Let It Go

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I grew up in Houston, Texas in the south. As a child I remember hearing Dixie being played and sung now and again. When I was young I actually believed that I had descended from Confederate Rebels and it was only later that I found out how wrong I had been. Of course my mom’s ancestors were busy chafing under the rule of Hungarians while the Civil War raged here. It was from my father’s side that I assumed that I had come from bonafide Johnny Reb stock. Imagine my shock, and maybe even a bit of relief, when my genealogical searches revealed that my great grandfather, John William Seth Smith, was a Lieutenant in the Kentucky Volunteers and that he fought for the Union. In fact, he participated in a number of crucial battles and was around to bury the dead at Shiloh. It ends up that the inclement weather and horror of that event badly affected his health in later years and after the war he seemed rather intent on putting his days of fighting behind him. I suppose that those of us who are still arguing over the aftermath of that terrible conflict might be wise to follow his lead.

I’ve always had a fascination for history and so I have read a number of biographies and historical texts. Robert E. Lee was someone about whom I wanted to know more. In so many ways he was an enigma. He graduated from West Point and for a time was one of the most highly respected generals in the Army of the United States. He sometimes questioned the morality of slavery, but nonetheless held the odd belief that it served a purpose in helping the enslaved humans to learn the necessary skills to be full fledged members of society. He loved his country but felt a higher allegiance to his state. He saw secession as treason, but agreed to join the Confederate cause nonetheless. In other words he was a highly conflicted man who wanted to be honorable but often demonstrated profound confusion about how one should live. In the end he actually felt that the long war should never have happened, and he spent much of his later years attempting to free his soul from guilt. 

The aftermath of most wars becomes a time for trying and punishing those guilty of crimes or treason, while the rest of the population goes on to live ordinary and quiet lives like my grandfather. The days after the Civil War were different. Both Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant felt that no purpose would be served in meting out vengeance against their fellow countrymen who had gone astray. There were no trials in which Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders were held accountable or punished. Instead they were allowed to live with only their own self reflection to determine the final chronicle of what they had done. For Robert E. Lee it was a bitter pill to ruminate on the utter folly of the war and its impact on the entire country. He must have asked himself time and again why he had gone against his own beliefs that secession would be a fools errand.

Time has a way of glossing over the ugly realities of history. As the years passed people from the south often found ways to excuse the actions of their ancestors who had believed that destroying the country was actually the only way to deal with political conflicts. They saw the war as being noble and courageous, but the truth is that it was a horror that need never have happened. To celebrate those who led their fellowmen into the very jaws of hell seems to be a rather ridiculous idea, and yet that is what happened in cities and towns all across the south where monuments and statues were erected to honor men who in many ways had been fools. Perhaps it was a way of ignoring the truth of how incredibly wrong the entire conflict had been.

It would be one thing to mourn the lost souls who died in those terrible battles that pitted American brother against American brother, but it is quite another to glorify those who had took the common people so far astray. It would be akin to building monuments in honor of Adolf Hitler all over Germany. We would surely see the inappropriateness of such memorials, but somehow we fail to realize how ludicrous it is to honor men who literally performed treasonous acts against the United States when they chose to go to war against the government. Perhaps Robert E. Lee said it best. “I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”

We have harbored the feelings of separation and divisiveness far too long. Walking through the Shiloh battlefield I felt no glory, but only a deep sadness that people were unable to find ways to settle their differences through any means other than fighting and killing. There is no magnificence at Gettysburg, only despair that man’s anger overwhelmed his ability to find common solutions. War is always hell. Slavery was wrong. We all know in our hearts that these are truths. Why then do we continue to quibble over hunks of stone and metal that remind us of a past that was horrific by anyone’s standards? We can remember all of those who lost their lives with compassion, but we need not attempt to honor those who were responsible for the carnage. Taking down the troublesome statues does not erase the history, for we can never forget how terrible it was. Instead it focuses on understanding and a willingness to move on and let go of feelings that seem to have festered long after they should have been set aside.

