What If?

cleaning the ocean.jpg

What if the people of the world decided to quit relying on someone else to fix all of the problems and we started taking care of things on our own without being asked or paid or honored for our efforts? What if we started by greeting everyone that we pass, noticing what others need and then quietly taking care of them? What if we opened our hearts and our talents to making the world around us better?

What if it became a habit for each of us to keep the environment clean? What if we were always equipped to clean up garbage along the roadsides and in the oceans? What if we got everything looking good and none of us ever again littered the environment?

What if every person found someone to help on a daily basis? What if we understood that if doesn’t take much to make a difference? What if we began to use the power of our collective good will?

What if we really managed to be free of the negative aspects of our human natures? What if we were able to rethink our priorities and work together without being forced by guilt or laws? What if we changed the world without a single selfish desire?

I’m an admitted dreamer. I think of the possibilities of human interaction if only we were able to fully harness our most positive powers and negate those that create problems. I love to think of a time when our intelligence evolves to a point at which we instinctively know what we must do to help one another and to honor our earth. I see examples of the kind of behaviors that I long to see multiplied millions of times over and I imagine a more perfect world. I still believe that we have the power to be our best selves but that we all too often refuse to make the sacrifices and do the hard work that must be done.

I recently saw a group of people working at the ocean to eliminate garbage from the beaches and the water. They removed mountains of debris that had been thrown away by thoughtless people. I wondered why we can’t all agree to come together regularly to sweep our waters and their banks just as we clean our homes. I thought of how we should not have to pay people to do this work when so many of us are able bodied enough to form daily crews that labor all over the world to make the waterways pristine and then keep them that way. I can’t imagine why anyone would ever think it proper to throw paper or cans or bottles or balloons or any object into our precious resource of life. It seems logical and right and just for all of us to be participants in the efforts to once and for all rid our waters from the garbage with which we have so blithely and unthinkingly polluted two thirds of our world. I wonder what if…?

I constantly worry about our young and the way in which we educate them by moving them along a preconceived pathway to knowledge that makes learning feel harsh and unpleasant for so many. I see our society missing the mark by making the act of learning a project filled with stress and sometimes even punishment. We act as though every child is just alike with our scopes and sequences that drive them like cattle from one concept to another whether or not they have mastered the previous ones. We make them feel stupid. We cause them to question their worth. We make them anxious at a time when they should be experiencing the joy of exploring the world around them. I wonder how we might make the act of acquiring knowledge a happy endeavor by tailoring more individualized programs that take differences into account. I long for a kind and gentle kind of school experience that builds children up one by one rather than consigning them to a kind of conveyor belt style education. I wonder what if…?

I see and hear of people who are lonely, bullied, abandoned, feeling hopeless. I think of how they are often treated as though they are somehow less than human. I know that many of them even lose faith in themselves. They become lost souls who turn to drugs and alcohol to ease their pain. In the worst case scenarios they use anger and violence in a perverse way to feel better about themselves. I find myself wondering why we did not notice them earlier when they were still young and open to change. Who was it who beat them down? Why was there no one to counteract the harm being done to them? I think of a world in which we are each like guardian angels watching over even those who are strangers to us. I see wonderful people taking those who are abused under their wings. I consider how incredible it would be if we were to all make efforts to help save a life. I wonder what if…?

Such thoughts may sound naive when faced with the ugly realities of the world and yet there have always been individuals who left the fray and simply dug into the work of making a difference even if its impact was small. That one piece of garbage that we remove from the street becomes a clean sweep when multiplied millions of times over each day. That one child who feels the power of mastering a new skill becomes an army of confident people when multiplied a millions of times over each day. That frightened soul who heals by the touch of kindness becomes a member of a confident, happy and productive society when multiplied millions of times over each day. What if we finally decided to see what might happen if we all agreed to do such things every single day? What if, indeed?

