Becoming

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My guess is that many women received Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, for Christmas. I know that I did and it has been a joy peering into the life of the woman who once served as our First Lady. I’ve enjoyed biographies and autobiographies from the time that my reading skills went beyond tales of Dick and Jane or David and Ann. I’ve devoured hundreds of them and it little matters whether or not the subject of each book is accomplished or ordinary. I simply enjoy learning more about people, and from my reading I have concluded that most people are similar in their hopes and dreams, even those who lived long ago. For that reason it was fun to learn that someone as brilliant and highly regarded as Ms. Obama is really not all that different from any of us. the honesty and humanity with which she told her story is surely the reason that she is beloved by so many, and why she ranks at the top of the most respected women in the world.

Michelle Obama’s life began in the most ordinary of circumstances. She was born into a loving Chicago family and spent her youth living in a rented upstairs apartment on the south side of that city. Her mother and father encouraged her and her brother to pursue education as a way of leveling the playing field of life that is too often difficult for minorities and those of lower socio economic status. Her journey was wrought with challenges that she overcame with a feisty spirit and determination to work hard and prove her own worth.

I thought of my own circumstances as a young girl as I read of the times that Michelle Obama fought to show the naysayers that she was indeed highly capable. While I will never know the horrors of racism, I can identify with the kind of negativity that was often hurled at women as they attempted to compete in a male dominated world. I also knew the roadblocks created by living in a low income single parent family where advantages were mostly nil.

I found myself understanding Michelle Obama’s frustrations and fears as she undertook the journey of becoming the person that she is today. Hers was not an easy path to follow even though on the surface it may have appeared to onlookers to be charmed. Time and again she worried that she might not be as good and strong as she wanted to be, and then set her sights high and did all of the hard work that her dreams required. Luckily, like me, she had parents who convinced her that she had everything that she might ever need to be a resounding success. She chose to believe them rather than those who discouraged her.

As I read the pages of Ms. Obama’s book I found myself considering the idea that each of us face difficulties and setbacks as we strive toward particular goals. We are told that certain aspects of what we hope to achieve may be impossible, sometimes even by well meaning persons. How we react to the negativity determines so much of the trajectory of our lives. How we allow the circumstances of our situations to define us often colors the results of our efforts.

I grew up in a world in which powerful women in the work force were a kind of rarity, and yet I met some remarkable role models along the way, not the least of which was my own mother. A next door neighbor was an artist and architect who recognized my talents and  encouraged me to use them. Another neighbor was a lawyer who often invited me to her home to discuss the world in a very adult fashion, something that she believed that I was quite able to do. I was charmed by these women who were trailblazers in a world where women still mostly stayed at home caring for families. They taught me that I might be anyone that I chose to be.

When I first began high school the principal told me that he did not think that I would be able to keep up with my peers in the honors classes, but that he would give me a short probationary period to demonstrate my abilities. Like Michelle Obama I accepted the challenge with every bit of fight that I had inside. I worked twice as hard as I might have just to prove that I was equal to the others, and I not only secured my place in the prestigious academic program but graduated with honors four years later.

In the same school my college counselor insisted that I choose a state school rather than one of more exclusive institutions. He pointed out that my low income would stand out among the wealthy and powerful sons and daughters from a class well above mine. He worried that I would feel far too uncomfortable in such places, and suggested that I set my sights a bit lower. Since few in my family had even attended college I heeded his advice unlike Ms. Obama who determined that she would shoot for the stars and then lasso them with her intellect and work ethic. As I read about her own forays with those who felt that she was unsuited for a university like Princeton I cheered her for choosing to take the risk. She possessed one the most important character traits that one might have in this world, grit.

Becoming is an important book for all women to read regardless of political preference. It is not so much about beliefs regarding the essence of our country as it is about the very personal values that a woman or perhaps anyone must cultivate to enjoy life on one’s own terms. It is the story of a girl who used the very best of the talents with which she had been blessed to became an accomplished individual in her own right and then the equal partner of one of the most powerful men in the world. Her story is one of hope built on determination and a willingness to ignore the voices of negativity that have always seemed to abound in our world. Michelle Obama is indeed a role model for the ages and a mentor for helping each of us to become our very best.