I suspect that if Robert E. Lee were to hear of the battles that now ensue over the appropriateness of monuments to in his honor he would remind us of his own words and respectfully ask us to take the monoliths down. We should do so not out of a sense of political correctness, but because it is time for healing that will never fully happen until we are willing to admit to the wrongness of that terrible chapter of our history. We can place those images on battlefields or inside museums where the story of that time might be told, but it is no longer necessary to glorify the mistakes of our past. We must move ever forward and remember the words of another contemporary of Robert E. Lee.

As the war neared its end and President Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address his mood was melancholy and compassionate. He pointed to the horrific waste of the war but also its necessity in bringing justice to our land. Still he wanted all of us to come together as brothers “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have born the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and all nations.”

This is our challenge as the American people. In the name of all 600,000 men who lost their lives as well as those who were forever altered, it is time for us to heed the words of our great president who himself became a martyr to his noble dedication to the proposition that all men are created equal. It is far past time to stop the fighting and to let it go.

The Dragonfly

Dragonfly

I have a friend who lost her baby boy shortly after he was born. It was an incredibly sad and gut wrenching time for her and her family, but she somehow managed to find great courage and a noble spirit from deep inside her soul during the frightening time when her child fought to stay alive. Her acts of love in the little boy’s final moments were touching, inspirational and heart breaking to all of us who know her. In a beautiful act of remembrance this devoted mother has never forgotten her baby boy who would have been six years old had he lived, a child who might have been entering first grade and embarking on educational and athletic adventures. With each passing year the family holds a celebration of his brief life with a visit to his gravesite and a birthday cake marking the passing of time during which they have never forgotten the blessings that he brought them with his very condensed life. This year was no exception, and my darling friend recorded the tradition with photos on Facebook and a lovely story that seemed to make the occasion even more special than ever.

This woman is a school administrator, and this is a very busy time of year for her thus she had waited until the last minute to purchase a little birthday cake to commemorate her angel son. When she went to the bakery at the grocery store that she frequents the cake decorators had all gone home for the day. The only available cakes were generic and she wanted so much to have her little boy’s name written on the confection. When she told her story to the employees they went into action determined to grant her request, even though none of them had ever written with icing before. They scurried around until they had found the frosting and the tools that they needed, and practiced scribing before finally feeling confident enough to place the baby’s name on the cake of remembrance. It was a moment of shared love and respect between strangers who had come to understand one another all because of a little boy whose life, however brief, had somehow transformed his family and friends.

Life can be glorious if we open ourselves to it, and my friend has certainly done that. She understands perhaps a bit better than many of us that we have to embrace and experience every possible second of the beauty of our existence. She has turned her hurt and pain into a model of compassion for everyone that she encounters. Her caring spirit is so apparent that she impacts people wherever she goes. She has learned through tragedy how truly important people and relationships are. She cherishes each precious second of every day, and turns her world into a moveable feast of joy.

We humans sometimes have a tendency to lose faith and bathe ourselves in anger and jealousy. We compare our lot to others and often find ourselves lacking, so we brood over our desire for things that we believe that we too should have. Rather than finding ways to enjoy what is present, we seek more and more. Sometimes that quest actually binds us to a never ending search for satisfaction that makes us anxious and unfulfilled. We somehow never stop long enough to take stock of the most wondrous aspects of our lives, and so we fret and worry and become convinced that we have somehow been battered by unfairness.

Our real riches are always found in those profound moments when we are able to connect in an almost spiritual manner with the people around us. The Sunday afternoon visit of a grandchild delighting us with her uncomplicated curiosity and discovery is worth more than a bag of gold. Hearing her laugh and observing her openness to the world reminds us of how we too should live. We feel the innocence and love that she radiates so unconditionally and we know that there is still great hope for the world, even in the darkest hours.

I suspect that those employees who went out of their way to help a mom who had experienced one of the most difficult losses that anyone must endure left work on that day feeling as though they had been given a special gift. They understood that somehow they had made a difference to my friend and her family, and that kind of feeling is the stuff of which our greatest joys are made. At the end of any day each of us needs to know that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, so we should always be open to the possibilities that are always there. The way we choose to react from moment to moment provides us with the opportunity to truly embrace life and the people that we encounter. If we smile rather than frown, strive to help rather than hinder, love rather than hate we make the changes that will ultimately bring us the happiness that we seek.

