It’s A Wonderful Life

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The Hallmark Channel is loved by many for its holiday movies. The plots are always upbeat and right out of a stock formula. Those of us watching always know exactly what is going to happen, but we love those films nonetheless. Many of the themes revolve around falling in love at Christmas time. I can relate to that because one of the most wondrous moments of my life happened during the holidays.

I had been dating my husband for about a year and told everyone that who would listen that I was madly in love with him. In fact, I knew after our first date that the two of us had an almost magical connection. We spent every free moment that we had doing things together and those feelings only grew. We were young and a bit naive, but the world around us was filled with angst caused by the war in Vietnam, the draft, assassinations of leaders, war protests, and attempts to find justice and civil rights for our Black citizens. It was a time of great uncertainty and a feeling that the world might blow up before our very eyes. It the midst of that atmosphere Mike and I were certain that we were in love.

Just before Christmas Mike came to my mother’s home and lead me to the Christmas tree. Under the twinkling lights, made even more delightful by the shimmer of icicles, he took my hand and asked me to marry him. I recall feeling overwhelmed by emotion, but I knew without hesitation that my answer was “yes.” It was one of the best events of my life, and yet I had no idea back then how truly wonderful our partnership together would be. If ever I had a Hallmark movie moment it was surely on that night.

We’ve had fifty Christmases as man and wife and they have always been happy, even in the most difficult of times. We were hopelessly young when we walked down the aisle but we muddled through those years when we were still practically children. On our first Christmas we purchased an inexpensive assortment of glass ornaments of various colors and put them on a tiny tree that stood on a desk in our apartment. We had seen a little Nativity set that cost under ten dollars and we splurged to buy it. I still remember how proudly we placed in under the branches of the tree. We still have the manger and have lovingly set it at the foot of our tree foe fifty years. Over that time our decorations have become more and more elaborate.

Now we have a nine foot tree in our great room and companion trees in three other rooms. It takes more than seven storage boxes to hold all of the figurines and orbs that we have collected from one year to the next. We bring back Christmas ornaments from virtually every place that we visit. We have also created collections of Swarovski snowflakes and Lennox gingerbread men. We delight over the whimsical Hallmark ornaments that remind us of bygone years. We have ornaments from friends and homemade items from our children. Every single sparkly item finds a home, even the original glass balls that are now faded from age. I’m a very sentimental sort who even saves the ones made from old Christmas cards and photographs.

Through a great deal of hard work we have created quite a wonderful life for ourselves, but that glorious feeling that I felt in my heart underneath my family’s Christmas tree so long ago has never faded. If anything it has grown even stronger as Mike and I have experienced the realities of life that can sometimes be incredibly difficult. We’ve walked hand in hand through tears and laughter and I still don’t believe that I would ever have found a better partner if I had searched the world over.

We were blessed with great families and remarkable friends. We have shared so many times with people who extend the reach of our love, and of course our children and grandchildren have been the very heart of what we cherish most. Each Christmas Day when they gather at our home I feel a burst of pride and joy that might also make a great Hallmark movie story. I truly believe that if the folks who create those films had simply followed us through the years they would have a great story to tell, one that we celebrate each Christmas.

The honest truth about people my age is that we don’t actually realize how old we may appear to others. In our hearts and minds we still see ourselves as those crazy young kids glowing with the blush of love and expectation. If I had the opportunity to go back in time to change things a bit I suppose that I would be reluctant to alter a single thing. I would be afraid that in doing so I might not be exactly where I am right now. I suspect that’s why I so love the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. The story reminds me so much of my own. My journey has been unlike anything I had imagined in my youth and amazingly it came out even better.

As I gaze down through the years I am quite content and ready to celebrate the wonderful day when Christ was born and Mike and I made a promise to love each other until the end of our time. If I could have just one wish come true it would be that everyone would be able to find true love and enjoy a lifetime with a kindred spirit. It is indeed wonderful.

