I Have Watched and Learned

anonymous person with binoculars looking through stacked books
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

 

My mother used to urge me to watch and learn. She would take me into the bathroom and show me that cleaning the toilet was way more than just swishing the most visible areas with some cleaning solution. She demonstrated how to iron a shirt and make a straight seam with a sewing machine. She showed me how to cook without a recipe. All the while my duty was to only observe what she was doing. There were no written instructions. I simply increased my knowledge by witnessing her at work. Before long I found myself watching and learning everywhere I went. I suppose that it was a good trait to have because I realized along the way that there is much information to be gathered by being a “fly on the wall.”

Since the first of March I have been busily noting the unfolding of events during the Covid-19 pandemic. Most interesting of all have been people’s reactions to the various things that have happened in response to the virus. With the killing of George Floyd in May occurrences and the perceptions of them became curiouser and curiouser. From my birds eye view gathered from the comfort of my home here are my random observations:

  • It was much nicer and more comforting when we were all concerned with one another and working together much as we did in the first couple of weeks of the novel coronavirus coming to our country.
  • Conspiracy theories of all kinds are rapidly attempting to overtake the truth.
  • Along those lines it must be noted that the pandemic is not a hoax and it will not miraculously go away in November once the presidential election has been held.
  • Not all persons participating in the Black Lives Matter marches and protests are rioters, looters and destroyers. In fact, of the millions who have marched across the globe all but a very small percentage are peaceful. Portraying them all as thugs who want to pillage and destroy our country is no substantive foundation.
  • Not all of our police and law enforcement officers are corrupt and racist. In fact most of them are good men and women who strive to protect us with fairness. Portraying all of them as evil is yet another ridiculous idea.
  • Defunding police departments is not a means of ridding ourselves of law enforcement.
  • Information from scientists and medical persons is far more reliable than anything one might hear from politicians, neighbors or some guy who has a thing for conspiracy theories. Being scientific in a time of pandemic is advisable.
  • Wearing masks will not make us sick from carbon dioxide build up. If that were true doctors and nurses would be long dead by now.
  • It is a great American right to have different opinions. It is not more patriotic to be a member of a particular party. True profiles in courage usually rock the status quo causing us to think.
  • Those who note and comment on problems within the systems of the United States do not hate the country. In fact, it may be said that they care so much about the country that they want to help repair the aspects that are broken.
  • History is often far more complex that a single point of view.
  • Those of us who are not Black will never be able to completely understand what the lives of Black Americans are like. To ridicule or ignore them when they attempt to describe the inequities that they experience is insensitive and inhumane.
  • Just because someone does not have Covid-19 and does not know anyone with the virus does not mean that it is not a serious illness. 
  • We take precautions for the safety of everyone. Proclaiming that we have a right to be reckless is the ultimate in selfishness.
  • Many, many people are hurting and this is causing great stresses and anxieties that we should not ignore.
  • It would behoove us to find out who among us needs help whether it be financial, assistance finding employment, or dealing with psychological issues. This is not a time to horde our good fortune while ignoring the hurt of others.
  • We should not even be thinking of repealing the Affordable Care Act in the middle of a pandemic. Too many people are relying on this healthcare safety net. They need to know that it will be there for them if they need it.
  • We should find a way to keep people in their homes rather than evicting them. To make people homeless right now is the ultimate in cruelty.
  • This is not a time to threaten dreamers that we will finding a way to stop DACA that is Supreme Court proof and eventually send them back to the places where they were born but may not even remember.
  • No piece of cloth, stone, metal icon, or song should ever be more important than any single human life. 
  • We must address the measures we will need to safely open our schools so that both students and teachers will feel comfortable upon returning. We must also be ready to be flexible in the event that Covid-19 begins a second wave.
  • Beware of anyone who tries to focus on our divisions or who revels in the pain and suffering of certain groups. Watch for trigger words and phrases that constantly lay the blame or poke fun. 
  • Covid-19 is an acronym for coronavirus disease of 2019. It is not the Chinese flu.
  • Covid-19 is not political and we should not try to make it so.
  • We should all make a point of being kind. There is enough uncertainty, privation, and sorrow without turning on one another.
  • If we do not work together again, we may fall together. We will all need to sacrifice and understand that going to the beach or a bar or a ballgame or out to eat or on a trip or to a concert is far less important that saving even one life.
  • We demonstrate how much we care by our behavior and by the expectations we have for our leaders. When they seem to be more interested in themselves than in the people it is our duty to call them out, not model their selfish behavior.
  • Remember above all else God loves every one of us and he wants us to love each other.

