Dancing With Reckless Abandon

to_dance_around_the_sun_by_schakoyana

My empathy meter has been in overdrive of late. It has been a rough few months and weeks for so many that I know and for others whom I have never met, but for whom I have great sympathy. I have felt incredibly frustrated because I have not been able to actually give tangible help to any of the people about whom I have worried. The best that I have had to offer is a kind word, a listening ear, a hug and some prayers. The list of people for whom I am sending entries to God has steadily grown to the point that I just say, “you know who needs your help” whenever I implore the Lord to give them comfort and maybe even a miracle. Still, my efforts feels so feeble because I tend to be a control freak and the world is crowding out my ability to take charge. For that reason I reached a low point recently and felt that I needed to find a way to lift my own spirits. That’s when something rather extraordinary happened.

I was idly perusing the posts on my Facebook wall when I saw a photo from my friend Serena. It was a picture of her and her daughter at the beginning of the school year. My relationship with Serena goes back decades when she and I were both teaching mathematics at South Houston Intermediate. Our principal had chosen both of us to attend a conference and so we shared a hotel room where we got to really know each other. Serena was literally young enough to be my daughter. In fact, she was around the same age as my two girls.

I suppose that I appeared to be a middle aged motherly figure to her but that all changed when she set her alarm to play music to wake us up one morning. The radio clicked on at the appointed time and played a song by Depeche Mode. Serena quickly apologized for not thinking that songs from such a group might be a bit too strange for me. When I laughed and admitted that Depeche Mode was one of my all time favorite bands our friendship was sealed. We talked about which of their songs we liked best and what other groups we enjoyed. That broke down the wall that our differing ages had created and from that point forward Serena and I regularly got together for long and very deep conversations. It was only when she decided to return to her home state in the midwest that we lost touch.

Eventually Serena and I found each other again on Facebook and I happily learned that she was married, had a daughter and was still teaching math. I have taken great joy in viewing her happiness over the years and I’ve even considered making a trip up north one day to visit with her once again.

That takes me back to seeing a photo of Serena at the time when I was feeling rather dreary over all of the pain and suffering that is going on around me. It made me smile to think of how wonderful Serena’s life has been, but it also reminded me of a time when I was a forty something woman at the peak of health, joy and accomplishment. In those years I regularly listened to Depeche Mode at full volume and danced around my house with reckless  abandon. It was an unbelievably freeing experience that unleashed the person that I truly am. The photo of Serena triggered those feelings of elation that I used to feel and I thought what elation dancing has always provided me. I suddenly decided to ask Alexa to play some Depeche Mode and when I heard  those familiar sounds I pranced around my great room like I was at a party . I didn’t feel at all silly since my husband was off helping his father with a computer problem. I was energetic and free and chasing away all of my negative thoughts.

One thing led to another as I took a kind of walk down memory lane and felt a genuine sense of happiness in thinking of friendships that I have cherished with people like Serena. I also harked back to my teaching days and how I had felt such a sense of purpose in helping so many students to master the fundamentals of mathematical concepts. The faces of my students literally passed through my mind. That’s when I realized how to channel my worry for those about whom I care into something meaningful.

I am presently working with a student who is feeling rather anxious about his high school math class. Helping him will be so constructive, and it is something that uses one of my talents in a positive fashion. I also now homeschool seven other students in math. It takes little of my time, but makes me feel as though I am still contributing to the good of the future. Somehow I have always found a modicum of comfort in the act of learning during the most difficult times of my life. Focusing on something that engages my brain helps me to stop the cycle of anxiety that builds up when things are going awry. I’ve found shelter for my fears in academic pursuits from the time that my father died and all through the years when I was caring for my mother. I highly recommend learning of any kind as an antidote to sadness.

I also realized as I was dancing around that any effort that I make to ease the pain of someone else is a good thing regardless of how small it may be. I know that I whenever someone has sent me a card or thought to call or invite me to something that might take my mind from my woes, I have always felt better. They could not change the situation that concerned me but just knowing that someone cared was enough to get me through the worst times of my life.