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God Knows Where I Am

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I have had two passionate causes in my life. One was made by my own choice. The other was forced upon me by circumstance. Both of them have been major forces that weaved through every single day of my adulthood and seemingly defined my purpose here on this earth. One is a popular political football of sorts, often discussed but rarely resolved. The other is almost taboo, the sort of topic carefully whispered about, and almost always entirely misunderstood. Of course I am speaking of both the education of our young people and the almost haphazard way in which we deal with those among us who are mentally ill.

Those who know me well and those who read my posts understand that I have devoted myself to helping students and their teachers to find quality classrooms and educational standards that include learning how to think critically and how to lead meaningful lives. While there are still great problems with schools and universities that include both methodologies and financial considerations, I am far from alone is voicing both my concerns and my ideas for approaching them. Teachers, professors, parents, and the students themselves are quite vocal about their expectations for preparing each generation for the future. As such education is a subject that quite often finds its way into political discourse. There is much debate over financing and structuring of our public school system, and such discussions while slow to cause actual changes still manage to keep a modicum of attention on one of the most important issues in our country.

On the other hand, mental illness and how we deal with it is a kind of orphan. It is one of those exceedingly uncomfortable subjects that make us squirm even at the mere mention. Furthermore it is maddeningly misunderstood by those who have been fortunate enough not to experience its crushing effects. It is a disease with physical origins that are not as easy to see as a case of diabetes or a heart attack. The science around it is still in its infancy compared to other medical issues. There are few massive institutions like the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center that are dedicated to unlocking the secrets to combating mental illness. The funding for those who choose to enter the world of psychology or psychiatry is generally well below that of other medical fields, and, speaking of fields, we never see athletes donning a color to promote support and awareness of those individuals and their family members who fight relentlessly and alone to care for loved ones ravaged by mental illness. It is all too easy to believe that nobody is particularly concerned about those who endure diseases like chronic depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and other forms of mind numbing illness. Instead we look away from those that we all too often blithely categorize as “crazy.” In fact, I am certain that I lost many of my potential readers in the first paragraph of this blog as soon as I mentioned mental illness.

I have not secreted the fact that my dear mother had bipolar disorder nor that me and my brothers became her lifelong caretakers in an odyssey that lasted from 1969 until her death in 2011. It was often a frustrating journey punctuated by a seeming lack of concern by a society that all too many times shunned our mother when she was most in need of support. A lack of doctors, hospitals, finances and most of all understanding complicated our search for a kind and compassionate resolution to her needs and ours. Along the way we encountered dedicated professionals who were as troubled as we were like Dr. Thomas Brandon and Dr. Jary Lesser, but we also found many who had been so chewed up alive by the laws and the lack of funding that they had become far too cynical to be of help. We learned who the people were that we could trust, and realized that their numbers were far fewer than we had hoped.

On this past Sunday I received a text from my youngest daughter insisting that I watch a documentary on Netflix called, God Knows Where I Am. Without revealing any spoilers she simply said that it was sad but quite good, so I decided to end what had been a glorious day spent with my grandsons by viewing the film. I soon learned that it was the story of a woman who was found dead inside a vacant farmhouse, seemingly the victim of starvation. Amazingly she had filled several spiral notebooks with daily descriptions of her strange saga including a final declaration that included her name, Social Security number, and designation of where she wished to be buried. What investigators ultimately found is that the victim, Linda Bishop, was from a middle class family that had been filled with love and delightful experiences. Linda was well educated and possessed a personality that garnered her many friends. She married, had a daughter whom she adored, and eventually divorced. The rest of the tale devolves into a brutally heartbreaking saga of her crushing fall into mental illness and the ways in which our current system of dealing with cases such as hers totally failed both Linda and her family.

As I watched the film I found myself feeling as though it was my own mother’s story and that of me and my brothers. I was able to relate to every segment of the unfolding tragedy. My stomach clinched into the old familiar knot that often plagued me whenever my mom was particularly sick. I have been to all of the same dark places that Linda Bishop’s loved ones have been. I know from my own experiences how much truth lies in this documentary, and I hope beyond hope that enough people will watch it and embrace it so that a kind of revolution will begin aimed at fixing a very broken system that too often leaves everyone concerned in a state of abject fear and dejection.