My dear friend has taken great sadness and disappointment and turned it into an act of supreme love. She has shown us all how to value and remember even the briefest moments of joy. She might have been bitter and enraged over the loss of her beautiful child, but she has instead transformed her hurt and pain into a beautiful lesson for all of us. the dragon fly has become her personal symbol of her angel child. Like that graceful and delicate insect, little Jhett was not long for this world, but in his brief time on earth he gave so much joy to those who loved him. Because of the realizations that came to my friend as she held that tiny baby in her arms she has gone beyond the superficialities of life and understands its deeper meanings. With elegance and grace she dazzles all of us with the clarity with which she has learned to view life by living so fully in the moment and appreciating every second of every day. We might all learn from her and begin to treasure what has always been all around us without our ever noticing. 

   

The Playlist

hqdefaultWhat if you attempted to create a playlist for your life. What songs would be there? Would the collection describe you or would it be composed of music designed to motivate and inspire you? How would the selections actually apply to the person that you are? I decided to attempt such a project and it was a bit more difficult than I at first imagined. There is so much music that I love just for the pure fun of listening to it. Finding songs that really speak to who I am, who I have been and who I want to be is a bit more difficult.

While I am a big planner I have found that life is full of surprises, many of which seem intent upon challenging us in ways that sometimes seem insurmountable and even unfair. The kinds of traumatic things have have happened to me made my first choice of music to be You Can’t Always Get What You Want by the Rolling Stones. The most important idea in the lyrics has always been one of my mantras, namely that while I may not always get the things that I think I should, sometimes I get exactly what I need. As Garth Brooks so beautifully reminds us in Unanswered Prayers we sometimes fail to realize that a plan even better than the one that we have imagined is unfolding even as we struggle to free ourselves from pain. It is in our darkest hours that we often come to realize what that we are made of sterner stuff than we may have thought or as Kelly Clarkson notes in Stronger what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

I wouldn’t wish some of the tragedies that have befallen me on anyone, not even myself, but they happened and I only had two choices when facing them. I might either have just given up and let them defeat me or I might have attempted to find a way to carry on. Each time I somehow embraced the will and the courage to keep going, usually With At Little Help From My Friends as the Beatles say. Like Learning to Fly by Tom Petty I took a leap of faith in myself and dared to do things that I never imagined, often because I was forced by fate to do so. I generally emerged from such experiences feeling pretty good about myself, even a bit proud. I was actually a better person for having to stare into the darkness and defeat it. I feel that I have become a warrior over the years and so another of my theme songs should be Roar by Katy Perry. “I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter dancing through the fire.” The Mother of Dragons has nothing on me!

I suppose that the key to my victories over difficulties has been my unswerving faith that somehow, some way I will always overcome my problems or at least learn how to make the changes needed to deal with them. I’ve always loved Don’t Stop Believin by Journey because my mantra has always been to keep on trucking regardless of how dire a situation seemed. The crazy thing is that I have seen and endured great suffering but because I truly believed that I was never alone I tended to Always Look On the Bright Side of Life just as the guys from Monty Python. That tune has always made me laugh even when things looked rather grim. In fact, I suppose that without humor, sometimes of a very dark nature, I doubt that I would have made it this far. A good chuckle can make a difference in even the dreariest of days and I so love being around beings who know how to help me to release my feelings with a good old fashioned joke, especially when that bit of comedy pokes fun at me and my worries.

I truly learned from each of the happenings that almost seemed unbearable at the time. I became wiser and more compassionate. I realized how much spunk I actually had and my confidence soared. I have always loved I Can See Clearly Now by Johnny Nash because it encapsulates my evolution from being a more self centered, silly and frightened child to becoming someone who manages to feel brave most of the time and to understand that everyone is burdened with struggles. I know now that I am not unique in my cares and woes. It is part of the uncertainty of living. One thing of which I am certain is that eventually things always get better which makes my next song one of great hope. Here Comes the Sun by the Beatles makes me smile and lifts the weight from my heart each time I hear its lilting optimism. Ironically another Beatle’s composition is also one that brings a smile to my face every single time that it is played, particularly as I grow older. Good Day Sunshine reminds me to be grateful for the blessings that I have and to see the good in the world rather than focusing on the many hardships that still plague all of us. I consciously choose to be Happy and so I dance away when I listen to Pharrell Williams’ tribute to feeling lighthearted. 

