What We Need

common-ground-dove

There were horrid things happening across the globe before I was born. There were horrid things happening across the globe when I was a child and a teen. I have witnessed horrid things happening as a young adult and now that I am in my seventies I still see horrid things happening both near and far. For a cockeyed optimist like myself it can be quite distressing to admit that there is something in our human natures that is sometimes violent and cruel. I always wanted to believe that mankind has been slowly evolving into a better version of itself, and I still think that is indeed true, but sadly it is such a slow process that it’s difficult to define the progress at times.

On a more personal level I see goodness in each of my friends and family members, people striving even sacrificing to be kind, loving, wise. Each individual has small moments of imperfection but on the whole they are grand examples of what mankind might aspire to be. They give me hope for the population at large because I do not believe that they are the aberrations, but rather that it is in the hateful and violent members of society that we find the outliers. Normal is good, abnormal is an unusual data point removed from the cluster of morality that defines most of the people in the world.

There are those who believe that the current times are somehow worse than other eras, but I would urge them to more carefully and thoughtfully study history because there is little that is actually new in the ways of our relationships and our politics. People have been lead astray by demagogues and tyrants for all time whether it be in a family, a friendship, a neighborhood, a town, a state or a nation. You would think that we would be more circumspect given all of the information about past troubles that we have, but in truth most of us are busy taking care of ourselves and those that we love. We tend to only have time to react rather than to reflect. Besides, with so many ideas and ideologies being thrown at us at once it is daunting to determine what is actually best. Instead history has often been a vast experiment of trial and error with some decisions enhancing mankind and others being dangerously abysmal failures. All too often hindsight becomes our teacher.

We can indeed learn from past mistakes but even then it’s important to realize that we are different from our ancestors. Times continually change and we are influenced heavily by our environments, what we love and what we fear or even hate. Making choices that will affect us and the people around us can be a gamble. Because each person on earth is unique there is no one size fits all way of educating or governing and yet we try even as we know that it is impossible to exactly meet everyone’s needs. Someone always seems to feel left out, abandoned either by family or nation. Such is the conundrum of our human attempts to make sense of the world and the reason why it is so difficult to enact solutions to the problems that plague us.

Freedom is a word with many meanings. Taken too far it can lead to trouble. Constricted too much it creates hostility. The key to a healthy person and society is providing just the right dose of fairness which may mean that the balance will sometimes seem unequal. Even within families a wise parent understands that no two children are identical, not even twins. So too it is with societies that attempt to be fair and just. It is difficult to know the best course of action.

As a school administrator I learned that some of my teachers wanted to be free to be themselves without much direction while others actually desired to have precise sets of rules by which to guide themselves. The trick in working with them involved crafting individual plans that took their specific needs into account. Allowing for differences sometimes created tensions because there were always those who insisted that everyone had to be treated exactly the same. The trouble with that logic is that it does not consider our human uniqueness and sounds good until it is executed in a real situation.

I find myself becoming increasingly disturbed by the urge of various forces to make us all think and act the same. We become enraged when we witness someone deviating from the thoughts and actions that we find the most appropriate. We harangue or shame those who disagree with us in the false hope that we might force them into submission to our way of looking at the world. Such has become a national pastime with celebrities being lauded or ostracized based on what they believe. In truth it is a kind of nationalized bullying that we need to abandon. We should be extremely careful that we are not ruining people’s reputations based solely on a desire to force agreement to our individual thoughts about how things should be. 

Propaganda and unwillingness to allow freedom of speech is growing all around us. Such efforts to control beliefs has been tried throughout history but it has never worked. We should be wary of those who would insist on conformity and resistance to divergent ideas. Right now we have people on both the far left and far right attempting to shut down our freedoms. What we need is for those who treasure liberty to lead by example which means acknowledging that we must make more efforts to consider the needs of each voice, not just our own. We must curb the outrage and find ways to understand and respect the very natures of our humanity. In doing so we might find the common ground that we both desire and need. As long as we keep censoring one another we will escape from the current cycle of outrage.

A Practical Approach

NXA841_open.jpgMy mom was a member of the generation that lived through the Great Depression. She was proud of the fact that nobody in her family ever missed a meal even though their food intake was heavily rationed. Her mother and father owned their home because they had built it room by rooming, paying cash for each addition. They had also turned their backyard into a vegetable garden and they bought a cow. Those things kept food on the table along with my grandfather’s job at a meat packing plant.

