In Memoriam

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Memorial Day is always a pensive time for me on so many levels. This year I felt the spirit of all of the souls who lost their lives in the service of our country more than ever. I also thought of those who made it through wars but whose lives were forever changed by memories of battles that they fought. War is a terrible thing and we have generally tried very hard to use it as a last resort. Nonetheless even now we have soldiers serving in war torn countries knowing that they may lose their lives at any moment. Such courage is difficult to understand but many who served in the military have told me that in the heat of a battle the focus becomes the preservation of the members of the corps. It is all about attempting to insure that everyone survives and leaves the battlefield alive. That profound human instinct to protect takes over to create magnificent acts of heroism.

I am a pacifist by nature but I understand that there are indeed times that require humans to defend themselves, their families, their country. If I had my way diplomacy would be rational and powerful enough to end war forever but I know that somehow people have a very difficult time setting aside their differences in a spirit of compromise. Throughout history we have found ourselves engaged in combat again and again and our young men have been called upon to fight. On Memorial Day we remember those whose lives were cut short and while we honor them, we also silently wonder why they had to much such a profound sacrifice for the rest of us.

I spent time this past weekend watching some movies about the brave men who have fought for our cause. First I viewed Glory, one of my all time favorite films. I cannot watch it without ultimately sobbing. It encapsulates the mixed emotions that surround the history of our country including perhaps the worst political mistake we ever made in allowing slavery to coexist with the ideals of democracy. While the nation was growing and prospering the politics of slavery that divided the people became more and more inflamed ultimately pitting state against state, region against region, brother against brother.

My great grandfather who was living in Kentucky chose to fight for the union forces. He spent four years first as a foot soldier and then a calvary man. The war placed a toll on his health. Somehow he was never as robust as he had once been and surely the horrors that he witnessed must have haunted him. His unit was tasked with collecting the bodies of the dead and wounded soldiers after the battle of Shiloh. It had to have been a gruesome sight that haunted him even as he settled into a somewhat normal existence had began a family. I think of them often and feel both pride for his service and regret that he had to endure such a thing. 

I also watched We Were Soldiers another film that brings out emotions from my youth. It takes place during the Vietnam War in the year when I was a senior in high school. Seeing the brutality of the battle it depicts only reinforces the sorrow that I felt whenever I learned of the death of someone who had been a classmate or a friend. While many of them had enlisted, others were drafted into service. The country was conflicted about the necessity of our involvement in what was essentially a civil war in a place so far away from home. While it was touted as a stand against communism it became clear over time that somehow we were outsiders attempting to protect Vietnam from a war that the Viet Cong was determined to win no matter how long it took.

The wall in Washington D.C. lists the names of all of the almost sixty thousand souls that we lost in that effort. I am haunted by the humanity of it each time I visit and run my fingers over the names of those that I knew. They were brave individuals who believed that theirs was a just cause but to this very day I wonder if losing them might have been prevented if we had known beforehand how the conflict would ultimately end. How different would their lives and the lives of those who loved them be if they had never gone to Vietnam? 

History, and particularly military history, is riddled with questions. It is easier to see the might have beens in retrospect. An armchair general can consider what went wrong with great clarity but the reality is that we will never really know what would have happened if we had chosen different routes. Wars are caused when humans cannot agree on how the world should be. Our young people go out to fight the battles for the philosophies of politicians and sometimes tragically lose their lives. I consider how wonderful it would be if we never had to engage our youth in such horrors ever again while realistically understanding that such an ideal will never come to pass.

This Memorial Day was haunted by the growing divide amongst us regarding Covid-19, a virus that has taken close to one hundred thousand souls in a span of  only three months. While the disease stalks the world in search of bodies to invade we argue with one another and point fingers at those who are attempting to lead us. We choose sides and sometimes even viciously attack those whose beliefs differ from our own while our courageous essential workers have been drafted into the role of keeping us safe. It is a new kind of battle with so much uncertainty that none of us can truly know exactly how to react.

I cannot understand why we humans choose to argue with one another so often and why we so seldom choose to find a road that eschews hostility. Perhaps it is in our natures, something that we have never been able to totally control. We have gone to war with one another in an endless loop of death and destruction that rears its head more often than we wish and yet we still work at odds with one another and follow those who actually encourage us to do so. We repeat the mistakes and the sins of our ancestors because in the end we are not so different from them. Memorial Day should always remind us of the cost of disagreements that become so entrenched that we no longer communicate. The spirits of all of the lost humanity should spur us to find ways of loving instead of fighting. 

