but having little or no actual effect on our realities. In other words like a gigantic game of “telephone” we hear many different versions from the exact same words and then we imprint our own translations onto our judgements of the people around us who are making their own determinations. In fact we are most likely running the risk of grossly misinterpreting what each person’s thinking actually is.

What most people want is quiet. They have little or no desire for debates and discussions and too much information. They prefer to fill their lives with pleasant images and thoughts. They want to hear about happy things. They wish to keep their lives as uncomplicated as possible. They have enough problems on the personal level that they don’t really have the time or the energy to deal with the complexities of the world. They simply want things to run as smoothly as possible.

While there may have been a day and time when people lived and died without feeling the impact of anyone much farther away than a few miles, today’s world is indeed a kind of global village. When a butterfly flaps its wings in the Middle East we hear it and feel it. The oceans that once seemed to insulate the United States from the problems of the rest of the world are no longer effective in keeping us out of the fray. Walls neither real or virtual will ever be able to turn back the clock and provide us with a sense of security because the global genie is out of the bottle. Technology has linked us with words and images and the means of destroying each other. We are being forced more than ever to find ways of communicating our needs and working together for the sake of all of humankind. We may not like that this is so, but it is part of our new inescapable reality. Because of this increasingly our communication with one another will become ever more complex and subject to misinterpretation.

So what can we do if we don’t want to descend into a tower of babble that continually tears us apart? How do we learn to live with our new normal without shattering our relationships? Perhaps the answer is to be found in quieting our minds so that we will be able to finally discern what others are attempting to tell us. Maybe we need to investigate the idea of compromise and understand the power of making deals. Perhaps some of the old platitudes from the past that so abound exist because they actually made sense. If we take away all of the gilt of our progress and listen only to the wind and the beating of our hearts we may find that our desires are not as different from one another as they may at first glance seem. It may remind us of our need to work together and to get along.

There are a few saintly individuals who are so good that they almost seem to be devoid of the imperfections that plague the rest of us. There are evil individuals whose black hearts make us cringe but they are definitely in the minority. For the most part everyone else is about the same regardless of our superficial differences. We may have a variety of ideas about how to make the world a better place, but our intentions are generally aimed for the good. It is only our solutions for problems that may differ. Perhaps its time for us to quit arguing and begin building bridges of understanding starting in our own families and communities and moving ever outward from there.