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Auld Lang Syne

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Twenty eighteen was a truly great year for me, so as we ease into twenty nineteen I am experiencing a bit of worry. I’ve been around this old world long enough to know that life is a roller coaster ride, and since things went up, up, up for me all year long last year I have a sense of foreboding that I am about to follow the laws of physics and go down quickly. That can be both exhilarating and scary. I realize that moving fast and furiously down a steep slope will most likely just be quite exciting, but I worry that real dangers lie ahead. I know that such thoughts are contrary to my generally optimistic and schmaltzy approach to life, but I am also a realist and the worst of my musings dwell on the inevitability of aging that is weakening some of my favorite people and leaving them vulnerable even as they desperately attempt to fight against the dying of the light. My hopeful side dreams of miracles for them, but the realistic aspect of my personality tells me that their time with us is drawing to a close. For that reason I feel a bit unsteady as I look ahead to the coming twelve months

A new year should be hopeful and most of them usually are for me, but I learned long ago that the unexpected is always lurking just around the corner. I literally begin each day thanking God for allowing me to awake to one more day, and before I go to sleep I express my gratitude that nobody that I know and love was harmed during my waking hours. In between those prayers I try not to dwell on any worries that I have. I embrace each moment with genuine joy because life itself is so beautiful and yet so fragile.

There is something about the holidays of December and January that evoke strong memories of times past and people who are no longer with us. In the midst of all the revelry snippets of joy and sadness run through our minds. We genuinely miss the people who once shared those glorious times with us. Some left us far too soon, and others became fixtures in our celebrations. We think of the “might have beens” for those who died young, and recall the wondrous presence of those who were so long in our lives. Our thoughts evoke emotions of both happiness and sadness. We treasure the very fact that they were once with us while longing for just one more moment with them.

Such feelings seem to return each December when we least expect them. They are triggered by songs or foods or routines. The spirits of our departed loved ones seem to arrive to take our breaths away for an instant or bring a few tears to our eyes. Our minds swirl in a mixture of melancholy and joy as we remember how it was when they were laughing and vibrant in our midst. The pain of loss becomes easier to bear over time, but it never completely goes away and so we remember.

Each year I bring out my holiday decorations and traditions and see the tangible reminders of friends and family who have left this earth. I use the pewter flatware from our dear friend Egon who was like a third brother. He was with us every single Christmas, and now we think of him as we set the Nordic pewter on our table. My friend Pat is represented in the many ornaments that she gave me along with the snowflake bedspread and cheerful Christmas plaid placemats that brighten our dining experience. Mostly though I see her in the many renditions of red birds that I am inevitably drawn to because they make me believe that she is somehow still with me, laughing and thinking of fun experiences that we might share.

My Grandma Ulrich comes to our party when I set out the big enamel bowl that I rescued from her house after she died. I fill it with nuts and oranges just as she always did, and somehow I see her padding across the floor in her bare feet carrying cups of coffee for each of my guests. My mother is present as well laughing and lighting up the room with her infectious smile. The manger scene that she purchased on the first Christmas after my father died still reminds us of the true meaning of Christmas, a lesson that she taught me and my brothers so well. There is also her silver that was bought for her by my father who seemed determined to spoil her with his affection. The “First Love” pattern reminds me of how beautiful they were together, and how little time they had to show me how glorious marriage and family can be.

I open the tables that once belonged to my mother-in-law and her mother and aunt. Those wooden pieces are like altars with the memories engrained in them. They have witnessed the gathering of many generations of family. They are solid and dependable just as my mother-in-law always was. I can almost see her smiling with that beautiful heart of hers bursting with pride as we celebrate just as she always did each year.

In some ways Christmas and New Years Day are summed up in the traditional anthem Auld Lang Syne, a tune that always brought tears to my husband’s grandmother’s eyes. It was the last song she heard as she and her family set forth to travel across the ocean from Great Britain to the United States of America. She would build a wonderful life here in this country, but she would never again see her beloved England and the friends and relatives that she left behind. Much like a new year the memory of that moment was bittersweet, simultaneously evoking both hope and sadness.

I know that regardless of what may happen in the coming months I will be fine. I have experienced both the trials and tribulations of living again and again. I have the strength to face both the good and the bad. I will carry on because I know that when December rolls around again I will be reminded of the love that has always been part of my life. 