A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood

Mr. Rogers

I grew up watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood on television. I liked the simplicity of it and the routine. It was all so calming for a girl like me who had so many unexpected tragedies. I suppose that I always preferred the quiet nature of Mr. Rogers and his show. At some point I outgrew him and began to think that it wasn’t cool to watch the program anymore. Like Wendy I moved on and didn’t really think about him very much. My own daughters were from the Sesame Street generation with a spot of The Electric Company thrown in now and again. Since I only allowed them to watch so much television per day Mr. Rogers was not on the agenda. In other words I more or less forgot about him as time passed.

My dear friend Pat gave me a book of his wisdom as a gift one time. Reading it made me feel a wave of nostalgia for the simpler times of my youth and those comfortable moments when I watched Mr. Rogers in lovely shades of black and white in our living room on Belmark Street. I always felt so safe and secure back then and had little idea of the challenges that lay ahead. All I knew is that I liked Mr. Rogers. He somehow seemed so real. Reading the book that held his thoughts convinced me that there was much more to him than I had realized when I was still a child.

When I heard that there was a new movie about him starring Tom Hanks I knew that I had to go to the theater to see how he might be portrayed. I eagerly sat back in the theater’s luxury lounger armed with lemonade and popcorn as A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood began just as the old program had done back in the day. There was Mr. Rogers come to life again under the stunning acting of Tom Hanks, putting on his sweater and his tennis shoes while welcoming us to his little world. It was indeed magical.

Before long I realized that the movie was so much more than a biography. It was a look into the kindness of a very gifted man who so genuinely understood and loved people of all ages. In a sense it was a grownup version of the old program designed to tackle the difficult topics that Mr. Rogers so openly discussed in a more moving and adult way.

The screenplay for A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood is brilliant, There is nothing sappy about it. It tackles subjects that plague everyone and demonstrates the power that we have over ourselves, a theme that Mr. Rogers so beautifully made central to his programs for children. It is a story that we desperately need in these times in which we are so divided and angry as a society. We are reminded of the truths that Mr. Rogers taught us so long ago, wisdom that is timeless.

The actors are all incredible and most certainly one or more of them will be nominated for awards. Tom Hanks is one of the greats of our time and Chris Cooper gives his usual blockbuster performance. The real surprise came from Matthew Rhys whose acting was Oscar worthy and a show stealer.

This is not a movie for the faint of heart. You will need some tissues for those moments when the film asks you to look into your own journey through life. There are minutes when catching your breath will be difficult but there will be no need to feel embarrassed because the sniffling will be happening all around you.

Fred Rogers was a real human being who disliked the idea of being called a saint or a hero and yet he had all of the qualities of an extraordinary human. He was known for personally praying for dozens of people at a time and for genuinely caring about the welfare of all the people he met. He believed that each of us is uniquely wonderful and worthy of being loved not for what we might become but just for who we already are.

A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood is one of those inspiring movies that will leave you feeling good about yourself and optimistic about the world. It will remind you of what is truly important and it will show you what love is really all about.

When Heaven and Earth Collide

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Our society places a high value on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the STEM subjects. We no doubt need the knowledge and advances in those fields and I tend to believe that the very future of the world will unfold through the ingenuity of the people who are skillful in unlocking the mysteries of the universe. We live far more comfortably than our ancestors because of the innate curiosity and genius of our left brained brethren. Nonetheless, we all too often underestimate the value of individuals with an artistic bent. We urge our talented painters, dancers and musicians to follow a “more practical and useful” pathway as though there is something less than about the ability to create more abstract inventions of art. I would argue that humankind is often at the apex of intellect whenever we move beyond the concrete of time and space and into the incredible universe of artistic imagination. The truth is that we need both our STEM leaders and the individuals who bring us so much pleasure with the arts.

Humans are quite breathtaking in abilities and it is often through our artistic expressions that we leap toward the heavens. Leonardo da Vinci was a mathematician and scientist but his paintings are the works that remind us of how truly awesome he was. The paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo timelessly evoke our other worldly longings. The music of Andrew Lloyd Weber takes us to places that we might otherwise never have imagined and tugs on our emotions to leave us in tears of joy and pleasure. Watching Gregory Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov dance in White Nights is sheer bliss that reminds us of how beautiful our very bodies can be.