It’s funny how that little photo of Serena lifted my spirits and helped me to think more deeply about how to tame my sadness. Friendships are like that. They reach across the miles and and through the years to remind us of the blessings that we have. My heart is lighter now and I know that there will be brighter days ahead. They always come and I foresee lots of dancing my future.    

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The Ticking Clock

Clock-600x363

How can it already be September? Wasn’t it only yesterday that we were ringing in the New Year? When did tiny strands of grey appear in my hair. How did my knees come to ache when I walk too far? Wasn’t it only yesterday that I was able to run like a deer and see without the aide of spectacles? When did my long narrow waist become thick? From whence came the wrinkles and folds in my skin. Wasn’t I a young woman looking into the future with boundless dreams only a week or so ago? How does the same time that creeps in its petty pace suddenly race so quickly that I lose track of its passage?

I never thought of growing older. It seemed to be an aspect of life reserved for my elders. Somehow it rarely occurred to me that I might one day be respectfully called “mum” or “mother” as a sign of my advancing age. I look into the mirror and I see my twenty year old self, not the seventy year old woman who has lost two and a half inches of height and whose eyelids droop over her once big brown eyes. My brush accumulates more and more of my thinning hair and I have taken to wearing comfortable shoes rather than stylish pumps. The world and its future is being overtaken by younger women with ideas that sometimes seems as strange to me as mine appear to them. Yet somehow I find myself fighting to maintain my relevance, my purpose on this earth before I am called to one day leave.

My mother embraced her age as have so many women before me. I struggle to stay in the game, to be considered woke. Haven’t there been women my age running for President of the United States? Isn’t Ruth Bader Ginsburg still demonstrating an incredible acuity of mind? Who determines when someone should retire to a state of old age? Why should I simply sit back and watch the rising and setting of the sun without making efforts to squeeze every single second of meaning out of my existence? After all I come from a line of people who live for a very long time. If I make it as much time as two of my aunts I still have at least thirty more years to contribute to society. If I consider my grandfather I can tack on another eight years. People have entire careers in less time than I may still enjoy if I am true to my DNA.

The world is not the place it was. We are often able to keep our minds and our bodies vibrant far longer than once thought possible. Our appearances may change and we may move with less vigor, but our minds are as alive as ever. Coupled with the experiences that we have had we are in many ways the wise men and women of our time. We’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. We’ve endured triumphs and tribulations and learned from each of them. We understand that simple answers are rare, but there are solutions for even the seemingly most hopeless situations. We also understand that there comes a time when we must give the young the freedom that they need to learn how to be stewards of the world when it is time for them assume the leadership roles that we once held.

Hopefully the world that we leave behind will be somehow better for our having been here. I’d like to think that each of us will have a positive impact on some person or problem or advancement. Since there is still so much to be done, we should search for new ways of making a difference now that we are no longer part of the teeming race of workers who report to jobs each day. Ours may now be small almost imperceptible contributions that nonetheless are important. What we accomplish may be as simple as sending an encouraging word to a young person who is struggling to launch. Ours are now the quieter moments that touch individuals more often than creating a buzz in the crowd.

I am indeed older. I see loveliness in the hard work that shows on my hands. Unlike what people may think about someone of my age, I know that I am more open and forgiving than I once was for I have seen my own humanity and weaknesses. I have somehow overcome them with the grace and help of others. It has been in the kindnesses of even people that I did not know that I have been able to survive this long. Now I understand that it is up to me to continue to pay my blessings forward.

I do my best to spend a part of each day outside of myself. I have friends who are far more gifted in such ways than I am and they continually inspire me. I see them spending time at nursing homes and bringing smiles to people who are sick and lonely. I watch them unselfishly donating their talents to causes that make life better. I read their evangelical praises of God and know that they are living breathing angels of example. I am awed by them and do my best to emulate them in tiny ways. They are my peers who are not daunted by the passing of time and the aging of their bodies. They are good people who forget themselves and focus on others.

We live in a world that idolizes the young and the beautiful. That is perhaps as it should be, but those of us who are moving ever closer to the inevitability of closing the circle of life still have so much to offer. We need to spend each day with purpose and resolve. The truly beautiful are those who forget about their images in the mirror and instead devote precious time to benefitting the world just a bit more.