My mom often spoke of her mother’s ability to stretch a few items into a decent meal for the ten members of the family. According to my mother my grandmother usually waited until everyone had been served before she took her portion of the dinner. Sometimes that meant that she got her nourishment from sucking on the bones of the roast or eating the head of a fish.

After my father died my mama prided herself in being able to provide us with food on an unbelievably thin budget. She told us that she had learned all of her tricks from her mother and a home economics class that she took in high school. We might have egg sandwiches in our lunch bags or a bowl of pinto beans for dinner but we never went hungry and our menus were healthy. Snacks and sugary items were a grand luxury.

As each month waned our refrigerator would grow more and more empty, sometimes threatening to be devoid of any possible ingredients for dinner. Somehow my mama was a miracle worker who never once failed to come up with something delicious no matter the circumstances.

I never recall seeing a fully stocked pantry or refrigerator in our home. Mama purchased the basics and enforced a firm rule that we were not to eat anything without permission lest she had intended to use it to feed the family. I suppose that’s why I have never forgotten a scene that I saw in the movie Goodbye Columbus in which the main character, a poor college student, opens his wealthy girlfriend’s refrigerator to discover a cornucopia of fruit, vegetables, drinks, and meats filling every corner of the appliance.

I saw that film with my husband Mike when we were still dating. When I mentioned how stunning I thought that scene had been he did not understand. Upon finally visiting his home I realized why it had been so meaningless to him because his own refrigerator was just as well stocked.

In our first days of marriage we struggled to stay financially afloat and I was happy that like my mom I had learned how to stretch our food budget to the max. With the help of both my mother and may mother-in-law who often brought groceries when they visited I got us through our early years without starving.

Once we had both graduated from college and were working at good jobs I was able to fill the shelves of my refrigerator with better and better quality items. Today if one were to open the door of my appliance they would find apples, oranges, berries, tomatoes, avocados, asparagus, squash, cauliflower, broccoli, eggplant, peppers, and a host of other healthy fruits and vegetables along with chicken, fish, eggs, and cheese.

We live in a place where there is a remarkable bounty of food at affordable costs, a luxury that few other countries in the world enjoy. On a recent journey to England I realized that so many things that we take for granted were unavailable in the grocery stores where we shopped. The same was true in Austria and Canada. Our country’s proximity to Central and South America provides us with an almost endless supply of lovely produce. Our own farmers grow the rest.

I have heard of visitors from other countries marveling at our supermarkets. The variety of items that they hold almost overwhelms them. We had a German friend whose mom always wanted to spend time walking the aisles of Randall’s, Kroger, and HEB whenever she came to town. She was like a kid in a candy store.

Sadly there are still those even in this country who don’t have enough income to fill their larders. Like my mother and my grandmother they have to make do and hope that their dollars will stretch far enough to keep everyone fed until the next payday arrives. Sadly they don’t always possess the knowledge about food like my mom did or how to keep things healthy without breaking the bank. They don’t own their homes like my grandparents or have a cow. Nobody has taught them about budgets or nutrition or even how to cook and that is a travesty.

We spend a great deal of time in classrooms teaching our children about things that are interesting but not necessarily useful. Perhaps it’s time to change the way we educate our young. They need lessons in budgeting, shopping for healthy items and learning ways to prepare meals inexpensively. There really is a kind of science to running a healthy kitchen that fewer and fewer people understand. I think that a bit of practical knowledge would not only be well received by students but might also change their lives. We should not take for granted that such things just come naturally.

It would be wonderful if everyone had access to a refrigerator filled with the cornucopia of the one in Goodbye Columbus but since that will probably never happen maybe it’s time we at least gave everyone some guidance as to how to live better with what they have. My mom and my grandmother would have been in the one lowest economic levels but somehow they had the wherewithal to make their meager incomes work. Let’s teach everyone how to do that rather than just assuming that they will figure it out on their own. 

Faking It

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Minnie Bell rose anxiously from her bed at the end of the trailer worrying that she had somehow overslept on the first day of school. A quick glance at the alarm clock on the shelf at the foot of her sleeping quarters reassured her. It was only five in the morning and she had plenty of time before she had to depart.

It would be a day of firsts, the first time at middle school, the first time that both of her parents would not accompany her to meet the new teachers, the first time that her home was a twenty one foot trailer instead of the beautiful house where she had once lived. Somehow she dreaded the whole experience but school had always brought her joy and she needed  joy more than ever.