Suffer the Little Children

brothers holding hands

The children at my church make me smile. They are so precious and innocent, God’s special creations and the future of our world. At our church they gather in the center aisle just before we adults hear the readings from the Bible and the homily from the priest or deacon. They are always so incredibly adorable that I see all of what is most beautiful in the world reflected in their little faces.

On a recent Sunday there were two brothers among the group who could not have been more than four and five years old. They were dressed in matching plaid shirts resplendent with fall colors and the older of the two tightly held his little sibling’s hand with great pride. The love between the pair shone brilliantly throughout the church and there were smiles in abundance as we all watched the little tykes sauntering off to learn about Jesus in a lesson geared more appropriately to their ages.

The gospel reading and homily is always followed by offerings from the congregation for the support of the church. The children return at that time and have their own little ceremony in which they drop dollar bills and quarters into a special basket. Once again the two brothers captivated my heart as they proudly presented their gifts. One of the parishioners gave them an extra bit of cash to place in the basket and they went back and forth between him and the place where they left the donations. All the while the big brother of the two never once let go of the younger one’s hand.

Eventually the two literally danced down the center aisle of the church in an effort to rejoin their parents. In that moment I felt certain that Jesus was smiling along with the rest of us who witnessed their guileless joy. It was such a pure and beautiful sight.

We are centered on children these days, but not always in the most appropriate ways. We know that we can’t protect them from reality forever but it’s nice to enjoy the time when they are still so filled with innocent joy. They are watching us and learning from us even when we don’t even realize that their eyes noticing everything we do. They will get tired sometimes and not behave well. They may even make us angry and impatient. We have to remember that they are not yet fully formed. We must teach them how to manage their feelings and allow them to be open and honest with us. We don’t have to be authoritarian but we must set appropriate limits from which they learn how to direct their lives.

We speak a great deal about developing and becoming the best possible versions of ourselves, but we can’t forget the children when as we continue to grow. Once my own children were college bound I offered more of my talents to my work. I was able to stay later on the job and take classes to improve my knowledge and skills. I often saw little ones who were left at school at seven in the morning and did not leave until six in the evening. They and their parents were exhausted and harried. Moms sometime complained that their babies would fall asleep on the way home and when they awakened them for dinner and bath time arguments and cranky behavior dominated the evenings. It was sad to see how anxious so many families were because of the imbalance of work and home life.

I felt for everyone because I had enjoyed the luxury of staying home with my children until they were both in school during the same hours that I worked. We had the same holidays and the same summer vacation. They never actually missed me and even when they got sick my beloved mother-in-law came to the rescue to watch them while I went to work. My girls still talk about how much they enjoyed those golden days.

I know that children are amazingly adaptable to whatever circumstances become their reality. My brothers and I learned how to live without a father in the house. So too do little ones thrive in differing situations as long as they have guidance that is centered on their well being. It does not require money or extensive activities to build character. A wise parent need only model with love and integrity to turn a boy into a man, a girl into a woman. We know that we can’t keep them as angelically innocent as the two brothers who brought smiles to our faces on that Sunday morn, but we can make certain that they will one day venture out on their own with the tools that they need to meet whatever challenges the world throws their way.

I suspect that those two boys already have a good start. Their parents are preparing them emotionally and spiritually. They are learning that they belong to and are loved by an entire community. They feel the security and protection of each other in the grip of their hand hold. Surely they will know that God is smiling on them and rooting for their success as people. It’s a wonderful start.

Your Worst Nightmares

o-NIGHTMARE-facebook

We were gathered together at my daughter’s home on a Saturday evening. It was just my two girls, two grandsons, my only granddaughter, and I deciding to play a board game. One of the boys brought out a box labeled Your Worst Nightmare. He said that he thinks that I once bought it for him. I don’t remember doing that, but it sounds like something that would appeal to me. Anyway, the premise of the game was to rank four things in order of how scary they are from greatest to least, then try to guess how someone else’s list might look. It was fun and created lots of laughs but I did a terrible job of determining what other people’s fears were. Nonetheless the little entertainment got me to thinking of what is most frightening to me and why is it so.