A Dark and Shady Place

shady place

When I was in the second grade I stole a fifty cent piece from the dresser of a friend. I rather impulsively grabbed it when she was out of the room and stuffed it in my pocket. Even before I had taken it home I was beginning to feel queasy about what I had done but I was unable to find a way to return it without being caught in the act. My regrets grew into full blown guilt by the time I was hiding the coin in my room. I had no idea how to pay for my sin other than to carry my ill gotten gains with me each time I visited by friend in the hopes of finding a moment alone when I might return her money to her. It took a number of tries but I eventually placed the shiny half dollar back where it belonged.

Somehow my conscience would not allow me to feel as though I had done enough. I found myself leaving quarters and even dollar bills in my friend’s room as compensation for what I had done. I even considered confessing to her but never had enough courage to do so. Instead I began repeating the story of my theft over and over again when I went to confession in my parish Catholic church. Nonetheless I wasn’t able to shake the feeling of regret that seemed to follow me like a bad penny.

It never occurred to me that any of the priests to whom I admitted my sins might remember my story but one of them did and when I told him what I had done for the umpteenth time he cautioned me in frustration to either believe that my transgression had been forgiven or quit coming to him with my lack of faith that God had already absolved me. He went so far as to tell me that my unwillingness to pardon myself was far worse than the small transgression that I had so thoughtlessly committed against my friend. He urged me to move forward with my life and not keep looking back.

That moment was crucial in my development as an adult. It taught me the true meaning of reconciliation, a willingness to acknowledge that we humans may fall but we also have the possibility of reforming our ways. When such a change takes place it is time to focus on the beauty of the salvation that has occurred rather than to obsessively keep returning to the past. Just as I grew and learned from my experience as a very young child, so too do we all become different and often better versions of ourselves as we journey through life. Until we draw our last breaths there is always the possibility of righting wrongs we have committed and making peace with those that we have hurt. Once we do that it is toxic to either carry our own baggage of guilt or to force someone else to be weighed down by theirs. If forgiveness is to be real it must blot out the past.

There is a new trend to search through the words and actions of mostly famous people to find something that they may have done or said many years ago and hold them up to judgement and ridicule. It doesn’t appear to matter that they may have changed or that they have apologized. They are shamed and held accountable to such an extent that they sometimes lose their jobs and their reputations. It is a kind of modern day witch hunt with comments being taken out of context or twisted to the point of losing their original intent. This practice is intended to create havoc for the targeted individual and often comes with personal information that leads to harassment. Even when the people victimized by this technique attempt to provide explanations or make atonement they are often deemed eternally guilty without hope of forgiveness.

There is something quite wicked about refusing to allow a person or an entire group of people the benefit of reconciliation. It implies a kind of dictatorship of the mind that binds transgressions into a cycle of eternal punishment. Once someone has fallen there is no hope of rising again with this type of thinking. It runs contrary to our very humanity and pits us in lifelong struggles with one another. We become a nation of Hatfields and McCoys, Montagues and Capulets engaged in a never ending feud.

The reality is that most of us have done something in the past for which we ultimately felt regrets. We evolve as adults hopefully becoming better versions of ourselves. We each deserve the opportunity to be redeemed and seen as our wiser and kinder selves. Unless our former transgressions were so egregious as to require jail time, our sins should be forgotten once we have made peace with ourselves, our God and those that we may have hurt. The focus should be on who we are now, not who we once might have been.

People have the power to change. Nations have the power to change. Just as we should not hold the children of Germany responsible for the sins of their parents and grandparents, so too should we be willing to focus on good intentions and efforts rather than only on the bad. It accomplishes nothing to spend time dwelling on past transgressions when there is more work on improving to be done. Throwing us into the shade of continual guilt trips is as wrong as I was when I so childishly obsessed over my own flawed character. It’s time we genuinely embrace forgiveness for those who earnestly seek it.

  

I See You

I See You

I went to a fairly small high school in which we tended to know of everyone of our classmates, but often did not really know details about all of them. Some of my friends from that stage of my life are still very much part of my world, and what I have learned over the decades is that each of us have had to deal with difficulties both when we were young, and when we were adults. None of us have gone untouched by daunting challenges that sometimes took all of our reserves to overcome.

