Christmas Traditions

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I’ve been inviting a crowd of family members to my home on Christmas Day for a good while now. Back in the day both my mother and my mother-in-law hosted events that we attended. I was spoiled in never having to cook and clean for the holidays. I’d sleep in on Christmas morning and leisurely get the family ready to visit the grandparents around noon. I had little idea how much effort went into their galas until the day when my mother-in-law announced that she was very tired and feeling unable to find the energy to host such a big event any longer. She explained that she and my father-in-law would begin the preparation process weeks in advance and just could not do it anymore. That’s when I announced that I was taking on the Christmas Day project.

My mother-in-law was quite relieved, but my mother was annoyed that I was taking her special celebration away from her even though she too had become less and less enthusiastic about all of the labor and expense of such a grand celebration. It was difficult for her to accept the change, just as it was for everyone on both sides of the family who whispered that they liked things better with the old traditions. It took some time for the members of the family to actually enjoy Christmas Day at my home as they longed for the old ways. It’s been so long now since we went over the river and through the woods to grandmas’ houses that my event has taken on a hint of being a tradition. Both of the wonderful ladies who once served as hostesses are gone and the duties of providing a place to celebrate have fallen to me.

I spent many years attempting to find a good formula for feeding the guests. I tried turkeys, roasts, hams and all sorts of combinations. Nothing felt quite right, so one year I announced that I was going to do something very different. I made several batches of gumbo, cooked up some rice and offered a few salads and sides. It was an instant hit and so each December my husband Mike and I have spent days in the kitchen making enough of the seafood delight to serve the more than thirty folks who show up. It’s a long process because we do everything from scratch beginning with the rue. We use no gumbo bases or mixes which means that we do a great deal of chopping of onions, green peppers, celery, okra and garlic. It’s a yummy concoction that has granted us the designation of Gumbo King and Queen.

This year has been more busy than any I have encountered since I retired. It seemed as though making all of that gumbo would be to much for us. We usually cook two batches at a time and the process takes around four hours from start to finish. I came up with what I though was a brilliant plan to just purchase several of the huge Costco chicken pot pies and center the meal around those. I got a few thumbs up because it would certainly be a delicious way to go, but the quiet disappointment slowly began to rumble in the background. Most people still wanted the gumbo that they had learned to love.

I was steadfast until last week when my sweet son-in-law expressed shock upon learning that there would be no gumbo this year. Somehow that struck a chord with me because he’s had a tough year and I know that he needs as much joy as there is to be found. I girded my loins and went into attack mode. I purchased enough of the gumbo ingredients to make a firm commitment to insuring that there would be heaping pots of the brew on Christmas Day. I began by cooking up two batches all by myself because Mike was busy with his Christmas shopping. It took even longer than ever because I had to do all of the dicing, a task that Mike actually enjoys and I loathe. By the end of a very long session I had some very tasty gumbo simmering on the stove, ready to be frozen until just before Christmas Day. I was actually happy that I had decided to give the crowd what they want.

Like the mothers who worked so hard in the decades before I volunteered to ease their labors, I do a little bit each day to be certain that everyone will have a good time. We crowd into the house and it becomes filled with laughter and pleasant conversations. By the end of the day my home is littered with wrapping paper and dirty dishes and beautiful memories. I never regret being able to bring joy to the family.

I suppose that I too will one day find myself lacking in energy. I’ve already planned to begin cooking batches of my gumbo in October and slowly keep adding containers to the freezer until I have enough. One day I may give away my Christmas china and use paper plates and bowls in place of the finery. All of these changes will allow me to keep the tradition going until I finally pass down the baton to some willing individual. I suppose that this is the way things have been done for all time.

My grandmothers and Mike’s once opened their homes to the family on Christmas Day. Then it fell to our mothers to host the celebration. Now it is my turn. I think of it as an honor that I hope to continue as long as I can. My family is so relaxed and grateful to have a place to go that I don’t have to feel stressed or tied to certain ways of doing things. My grandchildren have even suggested that I teach them how to make the gumbo so that they can have a big gumbo making party to help me out. I’m sure that they will also be happy to enjoy some Costco pot pie whenever if it comes to that. What they really want is just to be together.

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Taming the Beast

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Worry is common to all humans. We think about things that concern us, sometimes mulling over solutions in our heads. Worry can a positive motivator that helps us to do things well, but it can also become so unleashed that we find ourselves in a state of anxiety that interferes with our ability to perform even routine tasks. Those who suffer from anxiety disorders often become unduly depressed. Life becomes so stressful that it actually physically hurts.