I suppose that the most terrifying nightmare I have ever had or thought about having revolves around the idea that I am driving across a high bridge over a deep river and somehow end up careening from the structure into the darkness of the water with only seconds to free myself from the constraints of my seatbelt, find a way to open a window, and then somehow swim to safety. In those dreams I never get past the fight to get out of the car but then I never actually drown either. I don’t know how long the dream actually lasts but I wake up shaken and exhausted whenever it occurs which luckily is infrequently.

Supposedly such a nighttime vision indicates feelings of loss of control. In my own car I suspect that they stem from my father’s death inside a car that plunged into a ditch. He died immediately upon impact so there was never a question of escape for him, but I suppose that I still have a strong desire to be able to change the course of events that lead to his death. Getting out of my own car and swimming to safety is a metaphor for being able to somehow prevent him from taking the fateful drive that ended with his heart stopping and mine breaking.

Our fears are sometimes irrational, but more often than not they are somehow related to traumas we have actually experienced. I fear being caught in a burning building because I witnessed a man being carried lifeless from his home after it caught fire. Later one of my cousins died in his bed when he fell asleep smoking. It would not be irrational for me to sense the need to be careful and to have a plan in the event of a fiery outbreak. Thus I always rehearse an escape route just to be safe wherever I go.

I can’t explain why I fear snakes as much as I do. I have had no negative experiences with them other than one occasion when I disobeyed my grandmother and came upon a frightful sight of snakes infesting a lake. They did not hurt me, but their image makes my heart race whenever I see a snake, no matter how harmless it may actually be. Perhaps it is just a primal thing or maybe a feeling of guilt for having ignored my grandmother’s instructions.

Likewise all of  the dentists that I have visited have been painless save for the cost of their procedures and yet the mere thought of going to an appointment makes my heart beat faster and a feeling of dread spreads through my entire being. Maybe it was a scene from the movie Marathon Man with Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier that planted a seed of terror in my mind or perhaps I just find the tools of the dental trade to be similar to Medieval instruments of torture. Indeed dentists are some of the nicest people that I know who bend over backwards to keep me free from pain. I really don’t know why they scare me so.

Our fears are personal and not always easily understood which is why we all did so poorly in the game that asked us to determine how well we knew the fears of others. Nonetheless it was quite enlightening to learn about what actually terrifies another person. Everything from being dumped by a friend or lover to working in a cubical can make someone break into a cold sweat, while walking through a graveyard at midnight might be little more than a fun adventure.    

We humans are undoubtedly complex and what we don’t like can be as individual as what pleases us. I have a niece who would be totally comfortable having nonpoisonous snakes roaming around her house. My husband thinks that visits to the dentist are a piece of cake. My brother ran into burning structures for a living. On the other hand those same individuals might dread speaking in front of an audience which I actually enjoy. Our nightmares are often simply reflections of traumatic events or feelings from our lives. In my own case loss of control is what drives my greatest fears and no doubt my need to be in charge of my own fate has its foundations in the one moment over which I had no power, the death of my father.

Few of us actually sit around morosely worrying over things that go bump in the night but our dreams are windows into the sub conscious part of ourselves that lie in wait to frighten us while we sleep. It’s all a quite normal process but actually admitting to things that seem irrational is a difficult thing to do. Playing a game with people that we trust helps us bring our worries to the surface and sometimes even helps us to laugh when we feel as though we are about to cry. A bit of honesty in the name of fun can be a therapeutic way of understanding ourselves and the people that we love. It also reminds us that each of us is very human.

My Guru

be3bbf50-e0f3-463f-9937-7cc3b04c3b3b

My life as a wife, mom, and teacher was always busy. Everyone in the household was constantly coming and going. Often it seemed as though the only times that we were all together was when we finally managed to get to sleep at night. I’d like to be able to say that I ran a tight and orderly ship but what we mostly had was a state of controlled chaos.