I have always been awed by the ways in which we humans transcend our most basic needs to become creators of stunning works of art. I have often wondered what in our natures caused us to scratch out pictures on the walls of a cave. How is it that we realized that our very vocal chords were musical instruments? Why do we take such joy in using and twisting words to convey new meanings? What is it about us that prompts us to experiment with color and sights and sounds?

What truly separates us from the animals is the way that we use our minds and we don’t seem to be satisfied with merely building structures to protect us from the harshness of the elements. We want to decorate our abodes with artifacts that add a sense of individuality. We fill our lives with music, sculptures, paintings, dance, books, plays that strive to explain just who we humans are. We share an essential need to express ourselves. It is in our very DNA, and yet of late we tend to dismiss the artists and artistic contributions to society as being a notch below the work of our talented STEM citizens.

Try to imagine a world without art of any kind. Think of a totally utilitarian existence devoid of music, singing, visual arts, make believe. Only the colors of nature would surround us. Our minds would be focused on being ever practical. How dreary life would be. How frustrated many among us would become. Without artistic expression so much beauty would suddenly disappear. It is almost unbearable to consider.

There was a time when geniuses of all varieties were treasured. The era of the Renaissance enshrined all forms of human inventiveness. It almost seems as though the coming of the Industrial Revolution was a turning point in the way we view human talents. In the present day we tend to place more of a premium on STEM than on the arts. We scoff at a young man who majors in Creative Writing but admire one who follows a pathway to science. We are in awe of the mathematics teacher but believe that dance teachers are expendable in times of tight budgets. We constantly undervalue those with artistic talent and attempt to force our young to pursue the occupations that we deem more useful.

The miracle of humanity is that we are a species of great variety with brains that are capable of incredible thought. Some of us excel in STEM and others delight in the arts. If we are truly honest we will encourage our young to find themselves wherever that might lead. We will applaud not just the stars of the artistic world but anyone who is willing to make our lives more beautiful through art.

I was asked to describe my favorite work of art and I found that task to be impossible. How can I possibly narrow down my choice to a single artifact when there are so many incredible creations that fill my mind with profound appreciation? My home is filled with art in the form of music, books, movies, sculpture, paintings. I dance with joy in the sheer beauty of each day that is made better with the countless creations of the human mind. I am in awe of those who rise to the level of genius whether it be to build a driverless car or create a play that touches our souls. Art is the expression of our souls, the incarnation of heaven on earth.

Harriet Tubman

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The first time I learned about Harriet Tubman I was stunned by her story. She was born a slave as were her mother, father and siblings. Her father eventually earned his freedom but was unable to free his children. Over time he bought his own wife when she had grown old and confused and was of little use to her master but many of his children still languished as property.

Harriet was originally known as Minty. She married a free man but still had to live on the plantation of her owner. Nonetheless she dreamed of freedom and hoped to one day join her husband as a free woman and start a family. She watched helplessly as her sisters were sold and sent to some unknown place. She suffered under the yoke of slavery and finally reached a point of preferring to die rather than remain enslaved. Somehow she managed to travel over a hundred miles all alone to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where she finally lived as a free woman and chose her own name of Harriet.

Most people would have simply enjoyed their good fortune and lived happily ever after without chains and the whims of slave masters but Harriet was not happy knowing that her husband still lived so far away and that the members of her family were suffering. She decided to return to the place of her captivity risking her very life to be reunited with her husband and bring him north with her.

What she found was that he had married again when he thought that she had died. He was unwilling to leave his new wife who was with child. Harriet soon found that her brothers were about to be sold and so she decided to help them escape just as she had. Others joined her in the journey north which was hazardous but ultimately successful.

Over time Harriet worked with the Underground Railroad returning south again and again to free as many as seventy slaves. During the Civil War she served as a spy for the Union Army and even became involved in combat. She is credited with freeing another seven hundred slaves during that conflict.

In spite of risking her own freedom Harriet was passionate about helping others who lived in bondage. She understood what might happen to her if she were caught but she nonetheless felt compelled to fight for others who were still suffering under the chains of slavery.

Harriet Tubman is indeed one of the most courageous women in the history of the world. I cannot even imagine the kind of bravery that it took for her to accomplish as much as she did. She was a fearless warrior for justice and I think she should be honored as much as historical giants like Abraham Lincoln. I seriously can’t think of another woman in the story of our country who compares to her.

Now there is a wonderful movie about this amazing woman. Harriet is a beautifully crafted film that tells her inspiring story with a cast of actors who seem to be passionate about their roles. It is one of those films that I recommend to everyone, young and old alike. It is also one that I will probably watch again and again because its story is one of faith and grit and honesty. I can’t think of when I have been so moved by a movie, and knowing that it is true makes it even more wonderful.