I have felt those pains of anxiety at different times in my life. I generally assumed that there was something defective in me whenever I reached the point at which events piled up on me with such a vengeance that I felt as though an enormous elephant was sitting on my chest. I’ve experienced such attacks during the times when my mother was in the throes of her bipolar disorder, or whenever my schedule became so filled that I was rushing from one task to another. I was especially prone to such feelings back when I was a student juggling family and work with my studies. I had to learn how to “tame the beast” that threatened to leave me drained of my energy because I knew that I had responsibilities to shoulder. Mine was a long journey to understanding just how much I might push myself so that I would not break like my mother had done.

I began to realize that keeping myself healthy was my top priority in spite of my tendencies to want to be a servant to others. I likened my situation to being on a plane when the oxygen masks come down in an emergency.  I had to secure my source of air first and then help those around me. That meant being able to read the signs in my mind and body that told me that I was heading for a fall. It also required a kind of restructuring of my daily rituals. I had to set limits for myself with an understanding of exactly how far to push. 

Long after I had graduated from high school one of my former teachers admitted that the faculty had experimented with my class. They had attempted to determine just how far they might drive us before we fell apart. He confessed that they went too far in some cases and did a far better job of challenging students without breaking them in subsequent classes. It was a revelation that stunned me because I had literally thought that there was something wrong with me because it had been so difficult to stay on top of all of the work that we were required to do. He insisted that I had passed with flying colors at the same time that some of my classmates were crashing and burning. What he didn’t realize is that I sometimes studied far into the night, feeling exhausted beyond measure and worried that I was intellectually deficient. Nonetheless, I learned how to balance my week day marathons with inestimable amounts of sleep on weekends.

When I went to college I first attempted to carry eighteen hours of coursework but learned that it was too much. I scaled back to fifteen hours and carefully selected a variety of difficult and easy courses. I immediately created calendars outlining my daily duties for studying as soon as I received my syllabi. I literally parsed out every hour of every day and stuck with my plan religiously. Doing this helped me to manage my worries because I even allowed for unforeseen emergencies and still met every deadline with ease. I almost never found myself cramming at the eleventh hour, and I came to realize that the crazy demands of my high school had been largely responsible for helping me to craft a plan that worked for me.

I have carefully and meticulously followed this kind of regimen throughout my lifetime. It has carried me through times that threatened to undo me and my family. Still some events are so horrific that not even a steadfast plan will work. In those moments the old familiar symptoms of insomnia and weight on my chest often returned. That’s when I would glance at my calendar and create a “mental health” day. I knew when to sneak in such a luxury and did so without guilt. It might end up being a day in bed catching up on much needed sleep or I might spend it enjoying pleasures like watching a movie marathon or enjoying a day at the beach. Such pleasures always seemed to be enough to clear my head and help me to focus on whatever I needed to do rather than on my concerns about what might go wrong.

I hide my worries well. I find that there is a time and place for them during which I revel in them and allow them to wash over me. Then I walk through my “magic door,” an entry way to the tasks at hand. I have learned to work hard and then play hard. I am able to compartmentalize each of the segments of my life. It is a survival skill that I suspect I first discovered when my father died and I felt as though I would never again be the same. I realized then that work was actually a kind of panacea for all of my worries both real and imagined. If I concentrated on doing other things my anxiety was held at bay at least temporarily.

I do indeed feel for anyone who is paralyzed by fears and worries. I have deeply felt their pain and know how debilitating it can be. I understand that they do not wish to be held captive by emotions that steal their energy and enthusiasm. Sometimes not even the best of intentions or efforts can still the voices that take away their joy. In those moments they must reach out for help beginning with the people who love them most. Other times the most courageous thing that they may do is to seek medical guidance as well.

Those who are anxious are often the most caring and responsible individuals among us. Their feelings are so deep that they can become paralyzed when the world is too much with them. We can all help, but the worst possible response to their pain would be to provide them with platitudes about getting a grip on themselves. What they are experiencing is so very real and painful. Their journey to healing begins with love. Only then can they begin to “tame the beast.”