My brothers and I were lucky enough to keep my mother from the kind of harm that overcame Linda Bishop, but it was a battle that we waged virtually every single day, and mostly alone. It was a fight not just for her life but our own. I know that we made many mistakes, but ultimately we slew the dragon of ignorance and lack of concern that made every step of the way more difficult that it need have been. I will speak out for those who have mental illnesses and for their families until I draw my last breath. I will never quite understand why it is not yet one of the most important causes in our world, but I will not let the lack of interest stand in my way of bringing awareness. For now I simply implore everyone to watch God Knows Where I Am. Surely it will tear at your heart.

We’re All In This Together

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The news cycle moves rapidly these days. A big story on Monday is often moved aside by one even more exciting on Thursday. So much information overloads our brains that we sometimes choose to just ignore the march of sensational topics. Once a subject leaves the front pages it is all too often quickly forgotten, and so the floods and damage of a hurricane become old news even as the people who have been affected still struggle with the after effects. Like a small child in a room full of toys our interest flits from one thing to another, but in the real world there are issues that don’t really go away as much as become old news.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the world was mesmerized by the ebola outbreak that took place in African countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone. As the disease claimed thousands of victims, a kind of fear gripped everyone. We literally wondered either silently or aloud if this would be the kind of pandemic that killed millions at the beginning of the twentieth century. Just as back then researchers were hard pressed to explain exactly what caused the sudden spread of the disease, and medical personnel were treating the illness on the fly, learning from mistakes and hoping for the best. In many ways the epidemic ended as mysteriously as it had started. It seemed to have simply burned itself out, but many who study such things found themselves wondering if this was just a lucky break. Research into the causes and control of such diseases continue in laboratories across the world, but public interest has waned since that time. It’s old news that turned out well for most of the world save those African countries most afflicted. As curious as I have always been about such things, even I generally put the whole event out of my mind, at least until I viewed a film made in Sierra Leone during and after the tragedy that took so many in that country.

A group of locals from Sierra Leone had the foresight to record the human toll from ebola by showing relief efforts as they unfolded and interviewing family members and friends of those who had contracted the disease. The rawness and reality of the story was heartbreaking, frightening and inspiring. The film revealed just how courageous so many of the people were during that terrible time. There were local nurses and doctors who had never before dealt with anything so terrifying who nonetheless put their lives on the line day in and day out. There were families that were quarantined and separated from loved ones who became pariahs by association. There was great fear within cities and towns each time a new victim began to show signs of contracting the disease.

I found myself cheering for the people who rose to the occasion by assuming leadership roles in the face of grave danger. Among them were priests, imams, and ministers who shepherded their congregations and urged them not to fall for stories of demons causing the illnesses. Instead they helped health workers to spread the word of how to use proper hygiene and when to isolate those who became ill. Any of these brave souls might have contracted ebola themselves but they found the wherewithal to do the jobs that they knew must be done.

Perhaps the saddest feature of the film focused on a group of homeless boys who lived on the streets scrounging for food and lodging. It showed them regularly visiting a landfill in search of items to trade for money. They walked on mountains of refuse in their bare feet in order to survive from day to day, all while the terrible disease raged  around them. They were survivors, not just from ebola, but from the very act of living.

In the film there were interviews with individuals who had lost entire families. The human spirit was still alive and well in them, but I have little doubt that they bear huge scars that will never quite heal. When we read the statistics of the thousands of people who died they are just numbers to us coming from a far away place. For the people who lived through this nightmare they are a reality as tragic and heartbreaking as any disaster that suddenly washes over our humanity.

We have erected memorials to those who died in the attack on Pearl Harbor and the innocents who were killed on 9/11. We are disturbed by the sinking of the Titanic and cry at the thought of those who lost their lives without warning. We are appalled by the needless deaths of anyone, and yet the impact of the ebola epidemic has come and gone, leaving both its victims and survivors to deal with its effects mostly alone. The film that I watched challenges us to remember the humanity and importance of each of the people who endured this incredibly frightening time.