When the demands of our schedules and responsibilities became overwhelming I found myself wanting to go visit my grandfather who had a mysteriously calming influence on me. Being with him felt something like I imagine it would be to have an audience with the Dali Lama. Just seeing him sitting in his recliner puffing on his pipe brought my blood pressure down instantly and the wisdom he exuded with his every remark settled my anxieties more surely than the most powerful medication.

I never had to call my grandfather to set up an appointment. If I just showed up without warning he welcomed me as though he had been planning for my arrival. He was invariably clean shaven and neat in his khaki pants held up by suspenders. He wore the same style of his meticulously polished high top leather shoes that might have been the fashion in his youth before the dawn of the twentieth century. He had lost all but a ring of his hair that he kept neat and trimmed. He was a fastidious man of routine and habit whose calmness was always reliable. I knew what I would find before I even reached his home, and he never disappointed me.

His deep southern drawl cultivated in the foothills of Virginia had a soothing lilt and he gloried in telling the stories that delighted me no matter how many times I heard them. He might have mesmerized an audience in a one man show had he taken his talent on the road, but that is not who he was. Instead his magical effect on me lay in his constancy and the very story of his life that was rooted in hardship and survival without complaint. He was a person of impeccable character who had journeyed through life with grit and hard work. When he spoke he did not so much offer advice as model it through the thematic threads of his tales.

Grandpa was of another time and place who had somehow both transcended and embraced the marvels of the Industrial Revolution and the twenty first century. With his keen intellect and a set of hardcore values rooted in integrity he had somehow overcome one challenge after another. By the time I was making my pilgrimages to see him he owned little more than the clothes on his back and survived in a rented room with a meager pension that provided him with the most basic human needs. In spite of what some might call a very restricted lifestyle he found great joy in the simplicity of his existence which he always boasted was so much grander than what he had known as a boy.

I suppose that his optimism and faith in mankind was the thing that most inspired me. He taught me how to find satisfaction and joy in the most simple aspects of life and to eschew comparisons with those who appear to have more. He believed that it was futile to wish that things had been different in his story. He accepted the many hardships that he experienced as just part of the human experience. He reveled in knowing that he had overcome so much and was still standing.

When my grandfather died I was devastated. His one hundred eight years on this earth had somehow mislead me to believe that he would always be waiting to talk with me. I found myself regretting that I had not gone to see him more often or stayed just a bit longer instead of deferring to things that I had to do. I still hear his comforting voice and smell the aroma of his pipe tobacco wafting into the air. There is so much more that I want to know about him and so much that I would like to say to him.

We seem to be living in a time when society is rushing around faster than ever before. The trend is to tie ourselves and our children to unrelenting schedules. We are continually exposed to an infinite loop of complaining about how terrible things are. We attempt to assuage our stress with entertainments that are of little or no value. Some attempt to hide their pain with drugs and alcohol. It can feel overwhelming to observe the level of dissatisfaction. All of it makes me long for the calm and contentment of my grandfather, a man who dealt with the hand that was given him with grace and appreciation.

When all is said and done my grandfather taught me that we have more control over our lives than we may think. Both good and bad things will indeed happen but we have the ultimate control over what attitudes we choose to have. His philosophy was to find a grain of good even in the worst possible scenario. He was a strong and courageous man not just because he had to be but because he wanted to be. He embraced each moment just as it was, learning something about the world and himself as he went. I miss him greatly but he taught me how to survive and showed me how precious life can and should be. He was my guru.

Our Own Hero’s Journey

hero-journey.jpg

My teen years were a time of awakening. It was as though I had lived in a childish bubble for all of my previous ages and only then began to look at the realities of the world around me. My education in high school was rigorous. I found myself working harder than I ever had. I learned about things that not even my mother knew. Before I had seen myself predominantly as a citizen of Houston, Texas and the United States of America with little interest in other places. I suddenly saw the possibilities of exploring new locales, new ideas, new ways of living.