The Golden Girl

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I have the most amazing friends! Their posts on Facebook invariably make my day. They seem to have a direct view into my heart and the things that matter to me. I suppose that we are friends because our spirits are kindred in one way or another and they often humble me with their wit and wisdom. There are so many days when they target the very concerns that are consuming my heart without ever realizing that they have hit such a tender target. A few mornings ago I shared several of the memes and stories that they posted because they were exactly what I needed in that moment.

Among them was a heartfelt admission from one of my former students, a young woman who in many ways had been a kind of “golden girl” in her class. I met her when she was a freshman in high school and was immediately taken by her obvious charisma. She was beautiful then and had become even more so in the ensuing years as maturity gave her a kind of polish. Intellectually she was outstanding in every sense. Her academic acumen was sharp and I saw her as a deeply gifted and talented individual. While her forte was writing, she was nonetheless one of the best in virtually every subject, easily rising to the top levels among her peers. Amazingly she was also a natural born leader who had the ability of assessing any situation and taking charge with a kind of ease. As if all of that were not enough, she was incredibly kind and compassionate, a trait that did not escape the notice of both her teachers and her classmates.

This magnificent person became a student at the University of Texas where she struggled a bit to find herself. Eventually she came back home to Houston and spent some time reassessing who and what she wanted to be in her life. She worked to put herself through college at the University of Houston and in the process developed managerial skills from her jobs. After earning her degree the KIPP Charter schools hired her to work in development. She brought so much heart and understanding of the organization and its goals that she has risen rather rapidly though the ranks. Her ascendancy does not surprise me at all because she is one of those rockstar individuals who consistently shines even in a crowd.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting this young woman for dinner. In a turn that speaks to her thoughtfulness she presented me with a replica World Series ring from one of the Houston Astro’s game that she had attended. She had noticed that I did not have one and that I had expressed my desire to get one from a silly post that I had placed on Facebook. While everyone else ignored my audacious request, she had taken it to heart thus proving to me what I already knew about her. She is the whole package, a woman with enormous gifts and and even bigger heart.

I had thought that nothing about this woman would amaze me because I deeply understood her talents and her drive. One morning when I was reading the offerings on my Facebook newsfeed I found the following post from her:

I have been meaning to write this post for a while, but haven’t because I’ve never been one to put my business, good or bad, on social media. But I want to share this because I have come to terms with it. I have suffered from depression, I can’t tell you when it started, but I do know it went unspoken for longer than it should have. I thought that what I was feeling was normal, that the thoughts I had were normal. It wasn’t until I opened up to a friend about what I felt and what I thought that I realized how wrong I was. I was urged to talk, to seek help so I did. I started taking anti-depressants and sleep medication. A year and half later, things are better… most of the time. What people need to understand about depression is that it doesn’t have “a look”, you can’t always tell when someone is dealing with depression. Most of us live with it and are trying our best to get through it, we have good days. But some days are worse than others, and it’s more than just being sad and no we can’t just “snap out of it.” Yes I tried exercise, I tried meditation, I tried talking, I tried everything I could think of and some of it helped. At the end of the day I have accepted that this will come and go, that I needed to take the good days as wins and know that bad days will pass. I may not be the best at dealing with this, but I am dealing with it and I’m here for anyone who has questions, who needs someone to talk to or who just needs someone to listen.

I was literally overwhelmed with admiration and gratitude upon reading this post. In one moment she had proven herself to be even more remarkable than even I, one of her most ardent admirers, had ever dreamed. I fully understood how much courage it had taken for her to expose herself to potential criticism for I have witnessed so much ignorance about depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses in my own efforts to educate the public. In a single paragraph my lovely student perfectly described what life is like for those afflicted with diseases that invade the mind. I am over the moon in awe of her, and I have shared her words with others whom I know who have also walked in the shadows and confusion and loneliness of depression. Her beautiful description of her journey to health has already helped people that she does not even know to face their own battles.

We often see individuals who appear to be as perfect as anyone might be without realizing the challenges that they actually face. The beauty of my student and now adult friend is that she understood how much good would come from admitting to the struggle that she has endured. I feel that I am now one of her pupils learning what true determination and strength actually is. I am so grateful to know her. She is even more remarkable than I dreamed.

Working On The Inside

Tricia's Podcast

I have a dear friend, Tricia Miller, who is a brilliant and talented woman. I met her when she and I taught together at KIPP Houston High School. I eventually became the Dean of Faculty there and she became one of the College Counselors. We shared a special kinship from the very first and became close friends. Even after we had both the left the school we worked hard to maintain a close relationship with one another that has only grown stronger over the years. At first we mostly got together for celebratory occasions with other women who had also once worked at KIPP. Eventually Tricia and I called upon one another for advice, knowing that together we usually found the wisdom that we needed to tackle the problems that invariably crop up in everyone’s lives.