I realize that we can’t always be worried about “might have beens” or future possibilities, but history has shown time and again that horrific things often happen when we least expect them. During those epic moments there are always everyday people who become heroes and then quietly return to their lives when the danger is over. There are souls who suffer so badly that they never quite get over the raw emotions of the event. Then there are those who lose their lives, all too quickly and sometimes even painfully. We must never forget them, regardless of how far removed from us they may appear to be. We are all in this struggle called life, and it would behoove us to understand that what affects one of us may one day affect all of us.

The King Center Drive In

37400793_10204729964807004_1633942547380305920_nA high school friend posted a photo of an empty lot that is for sale in Houston, Texas for $1,975,000. The raw land located at Martin Luther King Drive and Loop 610 was once the home of the King Center Drive In, a glorious place that served up entertainment to the folks who lived in southeast Houston for most of my childhood, teen years and early married life. Eventually the place closed down and went the way of other outdoor theaters, attracting fewer and fewer customers as we became less acclimated to the heat and mosquitoes over time. Nonetheless those of us who saw the image of the long gone movie mecca were filled with grand memories of good times with friends and family.

I have to admit that there was nothing more exciting to me as a kid as going to the King Center Drive In on a Friday or Saturday night. I’d check the newspaper to see what was showing, and if it was fit for family watching I’d connive with my brothers to work with me to get our mother to take us. We often used my youngest brother as our secret weapon because Mama somehow never seemed able to turn him down. He’d go to her with all of his cuteness and hint that he’d love to spend an evening at the movies. Since our mother enjoyed such outings as much as we did it was never really that difficult to get her to say yes to our proposals.

There was always a snack bar at the theater but we were on a fairly strict budget so our mom made sandwiches and iced down bottles of coke to satisfy our hunger. She also made enough popcorn in her iron skillet to fill a grocery bag. We’d stow away our food and a few pillows inside the car and head off for what was sure to be a fun evening.

Mama always wanted to get there early to secure a prime spot. She’d test the speakers before settling for a specific place and then while she set things up in the car we’d run to the playground located just in front of the big screen. We often saw friends from our neighborhood or made new acquaintances as children seem to so naturally do. Mostly though we were eager for the sky to grow dark so that the movie might begin.

Mama always kept something called a Pic in the glove compartment along with a box of matches. The incense like coil was supposed to discourage mosquitoes from entering the car, but we still had a few of the brave pests nipping at our skin. I suppose that it was actually quite hot in the summer, but since we didn’t have air conditioning at the house we never noticed the temperature. Instead we munched on our sandwiches, sipped our cokes and topped off our feast with the popcorn while glorious films of the fifties and sixties played out larger than life right before our eyes.

The initial feature was always a first run film, but it wasn’t always our favorite of the movies. After an intermission designed to lure us to the snack bar there was a second feature that was older, a kind of rerun. If Mama was feeling flush she’d give us some money to purchase whatever we wanted at the snack bar before the next movie began. It was so hard to decide what delicacies to choose. There were donuts, chips, candies of all kinds. Since we never had sweets at home I almost always chose some chocolatey, gooey delight filled with caramel.

Sometimes one of my brothers would be unable to fight off sleep and surrendered to slumber in the back seat. I proudly fought off all inclinations to doze off if only to prove to my mother that I was worthy of the prime seat in the front of the car. Also the really cool movies with more adult content came in the second slot, and I enjoyed feeling a bit more mature than my little brothers.

As I grew into my teen years I began attending the movies with my friends. I was a dateless wonder in high school but I had great fun with big groups of girls. We went with whoever was able to get a car. We did a great deal more talking and giggling than paying attention to the movies. My favorite times were with Karen, a neighbor from across the street. She drove her mother’s big yellow Buick which held enough gals to qualify as one of those clown cars at the circus. At first I was embarrassed when my mother shoved a grocery bag of popcorn into my arms as we were leaving for one of the outings, but the yummy snack was such a hit that the girls always requested that I bring my offering along.