The summer had been difficult for Minnie Bell. Her father had been driving home from work when it happened, a freak accident really, something that never should have happened but did. The deer jumped in front of his car from nowhere. There was no way to stop or swerve without hurting another driver.  The huge animal flew into the air like a missile when he was hit and then returned to earth with such force that it broke the windshield of the car and ramming its rack of antlers into her father’s heart. Death was inevitable and instant the officer told Minnie and her mom. Daddy probably didn’t feel a thing.

The funeral and all of the days after that had been a blur. Minnie Bell could not imagine life without her father, the man who had christened her with a moniker that literally made people laugh. Hers was a regal name he convinced her, one that had once belonged to his great great grandmother, a strong woman with toughness and gentleness rolled up into one very tiny package according to family lore. “Bear yourself proudly, Minnie Bell,” he had commanded her as though her silly name was both a great gift and a responsibility.

Minnie Bell thought of how she and Mama had ended up living in an RV park inside the tiny trailer as she stowed away her bed linens on the upper bunk and transformed the bed into a table with benches on both sides. Her mother had delivered the bad news of their situation after spending the day “taking care of business.” The family finances were strained for now and they would have to make some changes for a time. “Soon enough we will be in a better situation,” Mama promised, “but for now we need to sell the house. We’ll have a little adventure living in our travel trailer. It will be fun. We’ll rent a space in the RV park near your school. I’ll get a job and maybe even go back to school myself. It will be our little bit of excitement.”

During the summer things had been fun. It was like an eternal camping trip. Mama worked in the office of the RV park and Minnie Bell walked dogs and did odd jobs for the mostly elderly people who lived there. They were all so nice. They taught Mama how to keep the systems inside the trailer working efficiently. They showed her how to get good television reception and how to make the most of the free Wifi in the park. They often invited Minnie Bell and her mother to dinner and one lady even made some new clothes for Minnie Bell to wear to school.

Minnie Bell and her mother had slowly adjusted to life without her father but as she prepared for a new school year a sadness and sense of foreboding overwhelmed her. Everything was so different and she did not want to talk about it with anyone. She hoped that she might be able to just fake it, not mention that her father had died or she had moved or any of it. She just wanted to pretend that nothing had happened.

Minnie Bell filled a bowl with cereal and sat quietly at the table worrying as her mother stirred in the bed at the other end of the trailer. She sat up and smiled at Minnie Bell across the space. “Hey, sweetie, are you ready for a grand new school year?’ she smiled as though there was nothing strange about the two of them living in cramped quarters with a future so uncertain that both of them often had nightmares.

Minnie Bell returned a weak smile for her mother. She would pretend that she was happy because she didn’t want Mama to have anymore worries. “I’m excited!” she lied. “I can’t wait to see my friends and meet my new teachers.”

Her mother was beaming now. The two of them bumped into one another as they bustled about the trailer getting ready for the new reality. Minnie Bell donned the outfit that the neighbor in the trailer next door had sewn for her. She gathered the school supplies that the residents of the park had surprised her with inside a brand new backpack. Mama handed her money to buy her lunch just for that day and then as Minnie Bell walked down the metal stairs of the trailer she was greeted by a crowd of well wishing neighbors who had gathered to take first day school pictures and give her hugs for good luck.

Minnie Bell wanted to just stay with the wonderful people who had supported her and her mother all summer long but now it was time to face the moment that she had most dreaded. She thought of her father and could almost hear him urging her to hold her head high and be as tough as her namesake had been. She looked at Mama who was so genuinely and hopefully smiling and she knew that she had to set her selfish fears aside. Daddy would want her to be his amazing girl and Mama needed for her to be a help, not a problem.

The ride to the school was only five minutes away. As Mama eased the truck into the school parking lot her face lit up with a happiness that she had not exhibited since that terrible day when Daddy died. “I have a feeling that this is going to be your best year ever, Minnie Bell,” she gushed, seeming to really mean it.

Minnie Bell forced a smile as she shook her head in agreement. Somehow she was going to make it even if she had to fake it.

Note: I often use a book of writing prompts for topic ideas. Today’s prompt asked me to write the first pages of a book for young readers. This is my idea. What do you think?   

Snakes and Dentists

emblem_bwpho·bi·a

/ˈfōbēə/

noun

  1. an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something.