Tricia became a licensed therapist and did private counseling along with continuing to work with students while I began living the life of retirement. I know from personal experience how good she is at seeing both the pain and joy that lingers in people’s hearts either propelling them forward or holding them back. On more than one occasion she has helped me to find answers that I was seeking and encouraged me to have the courage that I needed to be my personal best. She is what I call an active listener who knows how to pose important questions and then sit back and truly hear the true meaning of what is being said. She is quite good at understanding the essence of people, sometimes even more than they do themselves.

This past summer Tricia decided to develop a podcast that would feature short stories of people who had overcome daunting challenges. I was honored to be one of the guests that she chose to interview, and so I one day found myself sitting in her sunny kitchen talking as friends while she posed guiding questions and recorded my answers. I had been a bit nervous about speaking into a microphone and I worried that I might stumble and stutter as I spoke, but Tricia created such a relaxed atmosphere that I soon forgot that my words were being saved for posterity. I was able to speak from my heart and not worry about how I might sound.

Tricia worked with intense dedication for months to interview individuals, edit their responses, and create a series of quality podcasts with topics intended to inspire listeners. Her efforts resulted in thirty minute episodes in a podcast called Working From the Inside that is currently listed on Google Play, Spotify and Apple iTunes. Her guests are diverse and earnest in sharing their stories of overcoming challenges and finding empathy and support in sometimes unexpected places.

Tricia decided to launch the episode that featured my interview as a gift to me just before my seventieth birthday. The theme of the spot focuses on the mentoring and compassion that I encountered in the sometimes winding journey of my life, particularly with regard to my career. Happily she edited my chatter to include the expressions gratitude that I have always felt for certain individuals who helped to guide me in my work and in navigating through the difficulties that invariably arose along the way. I was able to honor important people like my English teacher, Father Shane, the members of my neighborhood, school and church community, professors who inspired me, principals who helped shape me into a real educator, and elders who demonstrated sacrifice and love when I most needed it.

I hope that the listeners will be able to look past my soft, slow drawl that comes from my Texas background as they hear me speak. It is a trait that sometimes marked me as someone who was insignificant and perhaps also weak. I wanted people to know that even a seemingly shy and sheltered female is able to find grit when given enough encouragement from caring people, and I certainly had my share of kind souls who helped me to become the person that I am today. My story is one of countless moments in which I found good people who understood me and helped me to overcome my weaknesses and fears. Of course, Tricia Miller is one of those very special souls who took the time to really “get me.”

I’d like to invite everyone to look for Working On the Inside with Tricia Miller, M.Ed.,LPC on Google Play, Apple iTunes, or Spotify. Subscribe today and then sit back and enjoy Tricia’s creative talent and the stories of her incredible friends. I have little doubt that you will be inspired and will become a fan.
Tricia has created a kind of oral history of the life and times of our era. Her guests are diverse and from many walks in life. The common thread that binds them together is a determination to overcome even the most horrific difficulties that life throws at each of us. Tricia has such genius and empathy that she is able to bring uncommon honesty to each episode. I’m certain that listeners will find nuggets of wisdom and hope from meeting Tricia and her guests.

Policing Our Information

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Long ago I was a daily subscriber to The Houston Post, a newspaper that ceased to exist after a time. It’s competitor, The Houston Chronicle, had never had great appeal to me, but in the aftermath of the Post’s failure I began to have the Chronicle delivered to my house each day. When I moved to a new home about thirteen years ago I was so busy with work and other responsibilities that I decided to only sign up for weekend delivery. Even then I hardly had the time to stop to read all of the Sunday sections. The paper often lined the bottom of my trash can without ever having been adequately digested. With the advent of online news sources I was more likely to sit with my laptop on my knees while I sipped on my morning tea and munched on my breakfast. I eventually decided to stop the delivery of a newspaper to my home and instead subscribe to national sources offering coverage on my computer.