A Good Thing About Covid-19

girl in red dress playing a wooden blocks
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

I have attempted to keep in touch with people that I know during these crazy days of Covid-19. Sometimes I text. Other times I send emails. Now and again I FaceTime or join a Zoom conference. I also make phone calls just to make sure that the people who have been in my life are doing okay.

On a recent day I decided to phone a friend that I have known since I was six years old. We have had long stretches of time during which we got so busy with living that we lost track. Somehow we nonetheless keep circling back to one another. I first met Lynda when my family moved across the street from where she lived. I was not particularly happy to be leaving our old home because I had friends there that I thought I might never see again. I had been pouting on the drive to our new place and seeing the loving house that would be our new digs did nothing to improve my mood. That’s when the Barry family crossed the street to welcome us to Northdale Street.

They were a friendly crew who made us feel immediately welcome to the neighborhood. Lynda, who was my age, was peeking at me from behind her mother and I immediately became curious about her. Mrs. Barry noticed our preoccupation with one another and suggested that we go get acquainted. Somehow it was as though Lynda and I had known each other forever. We began talking and our conversation never really stopped from then on.

We spent every single day together, often laughing and singing on our bikes. We roamed the neighborhood seeking adventure and planning our futures which we assumed would always include being together. We tuned in to the Mickey Mouse Club each afternoon and practiced cartwheels in Lynda’s enormous backyard. I adored everything about her and her family including the nickname that her father gave her, Lindy Lou.

We we two silly little girls who were as happy as can be, so when my parents suddenly announced that we would be moving to California only a little over a year later I was angry and devastated. Somehow I thought they surely should have consulted me before making such an important decision. I cried at the thought of leaving Lynda behind because she seemed to understand me better than anyone ever had.

I missed Lynda every day that we were apart but my family eventually returned to Houston and shortly thereafter my father died. We moved into a house in the same neighborhood as Lynda’s but it was many blocks away from where she resided. We attempted to keep the friendship as wonderful as it had been before but we ended up in different schools and as we grew older we became more and more involved in activities that ate up our time. We always seemed to click right back into our old closeness whenever we had occasion to get together but life just kept insinuating itself into our relationship.

She got married and so did she. We purchased homes in different parts of the city and began our families. From time to time Lynda would invite me to visit for the day and we would have so much fun watching our children play while we gabbed just like we were still those six year old girls. Neither of us were working back then so we had all the time in the world. On some of those charming visits I would stay for hours before reluctantly heading home.

Eventually we both became working women and with that added responsibility we had less and less time for meeting up. Mostly our friendship became confined to occasional phone calls and as the years passed our children grew, our parents died, and we became grandparents. We were more likely to see each other at wakes or funerals but our love for each other never wavered.

Now Lynda lives in another town. We speak of getting together but those plans never seem to materialize. At the moment we are both staying in our homes. Lynda has autoimmune issues that prompt her to be as careful with Covid-19 as possible and I hope to keep the virus from coming into my house and infecting my husband who seems to be a poster boy for those who suffer most from it. Suddenly those long phone calls where we never seem to run out of things to say feel like a lifeline for both of us.

There is something spiritual about the friendships that we forge as children. They are so pure and guileless. Growing up together means that we know all of the good and bad things that have happened to each other. We have shared a journey through all of life’s ups and downs. We know each other without filters and we still like what we see.

I hope to make calling Lynda more of a habit during these days. Talking with her makes me feel young again and seems to be the one good thing about Covid-19. It has slowed us down enough to create time for just being ourselves once again. In those moments I see us as two skinny girls with a whole lifetime of possibilities ahead, finding adventure at every turn. We are quieter now but the joy of being together, even by phone, never seems to dim.