The world is still so imperfect and there are serious issues that are cause for concern, but I am still convinced that in the end we humans will choose good over evil. I tend to agree with Sting in his lovely creation Russians that people of all societies love their children just as we do. As such they will ultimately strive to build a future that will be better for all of us. We just have to Imagine as John Lennon says and continue to look for leaders and ideas that take us into a more perfect version of life. We might begin by reflecting on ourselves and asking what we may each do to help eliminate injustice and hatefulness. Man in the Mirror by Michael Jackson should be an anthem for everyone. We should start each morning by repeating, “I’m starting with the man in the mirror. I’m asking him to change his ways.” It is only in attempting to perfect ourselves that we will truly impact the rest of humanity.

Ultimately I see the beauty of life. Like the Beatles’ In My Life I have seen so much love that I truly feel that it will be the power that transforms us. I would like to think that the most optimistic song that I know becomes a reality for mankind. When Louis Armstrong sang What A Wonderful World I don’t think that he realized what hope it would give us. Listening to its strains and stanzas describe all that is lovely and wonderful reminds me to look for the beauty that is everywhere. My hope is that others will find that moment of contentment that I seem to encounter more and more often as I look back on a life of which I am proud. I Hope You Dance just as I now do. There is great joy in the most unexpected places if only we learn how to look for it. If we are lucky we find also the most Amazing Grace which is ultimately the greatest gift of all.

The Very Best Way

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There are so many things in life over which we have little or no control. Rain may ruin the outdoor party that we planned. A loved one may die leaving us feeling alone and bereft. We may not get the job that we so wanted to land. The candidate that we worked so hard to get elected loses. Someone we thought was a friend betrays us. We may be diagnosed with a life threatening disease. A criminal steals from us or even worse murders someone about whom we care.

Each of us will face terrible moments throughout our lifetimes that have the potential to leave us feeling devastated and powerless. We will find ourselves wanting to whine or cry or rage about our bad luck, but the truth is that we are not alone in facing great challenges. It is part of the human journey to encounter difficulties. It is our reaction to such things that determines how we will feel about ourselves and the people around us. If our only thoughts are of anger or self pity we may be continually whining that life is unfair. If on the other hand we accept that everyone faces disappointments, we might instead think less about our misfortune and more about what we might do to deal with the realities of the situations.

Last fall I learned that one of my favorite cousins was dying. He had battled heart disease for decades and had tried multiple medications, surgeries and life style changes. His doctors told him that he had run out of options. His heart was failing and there was nothing anyone might do to change that reality. He was sent home to spend his final days. Amazingly whenever I spoke with him he kept his ever present sense of humor and made me laugh in spite of wanting to cry for him. He spent his last days saying his goodbyes to the people that he most loved. He prepared for his passing in every possible way, and made it clear that he was ready for what was to come.

I always loved my cousin. We had shared our childhood together and had so many stories of the fun times that we had experienced. I knew that he was a very special person, but I found myself nonetheless in awe of his faith and the way in which he so unselfishly gave so many of us the gift of peace and comfort. He had taken what might have been a horrific time and somehow transformed it into something beautiful and inspiring. In the process he had actually seized control of his life rather than allowing his circumstances to dictate his reactions.

My own life has been disrupted on so many occasions. Losing my father was life changing, but my mother demonstrated so much courage and determination to keep our family safe that I was able to keep moving forward with a sense of security. Later when she was overtaken by bipolar disorder I was  given a role that I did not want. I was put in charge of her care by default. I made a number of mistakes, but ultimately learned how to get her the help that she needed and how to monitor her progress. It was neither fun nor easy to spend four decades watching her go up and down again and again, but I knew that I would always be able to get her back on the right track if I did what I had to do. Eventually my brothers joined me in keeping her as healthy as possible. As a result our memories of our mother are filled with far more happiness than sorrow. We found a sense of accomplishment in knowing that we never let her down.