As I have aged I have had opportunities to get to really know some of the people who went to school with me who were once little more than acquaintances or names and faces in a yearbook. Even those that I thought had a golden touch have endured painful experiences, and many of them occurred even as they sauntered through the hallways of our school with smiles on their faces hiding the hurt and fear that was stalking them.

We are in a strange kind of era in which we almost appear to be vying to determine which people among us have been the victims of the most unjust tragedies. Certainly some among us have always had more resources for dealing with difficulties, but none of us have ever been entirely free of troubles. My brothers and I had a heavy dose of sorrow, poverty and exposure to mental illness but we also had more than a generous share of emotional support from our mother, our extended family, our neighbors, the people at our church, our teachers and our friends. We may have been thrown into the maelstrom more than we might have wished, and wondered at times if we would survive, but time and again we learned the very important lesson that we were never alone. That realization was more valuable than money or possessions or influence or privilege. In fact, we were quite young when we knew beyond a doubt that there is always is source of kindness and that often it comes from the most unexpected places.

The one thing that most people desire is to be seen and heard. I recently read a book that my grandson chose for his summer reading that reminded me of our human need to be noticed and honored for being exactly who we are. A Monster Calls is the story of a young man plagued by nightmares in the midst of his beloved mother’s battle with cancer. It is a gorgeous flight of fancy that speaks to our desire to be understood. There is no race or class that does not share the desire to be fully and totally accepted.

Just as the boy in A Monster Calls was filled with anger because he believed that nobody fully understood him, so too are many people in society today filled with rage because they feel misunderstood. They are mad about this or that and don’t want to take it anymore. They seem to be unaware of the fact that we all have been burdened with challenges beyond our control that have made our lives more difficult than we want them to be. They carry on because they want someone to empathize with their plights, some of which appear to be more deserving of our concern than others. In truth it is impossible to discern the difference between rotten apples and moldy oranges. Problems are problems and we all have them. When they pile up and become unbearable, which they tend to do in spite of our efforts, we simply want some compassion and for those around us to acknowledge our sorrows.

When humans feel abandoned they are more likely to lose hope. They lash out or devolve into depression. There is no telling where their thoughts of desperation will lead them. Sometimes they become ugly and violent versions of themselves. I always ponder when I encounter such a person what brought them to such a terrible place. I find myself wondering if someone along the pathway of their lives might have helped them to find positive ways of dealing with tribulations. I contemplate the possibility that they became so invisible that they broke.

I  have been greatly saddened by a tragedy that occurred near where my grandsons live. On a summer afternoon just before the start of school two boys the same age as my grandsons met in a park. One of them shot and killed the other. They were sixteen and my grandsons knew both of them from their high school. The shooter was in the same advisory period as theirs. The victim’s mother was an acquaintance of their mom’s. It hit all of us hard just as it did the teachers at the school. Everyone wondered what might have prevented such an horrific moment. Was there something that might have been said or done? What was the defining event when things began to go so terribly wrong?

We tend to operate as though laws and rules and allegiances are more important than individual lives, and yet there are stories after stories both in literature and history of people who were saved because someone witnessed their pain and did something meaningful to help them. Kindness often does wonders. I know for a fact that it made an enormous difference for me and my brothers when we were growing into adults. Just having someone see us and offer a hand taught us to be optimistic even in the darkest hours. Little acknowledgements were enough to sustain us.

I was reading about Latinas going to college and feeling different and a bit frightened when checking into their dormitories. It reminded me of my own college days. I was unable to live on campus. I went to the university in my city and commuted to and from school each day. I did not have a car but I had two dear friends who offered to get me there and take me back home. They went out of their way to help me.

I would have liked to have been part of college life with a dorm room and all of the activities associated with that experience, but I barely had enough money to cover my tuition which I paid from summer jobs and little bits of work here and there. I instead got something even better, a lifetime relationship with the two wonderful souls who made sure that I got to my classes. They saw me and they listened to me then and all the way into the present. I don’t know what I might have done without them, but I’ll never have to wonder because they were there.