A couple of Sundays ago when I visited with my in-laws I noticed a copy of the Sunday Houston Chronicle lying on their kitchen counter. I was horrified to see how much it had shrunk in size. It looked more like something that might be distributed on college campuses by the journalism students than the local news source of the fourth largest city in the United States. I suppose that it has come to this dire end because of people like me who abandoned the paper when it became more of a vehicle for want ads and inserts from merchants than a purveyor of good quality information. In fact, such appears to be the fate of many newspapers around the country.

It makes me sad to watch the demise of good old fashioned reporting in local papers because there was a time when I wanted nothing more than to be a journalist. I dreamed of gathering information on the happenings around my city and then writing stories about them. I imagined one day garnering the respect of a byline with my name on it. The thought of being a newspaper reporter sounded exciting and important to me. Never did I imagine that news outlets would find themselves struggling to stay afloat, even in places with large populations. I did not conceive of a revolution in electronic reporting that would displace almost all but the most notable newspapers with online information delivered to computers in nanoseconds.

Not even when I got my first home computer was I able to foresee the future as it unfolded. Things changed so quickly that I hardly noticed what was happening. In the nineteen nineties when I was earning an advanced degree my professors urged me to learn about email and the Internet. Both methods were still clunky and not so easy to use, but I proudly complied and thought of myself as being modern and adventurous. By the turn of the century things were progressing online at warp speed and inventive minds were finding more and more ways to simplify the process of garnering information so quickly and easily that even small children learned how to use the worldwide web. It was a brave new world that was exciting and intoxicating, and it was being used more and more often in ways that most of us never thought possible.

Suddenly we were instantly linked to people all around the world with only a few keystrokes. Those old fashioned news sources made of paper that invariably contained old information by the time they were delivered seemed outdated and inconvenient and even overpriced given that they were so late in providing us details about the world’s happenings. I suppose that only those who contrived ways to stay relevant have remained robust, and even they must worry that the day may come when the marvelous invention of the printing press will seem as insignificant as a horse drawn plow or a buggy, the kind of things relegated to museums.

When Facebook came along it was initially the domain of college students, a way to get to know and communicate with more people than ordinary means allowed. By sharing photos and messages it was supposed to bring people together, and for a time that’s mostly what it did. Eventually adults long past their younger years entered the fray, and users began to realize the power of the comments on those walls. Facebook became a vehicle for presenting points of view, and setting up discussions. It was almost inevitable that it would also be a way of sharing news stories and political opinions. Editorializing and propaganda and stories whose veracity was questionable found their way onto people’s feeds without even asking. With information flooding in from hundreds of unnamed sources it became more and more necessary to fact check virtually everything that appeared on the Facebook walls. It also lead to abuses by information gathering sources that then used their data to target certain users with political propaganda.

By now everyone has heard the accusations of attempts by the Russians to influence the 2016 presidential election by using Facebook and other outlets to spread false information. Mark Zuckerberg has defended his organization by noting that his original intent was to do good by bringing people together, and to that end he did not want to become a judge and jury for who and what should appear in the newsfeeds of his billions of users. Nonetheless he has been criticized for not being more vigilant in monitoring the information that subscribers send and see on their walls.

I’m rather libertarian when it comes to any form of censoring. I find the idea of having someone determining what I may see on my Facebook page to be far more frightening than knowing that some of what is there is false and misleading. I would prefer taking the time to fact check on my own than to be limited by some kind of algorithmic board that scans the offerings and comments. While I understand that there is some exceedingly contemptible and frightening information being passed along as truth, I stand by the idea that it is up to each of us individually to decide what we choose to accept as fact versus fiction. In fact, I think that even if Facebook were to totally change it’s standards tomorrow by only allowing greetings and photos of family and puppies there would still be places where shenanigans rule.

Teachers have told me for my entire lifetime to beware of propaganda which may be found even in old fashioned newspapers and on television and in the speeches of our politicians. We’ve had the rainmakers and traveling medicine peddlers forever. Those who bang on drums and attempt to fool us into believing fake ideas have been around since the beginning of time, and one way or another we humans have had to be careful not to fall for their snake oil routines. It’s in our own best interests to always and without exception be wary. If something sounds too incredible to be true, it’s possible that it actually is a tactic to mislead us. There are so many ways to unfold the veracity of ideas, and we have to learn how to use them before following our emotions rather than our reason. We must always be willing to determine fact rather than opinion, truth rather than lies. We shouldn’t require Facebook to be our police and more than we asked that of our old newspapers. That’s why we have the ability to think. Let’s put that talent to use rather than asking a stranger to do it for us.