Now I’m faced with a new challenge. My husband had a stroke that was quite serious. My first instinct was to cry and feel quite sorry for myself, but ultimately I understood that the only aspect of the situation that I might control is my own attitude. I’m doing whatever I can to encourage him to adopt a healthier lifestyle, and I’m determined to enjoy each minute of each day. I’ve quickly learned that true joy comes from within myself, and I am finding ways to bring it into the open in the very simplest of ways.

We all get those terrible blows that seem to be so unfair, and it is only natural for our first reactions to be negative. Sometimes it appears to us that other people have it so much easier than we do. The truth is that when we begin to learn more about others we generally find that everyone is dealing with pain, illness, problems. The people who seem to be the happiest are often that way mostly because they have chosen to smile rather than to wallow in negativity. They understand that they have choices about how to live, and they choose joy.

At the end of her life my mother had little of material consequence. She kept her life quite simple  often out of necessity. She had lost her husband at the age of thirty. She battled mental illness for decades. She was told that she had lung cancer that was too far advanced to treat. A lesser person might have felt beset upon, but she continually spoke of how blessed she had been throughout her life. She was proud of her accomplishments that included raising three children alone all of whom had advanced college degrees. She loved the members of her family and was confident that they would always stand beside her, and she was absolutely correct in that assessment. She spoke of her adventures and travels with a big smile. She felt that hers had been a full and remarkable journey. She was as satisfied and content as she might have been if she had accumulated vast amounts of power and wealth. She had all that she ever needed, because she had chosen to be the mistress of her thoughts.

I have a friend who is attempting to simplify his life. During the month of July he began to remove many of the possessions that seemed to be occupying far too much of his time and attention. Each day of the month he donated the number of items that corresponded to the date. By the end of the cycle he was scrambling to find thirty one things that he no longer needs. It was such a freeing experience that he plans to repeat the process in August and until he no longer feels as though possessions are impeding his happiness. I think that his is a delightful idea that all of us might consider, and we might also begin to apply it to our attitudes as well.

If we feel as though life is terribly unfair and that we are continually on the wrong end of luck, then maybe it’s time that we begin to change the way that we think about our situations. We need to ask ourselves what we might adjust or do to reorient ourselves. Perhaps we might begin with small steps and then slowly accelerate our efforts as time goes by until our attitudes begin to lean toward the positive exponentially. To do that we will need to be as good to ourselves as we are to the people around us. We have to be willing to extend our sphere of kindness to everyone.

It may take time for the dividends to pay off, but when we begin to see that we really do have the power to determine our own destinies everything becomes more beautiful, even in the midst of trouble. We will learn how to refocus our fears and our pain and our anger in ways that make us feel good about ourselves. We will begin to view the world from a perspective that makes us feel powerful rather than powerless. Those who have mastered this art will tell you that it is the very best way to live.

Honesty

deep-sorrowI do my best to maintain an optimistic outlook on life, particularly in public. I often write about how to enjoy the simple aspects of existence and speak of the positive effect that my faith has on me. Recently my husband had a stroke that has profoundly changed our lives. He has a seventy percent blockage in his brain that is not treatable, so the possibility of his having another stroke is strong. In his first foray he was lucky enough to be in the company of our entire family and was near a great hospital. There were no residual effects of the attack, so now he is driving again and performing most of the tasks that he did before the incident. Still, his doctor has warned us that the possibility of a second stroke in the ninety days after the first one is very high. All in all this news has left both of us floundering, but determined to do whatever it takes to keep him healthy.

With the support and love of friends and family we are attempting to carry on and enjoy each moment of each day with a new appreciation. I am not one to surrender to challenges and so the fighter in me has come to the fore. So many people have mentioned how wonderful and inspiring I appear to be. This worries me just a bit because I imagine that other folks who are also struggling with horrific situations may misunderstand my strength and wonder why they don’t seem to be able to muster the courage and hopefulness that I demonstrate. I suspect that in my quest to never surrender to the dark feelings that creep into my mind, I may have inadvertently presented a picture of myself that is not complete. Because I strive to be honest and to help those who are really hurting I think that it is important for me to unveil some of the angst and horror that has stalked me since the day that I saw my husband lying helplessly on the floor.