Seeing the Unseen

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The Netflix movie Roma is the quiet story of a young housekeeper and nanny living in nineteen seventies Mexico City. In an artistic masterpiece we watch her devoting every day to the service of the wealthy people for whom she works in a world in which she seems almost invisible and voiceless, unable to exert any control over the trajectory of her life. Nonetheless her beauty and strength illuminates the dreariness and uncertainty of the lives of the family that she serves even as she is all too often taken for granted. Roma is a triumph in its ability to portray the harshness of life for those who toil under the yoke of barriers created by the often immutable restrictions of class, but it also demonstrates the immutable importance of seemingly invisible individuals who work on the periphery of society.

The movie touched my heart and my mind in deeply moving ways and caused me to think of how many souls have journeyed through life almost without notice due to their status in the socio-economic pecking order. Their desperation is quiet and even misunderstood, while their dedication is under appreciated, and yet they sometimes demonstrate more character than those for whom they toil. Like all humans they have dreams that all too often go unfulfilled leaving them faceless in a crowd that wrongly defines them. They lose their distinct complexities in favor of generalizations, if they are even noticed at all.

My paternal grandfather somehow escaped even the notice of a census taker until he was well into his forties. The story of his early life is a blank slate making it seem as though he simply appeared from nowhere one day, a kind of cipher left to his own resources due to circumstances beyond his control. My maternal grandfather spent over thirty years traveling to a thankless job of cleaning the blood and entrails from the floor of a meat packing plant. I wonder if anyone ever realized that he was a very bright man who spent a portion of his weekly salary purchasing books that he read each evening after a day of work that left his legs and back aching, or was he simply the guy who picked up the messes that others left behind?

I think of the mother of one of my students who dropped him off at the school each morning wearing her McDonald’s uniform, a detail that embarrassed the son enough that he tried to deny that he was related to her. Then there was the yard man who drove through the carpool line pulling the trailer holding the tools of his trade and the source of income for his family. His son proudly boasted that his father was more than just someone who cut grass. According to the boy his father was an artist and a brilliant businessman. I wonder how many of us teachers with our college educations somehow felt a bit of superiority over these industrious souls. Were we guilty of chiding our students with threats that they might one day be reduced to menial jobs if they did not study? I heard such taunts quite often, comments meant to spur determination that may have unwittingly insulted the efforts of our students’ parents.

I recall the stories from my pupils of mothers and fathers who worked as many as three jobs within a single day. These souls existed on less than six hours of sleep and tortured their bodies with physical labors that left them scarred and broken. They set their pain aside for the sake of their families only to all too often be viewed by society as lazy folk who had done nothing with their lives. I wonder how many of them were thought to be little more than faceless bodies in an uneducated and unworthy mob. Were people suspicious of them, unwilling to see them as the hard workers that they were?

All too often we fail to really see the people who do not seem to be like ourselves. It does not occur to us that something as simple as where one is born may have incredible consequences in determining the course of life. We unwittingly stereotype people without truly knowing who they are. Like the family employing the young servant in Roma we see them in a kind of caricature when the truth is so much deeper. We create invisible, but powerful, barriers between ourselves. The man who mows our lawn or the woman who cleans our home is a provider of a service, not someone to be thought of as an equal, and yet the reality is that we are far more like our caretakers than we choose to accept. We are dependent on each other, and yet we rarely acknowledge the bonds that we share.  Our humanity should unite us, but the artificial structures upon which we build our societies often drive us apart.

Every single person is a unique gift to our world. Perhaps if we were to have a better understanding of that idea many of the problems that we face might be resolved. It is difficult to unravel the complexities of living, but we might begin with one person at a time. If we consciously strive to appreciate and acknowledge everyone with whom we interact we might begin to create more unity and understanding. Who knows where such a process might ultimately lead when we attempt to see the unseen?

A Model of Love and Goodness

Linda and Bill

I grew up in a neighborhood that was a kind of village where everyone knew everyone else. Many of us attended the same churches and schools and even shopped at the same stores. Our childhoods were spent in an innocent kind of time and place where children felt free to roam from one end of the area to another under the watchful eyes of adults who discretely insured our safety. It was a different kind of era devoid of electronic devices, hundreds of television channels, cell phones and video games. Our moms usually stayed home to care for their families unless they, like mine, were the heads of the households or they were more progressive for the times. Marriages were for the long term and divorce was somewhat rare, at least in our little neck of the woods. If there were problems we kids rarely heard of them. We were somewhat isolated from the troubles of the world, and didn’t have to face many of them until we were old enough and mature enough to handle them. It was a great way to grow up, and many of our childhood friendships continue many decades later.

