We Will Meet Again

Happy Plates

I do my best to be upbeat. I try to look for the silver lining in almost everything. I suppose it never dawned on me that our national ordeal would last as long as it has even as my daughters attempted to bring down to reality. I’ve made the best of my 20 weeks in isolation and even created a game out of the whole thing but I think I need to up my persistence because I’ve wavered a bit this past week.

I’ve found great solace working in my yard but as August dawns the heat is making it more and more difficult to get excited about being out in the jungle like atmosphere of Houston, Texas humidity. With the most recent rains that have kept the grass uncut for two weeks it feels like being in a swamp. I would not be at all surprised to find an alligator sunning in my flowerbed. Still I perform the tasks of weeding and trimming in fifteen minute increments which is akin to emptying the ocean of water one teaspoon at a time.

I’ve given up on the vegetable garden I planted. I usually have a green thumb but not so with the raised bed that I created to provide me with fresh tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and peppers. So far the insects have devoured the pepper plants in spite of my efforts to discourage them and the squash plants died. The cucumber plants were prolific and seemed to have so much promise with the profusion of blooms that popped out. Unfortunately not a single one of those blossoms bore fruit. The tomato plants were much the same. I’ll soon be dismantling the whole experiment and using the rich soil that I purchased to give my flowers and shrubs a little treat.

I started a project of relearning Calculus but frankly there is a bit too much going on in the world for me to concentrate. I’m moving so slowly through the lessons that I’ll still be in the process a year from now. Since I never like to cry “uncle” I may continue my pursuit but it’s not at the top of my list of daily routines. I find myself asking, “What will I use this for?” It makes me feel like a traitor to all mathematics teachers in the world.

I’ve made great use of my treadmill and stationary bike but I really look forward to outdoor strolls again. For now I’m not ready to brave the heat. Until it is cool again walks through the neighborhood won’t be any more pleasurable than thirty minutes of jaunting to nowhere in air conditioned comfort while solving puzzles on my phone. Last week I was number one in a competition and it all began with my daily exercise routine so it’s not all bad.

When I was still working I often dreamed of how wonderful it would be to have all the time in the world to binge watch movies and television programs. Now that I am living that reality I am growing bored of the routine of searching for new entertainment each night. I’ve watched Tiger King and all of the Granchester episodes. I’ve gone through most of what is good on Britbox and Netflix and Amazon Prime. I’ve watched The Phantom of the Opera and Hamilton. It’s all good but I’ve had my fill and can’t imagine ever wishing to binge watch again. I do however believe that Carol killed her husband.

I read a great deal. Books and newspapers and magazines always seem to be better than television. I glory in the words that take me on adventures or teach me new ideas. I have an endless supply of material to read and if I add a cup of tea to the mix I am quite content. Sadly so much sitting has led to the possibility of outgrowing my clothing so I need to be a bit more careful of that. 

Sometimes I splurge on a bit of happiness. I purchased some colorful dishes that I saw on Amazon. I delighted in the vibrance of the different hues and patterns. They look quite nice on my dining table set for a shared feast with six of my family members or friends. They provide me with an optimistic hope that one day my kitchen will again be filled with the laughter of guests.

My husband Mike and I joke a great deal. We lean toward the kind of humor that would delight the creators of Monty Python. We find laughter in the oddest things and crack ourselves up with inside jokes. I’ve always believed that a good belly laugh is the best medicine around and I rarely go a day without a dose of satire that makes me howl. I don’t expect however to be peddling my medical advice in front of the White House anytime soon. 

My most favorite activity is writing. As a young girl I always thought that I would become an author or a journalist. I went for steady work instead and became a teacher. I worry for my fellow educators because they are most certainly in for a very bumpy ride. As for myself, I’m looking forward to reconnecting with my little band of homeschooled students. I’ll be meeting with them remotely for now so I’m eagerly preparing. I’m giddy over the supplies that keep arriving at my doorstep. I have a magnetic Cartesian plane that fits nicely on my white board. I’ve found magnetic money to use with my little ones and a large protractor for my middle school students. You would think that Santa Claus had come if you saw how joyful all of this is making me. I don’t need much to get very excited.

I suppose that more and more people will attempt to get back to work. Nonetheless I don’t expect to see anything even remotely appearing normal for a time but we will get there. I’ve got my masks and my determination to be as upbeat as I can for the duration. I hope to contribute a bit of joy or humor or compassion or information to help with the cause. One day this will be but a memory and the world will find a way to move forward. That’s when my happy dishes will be waiting for my guests. We will meet again.