Perhaps instead of growing irritated by those who are shouting about their pain and sorrow, we simply need to let them know that we do see them and we will listen to them. That is the first step in helping someone to find the way to a better life. I had angels who gave me that gift, I pray that other frightened souls will find someone willing to provide for them.

Those Kids

bad kids

A cousin shared a story from The Washington Post written by a teacher who considered the dilemma of THAT kid, the one that drives teachers crazy and worries the parents of the “good” children. I was sobbing by the time that I reached the end of the very well crafted piece because I thought of all of THOSE kids who crossed my path during my teaching career. They touched my heart when I taught them and to this very day I worry about what may have come of them. They were the youngsters whose lives were riddled with troubles that not even an adult should have to face. Their behavior all to often reflected the pain that they were feeling and the confusion that they riddled their minds in having to face situations that were beyond their control. I hope that I helped them in some way, but I also know that there were times when they frustrated me so that I let them down. I see their faces with those looks of longing for compassion that were often masked by actions that seemed so horrid.

The first of them was a child of only ten who disrupted class on a regular basis. Most did not know that she lived in dire poverty with absentee parents. She was followed by the nine year old boy whose mother left him to watch his little sister while she worked nights as a prostitute. There was the young man whose mother had attempted to set him on fire when he was only an infant and the girl whose uncle impregnated her when she was only twelve. I’ll never forget the teen who witnessed his father murdering his mother or the one whose mother shoplifted to keep the family from starving. They were all part of a band of children whose lives were often defined by poverty and parents struggling to fight their own demons. They did not start life as troublemakers. They did not want to be viewed as bad seeds. They were innocents who got chewed up by a world that they did not fully understand. In their fight for survival they asserted themselves and pushed back. They became angry and difficult to handle.

How many of us would have been able to endure some of the horrors that they faced? Fate had subjected them to ordeals that no child should ever encounter. They acted out. They behaved badly. They were screaming for someone to help them.

I did my best with most of them but sometimes I became tired and frustrated and passed them along in anger. I wanted them to be punished for ruining the calm of my classroom. I disliked them for the distractions that they were. I fell into the pattern that they had already experienced hundreds of times from adults, that of being ignored or punished for the sin of reacting to adversity the way most of us probably would given the circumstances of their lives. I feel guilt for the times when I gave up on them.

There was a young man from a decidedly dysfunctional family. He exuded a tough guy image. It was his way of coping with abuse by those who were supposed to love him. He made an ugly racist comment to another student. He claimed that he was only joking, but I knew that he was really just crying for help. Our answer was to expel him from our school. A counselor sobbed for him and begged us to reconsider. I was afraid to counter the majority opinion even though I did not believe that sending him away was an appropriate answer. I voted with the group rather than following my instincts. He only became worse because in a sense we had convinced him that he was as worthless as his parents constantly told him that he was. I still grieve over my lack of courage in defending him along with his braver advocate. He needed love at that moment, not rejection, but we we not willing to listen.

So it often is with THOSE students. We adhere without thought to sets of rules that do not take into account what is behind the reprehensible behaviors. We wash our hands in innocence insisting that exceptions only make matters worse. It’s easier to operate from words on a paper, set in stone without consideration of all of the facts.

I think of one of my very best principals, a woman who cautioned me to be flexible with my rules and consequences. She urged me never to paint myself into a corner. She warned me that there will always be those for whom the so called rules do not really apply. She was as wise as Solomon in guiding me when I was just a pup in the beginning of my teaching career. I understood what she meant as I met more and more of THOSE kids. I realized that I had to attempt to reach them rather than judge them. I had to love them as much as I did the ones who were no trouble at all.

I witnessed transformations. The boy who threw books and told me to F off graduated with honors as the president of his class. The young man who ran with gangs doing despicable things changed his ways and became a police officer. The kid who nobody could control went to college and earned multiple degrees because “somebody took the time to care.” Nobody should ever wantonly be tossed on the dustbin of society while they are still young. Our goal should be to redeem them rather than to urge retribution against them.

I still cry at the thought of what some of my students had to endure. I flinch with guilt at the realization of how I may have failed them too. I hope that I made a difference for most of them. I’d like to think that perhaps they are now doing well. I still love THOSE kids. I hope they know.