Cries of Five Hundred Years

crying

There is a certain type of conversation that is incredibly difficult to endure. We almost all encounter them in our lifetimes. Mine came from my mother, my husband, my children, my bosses, my students. They were presented in moments of frustration, but always with the idea of helping me to understand something about which I was seemingly oblivious. They required a willingness on my part to suspend preconceived notions and judgements and simply listen with an intent to learn. Since they sometimes involved a critique of my actions or beliefs they were humbling and often tempted me to defend myself. All of them ultimately improved my relationship with the person who was in a way giving me the magnificent gift of honesty and an opportunity to change.

My mother often engaged in such soul searching with me. She was never afraid to provide me with a truthful assessment of my behavior. Even though I often was initially  angry with her, upon some sincere meditation I almost always realized that she had helped me to become a better person with her appraisals. Indeed, I might have been a mediocre teacher and wife and mother without her unfiltered sagacity at important junctures in my life.

I have always considered myself to be a peacemaker. I despise conflict of any kind. My life has had enough uproar without my purposely seeking to shake things up. Still, there have been moments when I realized that my silence would fly in the face of the ethics by which I measure the morality of my life. I know that I cannot look away from hurt or pain simply because I want to keep a measure of calm in my world.

I am reminded of two incidents that had a profound effect on who I try to be. The first occurred when I was eight years old shortly after my father had died. My family had moved to a new home and we were just getting to know all of the neighbors. One evening we were alerted that the man two doors down had shot and killed his wife. The police were on their way as we all stood on the sidewalk waiting to see what would happen next. We could hear the children in that home crying in terror but nobody moved to help them. From out of nowhere came Kathleen Bush, a tiny woman with nerves of steel. She marched straight to the house, banged on the door, and ordered the killer to release the children. She threatened to break down the door if necessary. Within minutes the little ones came outside one by one. Without saying anything to the rest of us Kathleen took the babies to the safety of her home.

Years later a man was beating his wife in an apartment in the same courtyard as mine. She was screaming for help and her children were standing in the window crying. Once again someone had called the police and the rest of us stood around nervously hearing and watching what was happening. A woman left the gaggle of onlookers, bounded up the stairs and banged on the front door demanding that the children be allowed to leave. She was unafraid even as the man began to threaten her. She kicked the door and made threats of her own until the children were safely in her arms.

Those two women taught me the importance and power of someone who is unwilling to just be a bystander when a wrong is being done. They never even thought of their own safety and risked being hurt to save those children. I have the highest respect for them to this very day.

I have almost always taught minority children. In my last school I encountered a group of Black students who schooled me on the difficulties facing them on a daily basis. I had rather naively believed that with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the election of Barack Obama that the problems of the past had mostly evaporated. After all, I have Black neighbors and I worked on equal footing with Black educators. I wondered how things could possible be so bad.

It was then they my students opened up with great honesty. They expressed feelings and ideas that made me feel uncomfortable but I decided to listen without prejudice. I did not attempt to change their opinions or explain mine. I just heard what they were saying, knowing that they were not trying to hurt me, but rather to help me understand. It was one of those very difficult conversations that felt quite uncomfortable. In the end I began to realize that in spite of my efforts to be a good and loving person I had missed the extent to which Black in America are still being abused by much of society. The students gave me a great gift. They showed me a truth of which I had been ignorant. Suddenly I saw the realities of what they had told me with eyes no longer blinded by my own experiences. 

The best explanation of the Black Lives Matter movement that I have heard relates it to disease. Right now we are engaged in a battle with the Covid 19 virus. Our emphasis on it does not mean that we do not care about cancer or heart disease or any other illness. It just means that right now it is the source of our biggest health concern. So too, saying that Black lives matter does not mean that Black people are somehow more important than all people but that our Black citizens daily grabble with fears most of us never experience. Even when they are innocently running for exercise they may be in grave danger of being suspected of having criminal intent and lose their lives. It is a concern that few of us have and in our complacency we have too long stood waiting for someone else to come to their  rescue

That is why I am so adamant in my support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The protests and marches may not be perfect because they have at times been infiltrated with bad actors who have changed our focus with their destruction. That is not what should be most important to us. The emphasis should be on the reason for why Black Lives must matter to us all. Literally millions of Black people from around the world are crying out for all of us to understand their plight. They are screaming to be saved. Through a long line of history they have cried out with in pain for more than five hundred years. Why are so many of us still refusing to listen?