I often laughed at the antics of people in other cars. There were of course the couples whose only purpose in coming seemed to be to make out. Then there were the goobers who honked their horns whenever a love scene came on the screen. There were groups who hid some of their passengers until they were safely past the pay station since the cost was sometimes based on the number of folks inside the car. There were families that made way too much noise, and since we mostly had to keep our windows open that was quite annoying. Then of course there were the malfunctions of the speakers and projectors that drove everyone to honk in protest.

Eventually I was going to to the King Center Drive In with my husband and my small children. Those days didn’t last very long because by then we had become spoiled by the air conditioned comfort that was almost universal. It just seemed nicer to watch a movie at an indoor theater. Of course that meant paying way too much all around. Soon enough it became preferable to wait for the release of tapes and then DVDs to see our movies in the comfort of our homes. For little or no money we could watch while wearing our pajamas and munching on fabulous snacks. By then the King Center Drive In was long gone, but not our memories.

Perhaps we lost something special with the closing of those once fabulous places. Whole generations have no idea how fun it was to wait in a long line of cars anticipating an evening of make believe. The lot for the King Center Drive In may now be empty but our memories of being there are still as vibrant and colorful as ever.

The Best Of

I confess to being a movie junkie. It’s sometimes quite difficult for me to find a film that I have not already seen. I chide myself for spending so much time glued to a screen but I can’t help it. I am mesmerized by the worlds created by actors but these days I rarely see a picture at the theater. It’s just too easy to stay at home with a big bag of microwave popcorn tuned in to On Demand or Netflix or even TBS or HBO. I suppose it might be argued that one’s favorite flics say a great deal about who they are. If that’s the case a psychoanalyst would have a field day with me. So here in no particular order are some of my all time favorites:

  • The entire Godfather series
  • The entire Lord of the Rings series
  • The entire Harry Potter series
  • Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Muppets Christmas Carol
  • Shawshank Redemption
  • Seabiscuit
  • 2001 A Space Odyssey
  • Apocalypse Now
  • Full Metal Jacket
  • The Last Samurai
  • The Elephant Man
  • Love Actually
  • Fiddler On the Roof
  • Chicago
  • A Chorus Line
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • Shane
  • High Noon
  • The Magnificent Seven
  • Gone With the Wind
  • Titanic
  • Schindler’s List
  • Lawrence of Arabia
  • Blackhawk Down
  • Going My Way
  • Pulp Fiction
  • Up
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • Toy Story
  • Zero Dark Thirty
  • The Young Lions
  • Ladybird
  • I, Tonya
  • Dr. Strangelove
  • 12 Angry Men
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • The entire Dark Knight series
  • Psycho
  • Rear Window
  • The Last of the Mohicans
  • Singin in the Rain
  • Vertigo
  • Sunset Boulevard
  • Forrest Gump
  • Philadelphia
  • The Sound of Music
  • The Silence of the Lambs
  • Chinatown
  • Amadeus
  • A Streetcar Named Desire
  • Jaws
  • Braveheart
  • Dances with Wolves
  • Jurassic Park
  • The Exorcist
  • Rain Man
  • Terms of Endearment
  • Goodwill Hunting
  • The Shining
  • Inception
  • The Usual Suspects
  • Glengarry Glenross
  • Alien
  • Fargo
  • American History X
  • The Sixth Sense
  • The Mothman Prophesies
  • Sixteen Candles
  • Pretty In Pink
  • The Breakfast club
  • Kill Bill Volume I
  • The Color Purple
  • Ferris Beuller’s Day Off
  • The Princess Bride
  • Inglorious Bastards
  • The Color Purple
  • Apollo 13
  • The Right Stuff
  • Finding Nemo
  • North by Northwest
  • Dead Poets Society
  • Stand and Deliver
  • Hooziers
  • Signs
  • Damien
  • The Homecoming
  • School of Rock
  • Little Women
  • The Crucible
  • Life of Pi
  • Primal Fear
  • Munich
  • The Shining
  • Young Frankenstein
  • When Harry Met Sally
  • Sleepless in Seattle
  • Steel Magnolias

So there you go. It’s certainly an eclectic lot and doesn’t include every single movie that I like, but you should be able to find something that you might enjoy. Heat up some popcorn, sit back and escape into another world.