As a young girl I was in awe of Linda Daigle, a beautiful, bright and amazingly sweet and friendly person. She was a model how to be for me, and so I observed her from afar so that I might become more like her. I had little idea that one day we would become the best of friends, but I suppose that my admiration of her made that inevitable.

While we were still in high school Linda began dating another resident of our tightly knit community, Bill Scheffler. Bill was a fun loving, cute guy who lived across the street from our school and our church. I thought that Linda and Bill were quite sweet together, but young love often changes and I did not expect their romance to continue. In that regard I was so very wrong.

After high school Bill entered the army and was stationed in Germany. Linda attended the University of Houston dreaming of being reunited with Bill again. By that time they had exchanged promises of love and devotion. In spite of Bill’s departure their romance was stronger than ever, a bond not to be undone even by distance.

By a kind of accident Linda and I began to meet with each other in the mornings at the university where she spoke of her feelings for Bill and the plans they had made. She was focused on building a life with him, and I was so impressed with how thoughtfully the two of them had created a long term goal of togetherness. From those early morning chats Linda and I became friends which was thrilling to me. I felt so fortunate to be in her confidence and as we grew closer I realized that she was even more remarkable than I had ever realized.

Fifty years ago Linda and Bill sealed their vows to one another with a beautiful wedding at Mt. Carmel Catholic Church, the very place where we had grown up together. After their marriage they went to live in Germany while Bill completed his tour of duty. It was an exciting time for them that allowed them to travel all over Europe and to grow even closer to one another. Linda sent reports of their adventures in letters and Christmas greetings that I devoured with enthusiasm.

By then I too had married and our paths were following a kind of parallel route that was joyful and filled with newness as we both moved from the shelter of our old neighborhood into the bigger world. To my delight it was not long Linda and Bill had returned to Houston and we began to share fun times as couples. Then came our children, two boys for her and two girls for me. Our first homes were within minutes of one another and so we got together more and more often, literally growing up together and as our children were doing the same thing.

As with any husband and wife, Linda and Bill had both good times and bad. They worked hard and for a time Bill was juggling a full time job with attending college. Fairly early in their marriage both of Bill’s parents became seriously ill and he became their caretaker until they died. It was sometimes a struggle for them to keep their wits under such extreme pressures, but the two of them managed to overcome each challenge that came their way.

They raised their two boys with the same kind of love and values that had always guided them. Bill became successful in his work life and Linda was known everywhere as a woman who got things done and on whom everyone might depend. They were friendly and loving and my own husband Mike and I were so happy to be part of their circle of life. We visited often, shared birthdays and celebrations, cheered our favorite Houston Cougar teams to victories. Each Christmas we gathered for an ornament exchange between our children and a sharing of gifts with each other. Our friendship began to feel more like family as the years came and went.

For a time Linda and Bill moved to California and we missed them far more than we ever admitted to them. It was yet another adventure for them and they made the most of their time together in a different kind of world. It was no surprise to me that they quickly made new friends and brought their joy for living to their new home.

I have to admit that I was overjoyed when Linda and Bill announced that they were returning to Houston. We resurrected our Christmas time celebration and have continued it to this very day. We watched our children marrying and beginning their own families. We grew older and started sharing more and more conversations about the aches and pains. We comforted each other as our parents aged and died. Life continued at its relentless pace and so did the love that Linda and Bill had for each other that had begun so long ago.

These days Linda and Bill are still having so much fun together. They regularly attend Houston Astro’s games and support the Houston Cougars in football and basketball. They travel to Dallas to visit with their son and granddaughter and show up for all of their grandson’s baseball games in Magnolia. The role of grandparents and lovers suits them well and goes hand in hand with their devotion to each other.

Tonight we will celebrate the beautiful love story of two people who understood from the beginning that they shared something real and special and rare. Love has been the unshakeable bond that has guided their time together and brought them a kind of joy for which we humans yearn. They are still models for me of how to enjoy life to its fullest, and I feel so blessed to have had a very small role in their history which I suspect will continue for many more years to come.