A Time To Share

Unemployment

I have had many different lives during my seventy one years on this earth. When my father was our family breadwinner I enjoyed luxuries that many of my cousins never realized. We always had a relatively new luxury car. Our home was modern and filled with beautiful furnishings. After he died things changed drastically. Suddenly I learned what it was like to be continually worried that our family might run out of food before the next check came. My mother was masterful at stretching our meager income and somehow always found a way to keep us supplied with the basics of food, shelter and clothing but there was always a specter of losing it all looming over us. I suppose that because of that experience I never again took any good fortune for granted.

When I became an adult I worked alongside my husband to provide for our family. Neither of us ever made a great deal of money but we almost always had what we needed to enjoy a comfortable life. We were able to purchase a home and pay for our daughters to attend college. We even managed to prepare for our retirement years and have enough to take some wonderful trips here and there. Nonetheless I never quite got over the anxieties that I often felt when as a child I would look inside our refrigerator and see bare walls with a day or two left before we would be able to replenish our larders at the grocery store.

Living from check to check is stressful and so I have always had a clear understanding of the students that I taught who were living in circumstances even more dire than the ones that I had experienced. I knew that one small emergency or illness or needed repair can turn into a major disaster for anyone whose economic situation is precarious. I also understood that once someone is in such a situation even with very hard work it can be challenging to move up the economic ladder. For that reason I have never felt beset upon when my taxes were used to help others in need. Instead I have been grateful that I have enough to share for without government help and that of my community I don’t know what would have become of my brothers and me.

I have always lived with a sense of appreciation and a feeling that those of us who have more should help with those who have less. I have never begrudged the social programs that give people an economic boost even if they result in individuals like me paying the government a bit more to keep them running. I am a person who knows what it is like to wait all day long in a free clinic to get inoculations for school. I am someone who benefitted from the social security payments that kept my brothers and I alive after my father died.

With the scourge of the pandemic and the bust of the oil industry there are still millions of American citizens who suddenly find themselves unemployed. These are people who only months ago had great jobs and plans for the future. With little or no warning they were suddenly informed that their positions were being eliminated. It was a kind of insult added to injury as they scrambled to cope with all of the inconveniences of the pandemic. In some cases both husbands and wives faced unexpected job loss, so when Congress voted to provide an additional six hundred dollars a month to their unemployment checks it was a godsend. In may instances it was literally the needed assurance to keep their homes. Nonetheless I also learned of people that I know who became homeless in a time when we were supposed to huddling in our domiciles. 

There are many unfortunate souls who are now in a state of anxiety because those extra payments are slated to end soon and they have yet to find new jobs. Even as many in the retail and service industries are opening back up and lowering the numbers of those without work, large corporations like BP are announcing plans to lay off ten thousand more. Sadly both the president and many in the general public are reluctant to extend the unemployment benefit past July. They even cruelly suggest that those who are still hunting for jobs are just lazy slackers who need to get off of their behinds and get back to work.

That would be all well in good if everyone had a position waiting for them to go back to work. I personally know highly educated, brilliant and hard working individuals who have been unsuccessfully attempting to find jobs for over three months. In a good economy they would have been snapped up in a week or so, but our present situation is still fragile and employers are reluctant to begin a hiring frenzy. The more likely outcome is that there may be even more layoffs in the coming weeks. Knowing that, the unemployed people that I know have expressed a willingness to relocate anywhere in the world if necessary. They will uproot their families and venture far away from the lives they have built if that is what it takes. In the meantime they need help because for every job that materializes there are thousands of applicants.

Most of us have only been slightly inconvenienced by Covid-19. We may be bored and desirous of resuming our normal lives but we are not wondering what we ill do when our savings are gone and we have no new leads on work. We should all be insisting that we take care of our fellow citizens in these unprecedented times. Even if it takes a pinch out of our own comfortable lives we should not mind. Americans are known for generosity. Now more than ever we need to think of the people who are lying awake at night worrying and provide them with the reassurance that we will not let them down.

Ironically when I was writing this blog I made a cup of tea and reached for a fortune cookie that came with a takeout dinner that we enjoyed a few Fridays ago. The message inside seemed to say it all, “Pure love is a willingness to give without  a thought of receiving anything in return.” We have to get through all of this together. The weight of sacrifice should not be limited to a few. Demand that Congress continue to take care of people still struggling to find work.