I’m not superstitious nor to I believe in things like good luck charms. In general I am a very rational person who eschews conspiracy theories and urban myths. Still, I have to admit to having a number of phobias, among them being forced off of a bridge while driving my car and being caught in a burning building. Without a doubt, however, my two most heart pounding fears are of snakes and dentists.

We humans once lived in trees and so the fear of snakes is primordial and I suppose even a bit Biblical. In my own case it tracks back to two events from my childhood. The first occurred when an elderly neighbor was bitten by a water moccasin that wandered into her backyard from a nearby bayou. She stepped on it in the dark and at first thought she had accidentally stumbled over her dachshund. When she felt the sharp sting of the reptile’s venom she looked down and saw what had really happened. She spent many days in the hospital lingering near death and those of us who knew her kept vigil and prayed. I suppose that her advanced age had more to do with the seriousness of her condition than the actual bite but the thought of danger lurking in the dark of my yard haunted me so much that over time I developed a total aversion to any form of snake whether poisonous or not.

Like Indiana Jones I become mush at the mere thought of a snake and my anxieties with regard to them only increased after an incident with my grandmother when I was about six. She and my grandfather were living on a farm in Arkansas back then and they prided themselves in being able to live mostly off of the bounty of the land. They planted crops that kept them generously supplied with fruit and vegetables and raised chickens and a cow for meat and milk. Grandma was a kind of pioneer woman who was handy with a rifle and she proved her mettle by bagging deer and squirrels as well. More than anything she was an expert fisherwoman. I suppose my father learned to love fishing from her.

One afternoon when we were visiting the farm my grandmother and grandfather decided to go angling for fish and asked if I wanted to come along. I so enjoyed being with them that i joyfully agreed to go. When we got to the place where they hoped to get some fresh trout for dinner my grandmother first went to inspect the area. Without any sort of explanation she returned to the car with a concerned look and sternly warned me to stay in the car assuring me that they would not take long. To say that I was disappointed would be an understatement. It was a warm summer day and even though the car was parked under the shade of an enormous tree I soon became hot and bored. I defied my grandmother’s command and decided to join her on the rickety wooden pier where she was so intent on fishing that she did not see me coming up behind her.

As I approached my grandparents I suddenly saw what seemed to be an army of snakes lifting their heads out of the water as though waiting for a handout from the humans invading their habitat. When one of them attempted to slither up a pillar of the structure where she was standing Grandma took her fishing pole and beat it away. I was so stunned and horrified that I began screaming in terror. Grandma spun around to see me and without a word hurried me back to the safety of the car, chastising me for ignoring her instructions. As she and Grandpa gathered up their catch and their fishing gear I sat in the automobile more disturbed than ashamed. I could not get the horrific vision of all of those snakes out of my mind. In all honesty it still haunts me if truth be told. From that moment forward I have been totally terrorized by the mere thought of snakes.

My dental anxieties are also a product of my youth. I had the unfortunate bad luck to have a pediatric dentist who never should have been allowed to interact with children. From a very young age I needed a great deal of work on my teeth and he did little to make the process bearable. In fact he berated me for what he was sure were bad eating habits each time I visited his office. In truth my mother never purchased sugary treats or drinks with the exception of very special occasions and she was fastidious about having me brush my teeth both morning and night, so the doctor’s harangues were always confusing to me because I was only about five years old when he seemed to take delight in punishing me by inflicting pain.

I never mentioned any of this to my mother because I just assumed that his methods were the way it always was. As I grew older I simply armed myself with prayer which on one occasion included bringing a set of rosary beads to pray while he tortured me. When he saw me clinging tightly to the beads and moving my fingers along them one by one he became enraged and called my mother back into his office. His tone was accusing when he demanded to know why I was insulting him by insinuating that I needed the help of the Blessed Mother herself to endure my session with him. At that point all of my concerns spilled out at once in a kind of core dump of fear. My mother gathered me up immediately and we never again returned to his office.

Since that time every single dentist that I have visited has been kind and virtually pain free but my phobia continues. It is as though I worry that one day I will once again encounter a thoughtless dentist who will subject me to pain. I can’t seem to get over the trauma of my earliest experiences of keeping my teeth strong and healthy. Such is the nature of a phobia.