I’m not nearly as brave as I sometimes appear to be. I’m about as human as they come and as such I have been shaken to the very depths of my soul. There have been moments when I had never ending conversations with God in which I was generally begging Him to lift the burdens from my shoulders. Eventually those prayers became less and less demanding and finally led me to ask for the strength to do whatever I need to do. First, however, I had to rage at the heavens. Thankfully I believe that God is quite understanding about our weaknesses. Before I was able to hand myself back over to Him I went through a very dark period of doubt and fear. It is what most of us do. It is part of our makeup to question and falter. He waits patiently for us to trust Him once again.

I have spent quite a bit of time inside my closet feeling very sorry for myself as I wailed in grief for all that I thought that I had lost. My confidence was shaken. My plans were dashed. I was afraid and angry and confused. I felt as though I would not be able to take another breath. I also felt guilty for being so selfish at a time when my husband needed me so. I chided myself for even considering my own feelings. It took me quite a long time to sort things out in my mind and compose myself once again.

I have always been a control freak. I abhor situations that are uncertain. The specter of a future that I cannot plan is unnerving and for a time it paralyzed me. I thought of my life as being over in a sense. I felt that the joy that I had shared with my husband in our travels would be a thing of the past. I imagined us living in a chronic state of panic. I was intensely jealous of family and friends who had the luxury of continuing their lives as though nothing had happened. I felt very alone and vulnerable.

I knew that it would be impossible to continue along such a path of despair. I slowly began to use my talents and resources to regain a semblance of control over our lives. I know that I can’t repair the occlusion in my husband’s brain, but I am able to create a diet that will help him to lose weight and keep his blood pressure low. I have the power to support him as he takes his medications and to keep our home as happy as possible. I have had to remind myself of my own belief that the best moments in life are actually the simple pleasures that come our way. I have begun to rejoice over dinners in our backyard, times with family, pleasant moments with friends. I try to find something upbeat about each day and mostly I have learned to express the loving feelings that I have for people as soon as I experience them.

One thing I know for sure is how very much I love my husband. I feel almost as though we are dating again. I like holding his hand and smiling at him. I find that spending time with him is what is most important  right now, no matter where we go or what we do. It’s funny how just sharing a joke or walking together makes both of us incredibly happy. A trip to Walmart can be as much fun as an extravagant trip.

I count my blessings literally every second now. I try not to let the inevitable irritations that come my way bother me, but now and again I lose my cool. I still find myself worrying more than I should but I’ve learned to be kind to myself. I am far more conscious of other people and my empathy for their suffering has increased a hundredfold. I spend my time controlling what I can and letting go of the rest. For now I need so little. All of the things that I dreamed of one day owning seem rather inconsequential. On some days I feel as though I am floating aimlessly in shark infested waters, and I try not to be fearful. A bit of bad news here and there has the power of sending me back to my closet to cry, but I know now that I will somehow somewhere find the strength to come back out and face the demons that stalk me.

I am no better nor any stronger than anyone else. I make the same mistakes and have the same questions that have plagued humans for eternity. I try to think less of myself and more about others. I rein in my tendencies to overthink the future. Right now I am fragile but I am also strong. Thus is the irony of the human spirit.

I appreciate the compliments that my friends shower upon me. They really do help me to keep going. The people who truly care about me have been indispensable. They have encouraged me and helped me to understand that we are never as alone as we might imagine. There is much goodness in the world if only we ask. Sometimes we need that helping hand and most people are only too willing to extend it. We just have to be willing to admit that none of us are capable of being perennial towers of strength.

I am fine for now, but I am quite certain that something will come along to shake my resolve once again,. I will try to remember that it is okay to lose one’s way from time to time. The important thing is to face the emotions that work to bring us down. In admitting our weaknesses we actually become stronger, and we learn how to overcome the feelings that are holding us back from being our best selves. As for me, I am choosing to find the beauty in my new situation and to grab whatever joy I might find. Time slips by far too quickly to spend it in a state of dread or pessimism, but we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves when we temporarily fall victim to an horrific case of the blues. So long as we do our best to cope with whatever situation we are facing, we will make it again and again.