Love Is A Verb

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We are all weary. To say this is a crazy year is an understatement and I hold little hope that we will soon be rocking along just as we may have been in January. I still know so many who are unemployed who have been working diligently to find jobs that do not now exist. They are in a state of panic since the extra help with unemployment they have been receiving will expire in July. They are not  just sitting at home enjoying the time off from work because their unemployment checks are so terrific. In fact, most of them are receiving so much less compensation than they were when they were working that they did not even receive those twelve hundred dollar checks that so many are crowing about. My heart bleeds for them as I watch them valiantly attempting to find a route back to the careers that they so enjoyed. They are willing to relocate if necessary even though it will greatly disrupt the lives of their families. We cannot forget about them just because we are secure. It is not yet time to celebrate the return of our economy.

The virus is still raging in some parts of the world and its very existence anywhere threatens all of us. I do not believe for a moment that we have seen the last of it and I constantly worry about what the fall and winter will bring. I hope that we are ready for whatever happens but the cavalier attitude of so many worries me that we may get caught unprepared once again. I grieve for those who have lost loved ones and for all the the might have beens. Like everyone I want to go back to church but even my pastor is asking us to be cautious and stay away if we belong to any of the vulnerable groups. It is certainly not over and yet I see people taking group photos with friends, large gatherings at the beach, disregard for social distancing on a grand scale. I desperately want to be wrong about my concerns. I hope to one day laugh at my foolishness in being unduly anxious.

I must admit to being sad a great deal of the time because our country is so divided and the anger is palatable. The last time it felt like this I was young and strong and enthusiastic about being able to help my country to grow and change for the better. I walked in marches for civil rights while a student at the University of Houston. I protested for peace in Vietnam, not because I did not love my country or the soldiers fighting for us, but precisely because I have always thought that this is the only place on earth that I ever want to be. I am a sold gold American but I am not so foolish as to believe that everything about my country has been right or good. I am imperfect and so is everyone and everything on this earth. Only God is unflawed. The rest of us have room for improvement and that includes our nation.

I have always believed that if you love someone or something you do not abandon nor enable them when they are wrong. Love is a verb that requires action, not just blind devotion. Just as I have had to have some difficult conversations with myself, my mother, my husband, my children and my students so too have I tried to be honest about the United States of America. Every person and every organization has room to grow and my beloved country is no exception. If we do not honestly address problems we do little more than sanction bad behaviors.

Of late it has become popular to hark back to some mythical time when everything in the United States was exceptionally perfect but anyone who has even a small understanding of history knows that there have always been difficulties that have affected different groups in their quest for freedom and justice. Our laws were created with the idea of changing things as needed but now so many want to keep everything set in stone even when it is apparent that even our laws have to evolve with the times. Some find fault with anyone who even suggests that America needs to address certain problem areas, acting as though anyone who does so is somehow disloyal to the ideals of democracy when in truth it takes great love for country to attempt to bring about positive change and improvement.

When I was studying for my master’s degree I took a course in organizational development. I learned that any group that denies active discussion of problem areas is doomed to die. Organizations must be dynamic and disagreements that are treated seriously and with interest in all points of view are the ones that succeed. It is critical that we encourage the varied voices of our citizenry to be heard rather than silenced simply because we feel uncomfortable with confrontation.

I have always had respect for the office of the President of the United States but I do not believe that my loyalty has to be so complete that I should never point out things  that I find to be troublesome. I have never been that circumspect with any other president so I don’t think that I need to be so with our present chief executive. According to the Constitution he is supposed to be working for the country as a whole and not just his loyal group of believers. His every effort should be aimed at bringing the disparate citizenry together, not driving them apart. If I critique him for perceived wrongs it is only because I love America and it is my unalienable right to do so.

We have much work to do. The virus must still be acknowledged. The Black citizens among us must be heard in their attempts to tell us what life in this country is like for them. Taking a stand to see them and understand them is not un-American, but the exact opposite if we are to believe in the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence. We cannot fall back on soundbites to forgive our inaction on this just cause nor can we be so enabling of a struggling president that we drown out or ignore the voices that are crying to be heard. The American revolution continues as it should. At this moment we must decide if it includes everyone longing to be free. When we say that we love this country we have to remember that love is an action verb. If we don’t continually do this to make certain that everyone is included then our love becomes only a word.

Opening Our Hearts and Minds

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As a mathematics teacher I daily encountered frustrating moments when students did not understand concepts that I was attempting to present to them. It was sometimes difficult to find a way to help them grasp what I was saying. I often had to use visuals, stories, songs, sayings, anything that would make headway in conveying a formula or a process. As I became more experienced in the methodologies of teaching I realized that at any given moment my students would have different perceptions, experiences and comprehensions of whatever I was attempting to explain. I had to work hard to find the exact methods that worked for each individual which was a daunting task. It was a constant challenge to reach each student as best I could.

My mother used to tease me by insisting that I always sounded like a teacher even when I was engaging in everyday conversations. I guess the habits of a educator die hard. We are always edifying, presenting information in the hopes of opening minds and encouraging people to look at the world from many different perspectives. It becomes second nature for most teachers to see lessons to be learned wherever we go. In an attempt to practice what we preach we tend to be curious souls who are willing to forge new frontiers when it comes to ideas. So it has been for me with the Black Lives Matter movement.