I suspect that most phobias are born in our earlier memories of painful situations. We sometimes assume that frightening experiences need little explanation but sometimes they linger in the subconscious growing into monsters that never leave us. When my eldest daughter was only three we took her to a lovely park in San Juan, Puerto Rico. As we sat on a bench enjoying the view a huge swarm of pigeons flew in to greet us and perhaps get a snack or two. We laughed with delight but it was apparent that our daughter was quite disturbed. A cousin who was with us happened to also be a psychologist. He insisted that we talk with our little girl about what had happened and allow her to express her fears Over the next few days he gently brought up the incident several times until he was certain that she truly understood that it was okay for her to feel frightened and that the birds had actually meant no harm.

Perhaps if someone like the cousin had been around to counsel me way back in the past I might be comfortable with both snakes and dentists. Sadly that is not to be.

The Three

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I was challenged to create three doable goals, things that I might actually be able to achieve in my lifetime. Since I am already in my seventies the odds are rather good that I won’t be doing anything that requires many years to accomplish or athleticism that I am unlikely to develop at this late stage of the game of life. Instead my three goals are rather modest because I have already done the big things that I hoped to do. My life is slower and more peaceful since retirement and so too will be my goals.

The book that I have written hangs over me like a nagging tyrant. I only need to get someone to create a cover for it and format it for printing and I can instantly put it on the market.  Heretofore I have allowed outside circumstances to distract me from that task. I suppose that I have also unconsciously worried that the response to my writing efforts will be ignored, or even worse, criticized. It’s time for me to screw up my courage and get the job done. I will be quite disappointed with myself if this year ends and I have not yet made that one important task come to fruition. It’s been eight years since I composed the final chapter of my memoir. Now it’s well past time to bring it into the light of day for all to hopefully read.

I also want to travel as much as possible while my health allows me to do so. There are so many places that I still want to explore. Vacations to different parts of the world comprise many of my fondest memories and I’m still healthy and energetic enough to enjoy the excitement of a good trek. I want to see Italy and perhaps go to the homeland of my immigrant grandparents in Slovakia. Scotland is calling me as is Paris. I have longed to take an Alaskan junket and I still haven’t seen states like Oregon and Idaho. I’d like to go back to New York City and London for a deeper dive into the wonder of those glorious cities. I long to keep going until I no longer am able. There will be time enough to languish around the house when my old bones grow weary. Until then I will keep going and seeing and doing.

My third goal is to keep myself healthy and alert. That means developing a routine of diet and exercise that will make the most of my aging body. It will require a willingness to continue to learn and change with the times. I want to stay fit and woke, surrounding myself with positive people and experiences. I want to go into my twilight years with few regrets which means that I have to aggressively keep in mind that a failing body or mind will limit my ability to accomplish other things. I’ve ordered The Blue Zones Kitchen cookbook and plan to follow recipes that have proven to help with longevity. I also intend to head back to the gym with a vengeance that was sorely lacking last year.

I have no idea what actually lies ahead for me or for the rest of the world. I’ve seen things change on a dime in my lifetime and read about cataclysms in history that upended lives in unexpected and dramatic ways. Nonetheless I’m not yet ready or willing to retire to the comfort of my home living a quiet existence as I wait for the final chapters of my life. I long to write them instead by controlling as much as I can and reacting to challenges as they arise.

I do not plan to go gently into that good night, at least for now, unless I truly believe that it is God’s will for me to hang up my spurs. The beginning of this year was punctuated with the deaths of two dear people who fought valiantly against the dying of the light. My cousin extended her time here on earth beyond the predictions of her doctor. She willed herself to squeeze every waking minute out of her waning days. My aunt was told many years ago that she would not walk again but she defied the odds through sheer determination. She refused to surrender to other people’s beliefs about what she might accomplish. It was only in the last couple of years as she approached her ninety fifth birthday that she began to noticeably slow down bodily, but her mind was still as strong as ever. Only a day or so before she died she beat the younger members of her family in a game of intellectual skill. She went to her grave the winner that she always was.

My idols are the people who refuse to allow the specter of old age to daunt them. They operate as though they are still young at heart, making the most of every single day for as long as they can. My grandfather read and quoted a biography of Thomas Jefferson on his one hundred eighth birthday. He walked to the polls to vote in a presidential election when he was almost a hundred years old. He was still building things and doing repairs in his home deep into his nineties. I want to be like him and so my goals revolve around continuing to have a purpose. I intend to keep tutoring students in math, writing each day, taking care of business until my mind and body prevent me from doing so, My three goals reflect my determination.

If I were to take after my relations I might still have over thirty years to make a difference on this earth. I’m not done yet, so it’s time for me to get with the program and meet those three goals.