I once visited a landmark in Memphis, Tennessee that had been part of the Underground Railroad. The guide told us how the slaves developed a way of communicating through their songs and with quilts that alerted them to which locations were safe. There was a whole world of intrigue that helped thousands of slaves find the freedom that they so deserved. It both a tragic and touching story of the human spirit and all people’s desire to live free.

The holiday season is upon us and people will be going to movie theaters for the annual round of family entertainment. I know that there will be cute little films reprising the Frozen story and even action and adventure movies, but I can’t think of a better way to spend time with the family than watching Harriet together. It is a story that has been longing to be told and everyone needs to see it.

Hats

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I love watching the old black and white movies from the thirties, forties and fifties. They remind me of my childhood and how lovely my mother and aunts were when they were young women. In those old films the ladies always wear glamorous hats and the men sport fedoras. It’s actually the way people dressed whenever they went out on the town back in the day and it was always fun to watch the parade of people styling in their finest fashions. I sometimes think that most of us have lost the sense of elegance that was more commonplace decades ago. We are certainly more comfortable but there was something so refined about the efforts that people made when they went to church or just on a downtown shopping excursion.

I still see those who go all out for Sunday services. They wear fashions worthy of a visit to the Queen of England. They don lovely bonnets and wear stockings with their polished pumps. They are a lovely sight and in my mind they present an aura of respect for the occasion. They take the time to elevate their style from the more casual look of jeans and flip flops or sneakers. they stand out from the norm in their fastidiousness unlike the times when dressing up was more common place. 

When I was a young I always had a pair of dress shoes, gloves and a hat at the ready for Sunday services at church and special occasions. The millenary sections of department stores were filled with delightful bonnets of every conceivable style designed to perfectly compliment whatever outfit a woman or girl might wear. In all honesty I never looked particularly good in hats but I loved them nonetheless. I always managed to find at least one that complimented my features that I kept in a round hatbox of the kind that was a mainstay in most women’s closets.

I must admit that all of the lovely styles were sometimes distracting at church, especially on Easter Sunday when there was a virtual parade of fascinators bearing flowers and feathers and veils. It was a day when the old hats that were beginning to fray just a bit were put aside in lieu of the newer models for the spring and summer months. Along with all of the spring frocks, white shoes and spotless gloves the hats were indeed a sight to see.

Whenever we went shopping in downtown Houston my mom would insist that I dress in my Sunday best which meant polishing my shoes until they gleamed, wearing nylon stockings, putting gloves on my hands and donning whichever hat I had that went with the season. We’d catch the city bus so that we would not have to worry about parking a car and ride to Main Street feeling a sense of growing excitement about our adventure.

When we entered the splendor of Foley’s Department Store we felt as grand as any of the ladies wearing Chanel suits, designer hats and furs even though our fashions had been purchased in the bargain basement downstairs. I always thought my mother was one of the most beautiful women of all in her lovely dress and chapeau. She had an elegance that transcended the cost of the things that she wore. She carried herself with so much dignity and confidence that she might have been a resident of River Oaks. I always felt that those little accoutrements like gloves and stockings and hats were the keys to adding a touch of glamour to the occasion.

My husband tells me that he too accompanied his grandmother on shopping excursions downtown on many Saturdays. She had a large collection of hats that she always wore whenever she went out. She was a rare beauty who was able to choose any style and look stunning. She might literally have stepped out of one of those old films that I so enjoy with her sense of fashion and the hats that complimented her lovely features.

The days of men and women wearing fine hats as a matter of fashion are all but gone. The gimme cap is the choice of most men and women rarely cover their locks. Hats are more likely found in antique shops than in department stores. They are the stuff of  history that is slowly fading. We find hats for sale at amusement parks and quirky gift shops. We wear them on Halloween and at festivals but not so much on fine occasions. We seem to prefer to be relaxed and unencumbered by excess gear. Comfort is our accessory of choice.

I enjoy the notion that the members of the royal family in England still adhere to the old ways. Their custom demands that the ladies wear hats for special occasions. The queen always reminds me of my own mother whenever she appears in public. She has her lovely suits and still wears stocking on her legs and always there are her beautiful hats that make her look elegant even as she grows old.

Some traditions are so lovely that they should always have a place. Wearing hats is one that I think we should revive. I greatly admire those who have never given up the custom. They are so wonderfully lovely.