I’ll be the first to admit that I did not correctly understand the concept of Black Lives Matter when that mantra first appeared. I am fairly certain that I even wrote a blog insisting that if we are totally fair humans we should emphasize that All Lives Matter. In retrospect I realize that I had an instantaneous reaction to the phrase Black Lives Matter based on a my own life without taking the time to think about what it meant to someone who is African American. In spite of being an avid student of literature and history I missed the nuance of the wording. Instead I interpreted it from a purely literal standpoint thinking that it somehow tossed aside the value of every person in favor of a single group. Since that time I believe that I have come to a far clearer understanding of the more profound meaning of what Black Lives Matter means.

The heart of the phrase Black Lives Matter is a reaction to the treatment of African Americans from their earliest history as slaves in this country. Any person or society willing to buy, sell and treat a human more like a commodity or a lesser being is very clearly indicating that the life of that Black person does not really matter. Of course you may point out that we have not had slavery for around one hundred fifty years, but I would note that during that span of time we continued to treat free Black men and women as though they did not matter. We segregated ourselves from them and forced them into areas of town that were underserved by schools, stores, and even basics like clean water. We only minimally provided them with education and opportunity. Indeed we passed laws around fifty five years ago that attempted to right those wrong but the progress has been slow. As the years went by and Black citizens did their best to become integral and important members of a free society there continued to be far too many incidents that demonstrated that they did not matter. So when someone says that Black Lives Matter, it is a way of emphasizing that we can no longer allow the African American citizens of this country or any country to be dismissed as being of little value. We do that when we ignore that fact that simply existing with black skin can be a dangerous thing. We cannot pretend that racism does not exist even if we ourselves do not have such foul inclinations. The Black Lives of our neighbors, coworkers and friends do matter and when one of them is treated with injustice we must all call out the person or organization that does so. That is what Black Lives Matter truly means, asserting that we will no longer look away when we see discrimination because we regard Black Americans as the precious brothers and sisters from God that they are. 

Saying that All Lives Matter misses the central point because it is not all of us who are enduring daily reminders that some in our midst believe that Black lives have less value than ours. Our goal should be to vigilantly work to finally achieve equality and justice for African Americans. It is not a way of lessening our own importance or that of anyone else.  We lose nothing by working for a better world for others. In fact, a young lady whom I hope will one day be my granddaughter explained Black Lives Matter as simply a way of celebrating the wonder and importance of our Black citizens with no reservations. It is telling them once and for all that we do believe that they matter very much and that we are sorry for the ways that they have been treated in the past. 

Taking the comfortable route of denying the problem simply because we don’t see it is an insult. It says to those who try to explain what they are feeling and experiencing that we don’t value their word enough to believe that their emotions are genuine. We accuse them of whining as though we have the power to read their minds, walk in their shoes. Think of how horrific it would be to know in your heart of hearts that you are being abused and then learn that most people think you are exaggerating. Would you believe that your life mattered to anyone who refused to hear and understand what you were saying?

Nobody is is asserting that only Black Lives matter. They are simply asking those of us who have grown up white to open our hearts and minds to the idea that there are still people who see skin color as the only means of determining the worth of an individual. Why do so many among us not deny that our Black citizens have to regularly endure racism when even the Black man who rose to be President of the United States feels its sting?

Over the past days hundreds of thousands of people across the world have participated in marches and protests designed to focus on the value of Black lives. Out of those many thousands there has been a very small percentage of people intent on destruction and not all of them have been Black. We have learned that nefarious groups from the far left and the far right have incited violence to purposely create chaos for their own political agendas. We must be careful not to equate an entire movement with the dirty work of the few.

You can show your support by attempting to understand the deeper historical meaning of Black Lives Matter. You can try to understand that no Black person ever took a knee during the playing of the National Anthem to insult our military. It was only to point out that we have societal problems that we have yet to address. It was a very peaceful means of drawing attention to issues. We must stop focusing on the bad acts of the few and support the glorious dreams of the majority.

Think of those times when you were a school child behaving politely in every way and a teacher punished you and everyone else because a couple of kids got out of line. Think of how angry and defeated that made you feel. Think of how unfair it was. Maybe then you will be able to understand and embrace the Black Lives Matter cause for what it is.

Finally, please do not just look away. That is what our society has been doing for too long. It may be painful to be totally honest about the realities that Black Americans face but if we are ever going to make the needed changes more of us must finally see and hear them. We have to be open to ideas that may challenge the ways we have always thought. We must let Black Americans know how much they matter by a willingness to suspend our preconceived notions.

A House Divided Will Not Stand

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Photo by Daria Sannikova on Pexels.com

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. 

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.