I had little realization that even my ever expanding horizons were still restricted by the small size of my high school and the fact that my classmates and I were at heart so much alike. Still I somehow sensed that I needed to purposely seek different ways of doing things. Since I did not have the income to attend college out of town I chose a large public university in my city instead of accepting scholarships to the smaller private ones. I wanted to increase the likelihood that I would meet a diversity of people and thinking which is exactly what happened.

I found myself itching to go out on my own to see all of the world. I had briefly lived in both northern and southern California and had found those locales lacking in the kind of southern hospitality of my own city so I was more inclined to look to the east where I imagined myself writing and hobnobbing with the artsy set. I thought that perhaps I might one day be a professor of literature at some well known university, sitting on a stool in front of my students wrapped in a shawl and quoting passages from Shakespeare.

Life has a way of rearranging dreams. I met a young man who was intriguing. He had also grown up in Houston but on the opposite side of downtown from me. His mother had been married more than once which was unique at that time and his stepfather, whom he considered to be his real father, was a handsome Puerto Rican fellow with a slight accent and a perfect mastery of both English and  Spanish. My new beau had studied for a time in New Orleans and he introduced me to the wondrous glories of that city, a kind of Paris only a few hundred miles from where I lived. I found him to be exotic in an exciting way that was different from anyone I had ever before known.

We fell quickly and hopelessly in love and in the tradition of the day were soon married and bearing more responsibilities that we were likely prepared to face. Somehow we muddled through living off of an income that was impossibly small and learned how to fend for ourselves on the fly. He and I dreamed together of both becoming college professors and landing jobs in grand universities. All such fantasies halted when my mother first became ill with her bipolar disorder. It became apparent that we would need to stay close to her so that we might be ready to care for her and for my brothers who were still minors whenever her depression and mania became extreme. It was a blow, but one that was not as bad as we might have imagined.

A succession of challenges awaited us including the birth of our two children and a frightening illness that my husband contracted just as we were beginning to feel comfortable in our edited futures. He spent four days a week in the hospital getting chemotherapy for several months during which he was unable to work. We were not yet thirty but we had adapted to the point of being like forty year olds. Our sense of responsibility for our children led us to a very careful lifestyle that precluded any but highly practical ways of living. It was not as vagabonds roaming across the globe that we grew up, but as people clawing just to stay afloat. Somehow we made it work and we did it together and with the support of our families. It wasn’t as glamorous as we had dreamed but it brought us ever closer together and made us stronger than we might have been.

I often hear people insist that success may only be found in attending prestigious universities and living in new places. There is a tendency these days for young people to extend their youthful activities into their thirties, eschewing the kind of responsibilities that my husband and I had to face when we were still quite young. “To each his own” has always been my mantra but I worry that we are more and more becoming a society in which our relationships are built on false dreams that will not make us as happy as responsibility for others does.

I learned that in caring for others at a young age I matured quickly and learned important skills for my work life. My experiences were as critical in developing me as any formal class has ever been. I became a better person than the one I had pictured in my mind. It did not take moving away or traveling to exotic places for me to understand the nature and glories of people. I studied in the school of hard knocks and rose to the top of the class. My hardships and how I dealt with them were as instructive as a series of theoretical lectures.

When I first began teaching my principal noted that I behaved as though I had been in a classroom for years. She attributed my confidence to the excellent education that I had received at the same university that Elizabeth Warren attended. There was a certain truth in her observation, but more than that was the humility and appreciation for humankind that I had learned from the struggles that I had personally overcome one by one. It was not just learning from books and brilliant professors that brought me success, but also the kind of knowledge that is only found in the responsibilities of maintaining the health and welfare of others.

Wisdom is not a commodity that is easily purchased and there is no one way of achieving it. It often comes serendipitously. It is in the unexpected turns of our lives and how we approach them that we often grow the most. Facing up to our circumstances and making the sacrifices necessary for overcoming problems teaches us our capabilities. It is often in a crisis that our true natures appear. As painful as those moments may be they are indeed the most glorious opportunities for our ultimate development. Like all heroes on a difficult journey we too can become better than we had ever imagined.