Congratulations, Linda and Bill! You are indeed a remarkable couple that has touched so many hearts with your goodness. May you know how much we love you for being so selfless and welcoming. You are the kind of couple that we all strive to be.

All That Ever Really Matters

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So here we are at the last Friday in 2018, and once again I find myself wondering where the year went. It’s been a good one for me with no devastating floods in my backyard, no horrific surprises. It was mostly quiet as Mike and I worked hard to become healthier after his stroke scare in 2017. We found ourselves feeling thankful for small blessings like waking up in the morning and sharing time with family and friends. The year ended with a bang starting with Mike’s birthday in September, our fiftieth anniversary in October, and my seventieth birthday in November. We hit some milestones that we might never have imagined in our long ago youth.

We finally found enough courage to travel again. A trip to Arkansas with dear friends Franz and Monica was glorious. We laughed and talked and saw so much beauty. No doubt we ate a bit too much and gained some pounds that we will have to carve away in the coming year. Mostly we created some new and beautiful memories with people who mean so much to us.

In November we headed to Colorado for some winter time adventure and a wedding. It was a bitter sweet time as we watched a beautiful young couple begin their own life together, and learned of the death of a dear friend of my brother and sister-in-law who had to abruptly leave us to return home for the funeral. Nonetheless we finished our mini-vacation in the quiet splendor of the mountains and the little towns that surround them. I suppose that we savored the moments more than we might have because of the reminder of how fragile life is.

December took us to Austin to watch over two wonderful young men whose parents went on a business trip. They were so polite and well behaved that we actually had very little to do other than make certain that they arrived on time to the practices that they needed to attend. We went to see one of the latest of the gazillion Rocky movies with them, and I thought of how different life is with boys rather than girls. All in all we felt honored to be entrusted with their care.

Most recently Mike and I became Eucharistic Ministers at our church. The first time that we held chalices with the blood of Christ and offered the sacred wine to our fellow parishioners was moving beyond anything I had ever imagined. I was filled with a sense of awe for God’s goodness in our lives and for the blessedness of our humanity.

As the new year beckons there is trouble on the horizon that worries us. A very good friend, who also happens to be our daughter’s father-in-law, is very sick and reaching the end of his days. He is a bright light who will be sorely missed by all who know him. An aunt is struggling with major health problems and we are quite concerned about her. She is one of the truly good people on this earth and we hope and pray that she will be granted more time with us. Another long time friend suffered a terrible fall and was hospitalized before Christmas. Now she faces a long journey in physical therapy. They are all vivid reminders to us that life is filled with surprises that affect us when we least expect them. We must take care of ourselves and enjoy each moment while we can.

It doesn’t take as much to make me happy as it once did. I need little and treasure the blessings that I have. I’m not much into resolutions anymore, because I have learned all too well that changes often come suddenly. I’d like to think that Mike and I will get to make that trip to London that we have planned, and I intend to keep doing whatever I can to stay as healthy and fit as my seventy year old body will allow. I’ll take one day at a time and do my best to make the most of whatever happens. Mostly I want to spend more and more time with friends and family because it is never a good idea to take anyone for granted.

As I approach my seventy first year of living on this planet I know that I have seen both wondrous and horrific things. Life is a mix of ups and downs, good times and bad, life and death. There is a kind of inevitability of the seasons of our lives. The one thing over which we have control is how we respond to each phase. I hope and pray that no matter what happens I will have learned from the remarkable people who have passed my way by bearing both my joys and my burdens with dignity and optimism. So far the sun has never failed to rise on each of my days regardless of what I had to face with the new dawn. The days and the weeks and the months have led me to celebrations and moments of sorrow just as they have done for all the generations throughout history. The routines of living come and go, testing our mettle and sometimes bringing us the fruition of dreams.

So as the new year beckons I expect both little and much. There are certainties about the future and great possibilities in the unknown. That is the stuff of life that makes us who we are. Still, if I were to be granted one single wish it would be that in the year of 2019 we might become a kinder, more just, more understanding and peaceful world. I suspect that all across the globe people have grown weary of the anger and hatred that seems to be festering in dark corners. May the new year be one filled with tangible signs that we are turning a corner and doing a better job of loving unconditionally. That seems to me to be all that ever really matters.