The Innocence

Babies sitting on floor together

Children are so beautiful. They are born with such innocence. A newborn baby is capable of learning any language on earth and embracing any culture. There is not a hint of prejudice in a tiny human’s heart. Children are filled with curiosity that naturally prompts them to explore their world and learn about it. They are fearless in that journey, so much so that we have to protect them from tasting toxins or putting their hands into fire. They look to adults to guide and influence them. If they are surrounded by love and care they tend to thrive but if all they see is anger and abuse their unblemished purity of heart can slowly become tainted. Adults who hate have been somehow taught to be that way.

I have been thinking about children a great deal of late, but then I suppose that I really always think about children. It is in them that I have found my greatest purpose and joy in life. They are my calling, a reason for maintaining optimism and hope. They are precious gifts whose guilelessness is waiting to be directed toward honor, compassion, purpose, courage.

I have been thinking about my mother a great deal of late. I suppose that hearing George Floyd call for his mama with his last breaths has awakened a sense of how important the relationships between mother and child, father and child, teacher and child truly are. When I think of my own mama I see unconditional love. I have tried to remember if she ever spanked me and I honestly can’t think of a single time when she did that even though there might have been occasions when I certainly deserved such a consequence. I suppose that I learned more from witnessing her example than from any lectures or lessons she may have given me. As children we watch and learn from action.

My own mother was a model of kindness and generosity. That is what my brothers and I saw on a continual basis. At the end of each day she tucked us in, reassured us of her love, apologized for any mistakes she may have made. She was not flawless, no human is, but the pattern of her life demonstrated the selflessness that was her vocation. If I have even a smidgen of goodness in me I most certainly learned it first from her.

As I grew people were mostly kind to me. In that regard I was fortunate, but as happens with virtually everyone I also encountered tortured souls who taught me lessons in their own perverse ways. The grossly unjust teacher that I had in the fourth grade showed me how not to be. The man whose racist political views stunned me enlightened me in how not to think. The boss who publicly raged against his employees convinced me that there were better ways for dealing with problems at work. In other words I was not swayed by forces that were so contrary to the foundations of character that my mother had built in my soul but rather her influence strengthened my resolve to emulate her.’

Some children are not as lucky as I was. They endure neglect, physical and emotional abuse. They are psychologically torn down. The are taught that violence is a natural way of living. They hear adults spewing hate as gospel and they begin to believe it. Over time they endure insults and degradation so often that they perversely see it as a sign of strength. They hide behind violence to solve problems. They have learned this from watching and hearing the adults in their little corner of the world. Their innocence has been transformed into meanness, brutality, racism. 

Perhaps the most difficult memories from my long teaching career occurred when I met parents that I knew were somehow teaching their children to be angry bullies. It pained me to wonder how their own twisted ideas had been so firmly implanted in their youngsters. Often they would boast about the firm control they had over the members of their family. They viewed the world as a zero sum game in which the only way to win was by crushing competition. I knew after meeting them that my own influence on their sons or daughters would most likely be minimal and yet I understood that I had to nonetheless provide an example of a more positive way of being. I hoped that I might somehow spark a realization in my troubled student that life does not have to be about dominance.

It can be discouraging to see people who are so obviously mean and self absorbed. It is even more disheartening to witness them having a negative impact on the shaping of a young person. Even worse is how often their ugliness is enabled either from fear or hopelessness or because those around them actually hold the same disturbing views. Sweet babies subjected to such influences all too often become broken souls capable of indescribable acts. The cycle of physical and emotional violence is handed down from one generation to the next.

I am a mama to my daughters but also to the many students that I have taught. I have tried to be the kind of example that my own mother was to me. I did my best to demonstrate the power that love always has over hate. I tried to defended the  young people in my care from harm and prejudice and hate, but every child eventually has to make his/her way through a world that has far too much cruelty. Few of us have never encountered such things. My only hope has always been that the hurts that my babies endure will be minimal and that they will have the strength of character to push back on its fury. The battle for good over evil begins in the home, in the classroom, in our relationships. It’s up to us to keep the love and the understanding alive, especially when we see it’s adversaries rising up.