A Most Extraordinary Life

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My cousin and I were having one of those silly conversations in which we asked each other what our favorites are in different categories. I realized as I answered each query that it is truly difficult to narrow down my preferences to just one or even two things. Let’s take the category of best book, for example. I’ve read so many from differing genres that choosing only one is literally impossible. I’ve always loved classics like Jane Eyre, but then more recent picks might be Things Fall Apart or The Kite Runner. I’m a huge fan of nonfiction as well. Isaac’s Storm kept me on the edge of my seat with anticipation, but reading about Czar Nicholas, Queen Victoria, or John Adams was as interesting as it gets. In other words, I so love to read that I’m often taken by whatever I have read most recently which would include The Nightingale and The Tenth Muse.

Choosing a favorite movie is just as impossible. There are some that I consider to be works of art like The Godfather ( both I and II), Apocalypse Now, The Lord of the Rings, and The Mission. Others are just fun and appealing. Those might include Titanic, Christmas Vacation, or Love Actually. I’m such a movie fan that it would literally take pages and pages to list all of the flicks that I have loved. To me there is nothing more satisfying that spending a rainy day watching old Alfred Hitchcock films and munching on junk food, even though these days I try to be good and stick to fruit and vegetables. Just tell me that someone is featuring a movie marathon of some sort and I am in!

The same is true of television shows. How is it even possible to list all of the programs to which I have been addicted over the years. Breaking Bad was epic, but Better Call Saul is pretty great as well. Unlike most people I was totally satisfied with the totality of Game of Thrones including the ending. In fact my recent trip to London with its study of the reigns of kings tells me that the violence and madness portrayed in the series was maybe a bit tame compared to real life. I’m a sucker for any kind of mystery or crime series, but I love to laugh as well and while it’s difficult to beat Seinfeld, there have been many contenders over the years. The glory days of Saturday Night Live with John Belushi and others was magnificent, but that venerable program has lost its magic over time.

I’ve traveled to many places both in the United States and abroad and there are some that I enjoyed so much that I have returned multiple times and never grown weary of seeing them. I’d go back to New York City any time, but it’s not a place that I would ever want to live. Chicago, on the other hand is a city that I not only like to visit, but I would be willing to set down roots there if I had to move for some reason. I love San Francisco and San Diego, but despise Los Angeles. Boston is a wonderful place that I never tire of seeing and also one where I would be willing to live. I visit New Orleans again and again. A piece of my heart lives there, but I would be afraid to settle down in that region because of the continual threat of hurricanes. I suppose that I truly feel the happiest in Colorado with so many cities and towns that I adore. If I were able to go there many times each year I would do so. I fell madly in love with London on my recent trip there, but I’m a die hard American, a Yank who loves my English speaking cousins but can’t imagine living outside of the USA.

It’s quite interesting to speak of favorites. I enjoy hearing what other people like and dislike. It demonstrates aspects of living that we share as well as those that make us unique. The world is filled with so much variety which makes it possible for there to be something for everyone, particularly in this day and age. So much has changed from the times when I was young and most people lived in a narrowly defined area with few opportunities for seeing the rest of the world. Back then books were the best source for expanding horizons and libraries were the places where we found the volumes that most intrigued us. Television was in its infancy featuring only three or four stations with rather predictable programing. Movies were often a treat that not everyone could afford, and travel was mostly by car.

I am thankful each and every day for the magnificent advances that allow me to be ever more part of the world. I have so much from which to choose that life is never a dull moment. I seriously thank the good Lord for my blessings at the beginning and end of each day. I have seen more of the world that almost all of my ancestors put together. I have more education than they even dreamed of having. Movies and television programs and books are literally at my fingertips. It’s difficult to even consider complaining when I think upon the advances in quality of life that I enjoy compared to either of my grandmothers. Neither of them were able to read or write and their daily activities were labor intensive. They rarely ventured too far beyond the confines of their homes and I’m not sure if they ever went to a movie theater. While they seemed happy enough, it boggles my mind to think of all that they were never able to experience that has so enriched my own life.

I chastise myself when I grow sad or dissatisfied with my lot in life. I have read so many books, seen so many movies and traveled to so many places that I cannot choose a favorite. The only thing that I should be doing more of is counting my good fortune and expressing my gratitude for a most extraordinary life.

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Being Ourselves

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One of the hardest things in life is to be brave enough to be yourself

—-Bradley Cooper to Lady Gaga before their performance at the Oscars

It seems as though the whole world is suddenly in love with Lady Gaga. In the movie A Star Is Born she shed the outrageous costumes and makeup that has always been so much a part of her onstage persona and instead looked into the cameras in all of her natural glory. Without gimmicks or electronic orchestrations she simply sang and showed the world her inner beauty and vulnerability and strength. It landed her an Academy Award for her music and allowed her to come close to winning one for her acting in her screen debut. I suppose that we all love the movie both for its tender story and for the truth that in those celluloid moments a true star of enormous merit was born and her name is Lady Gaga.

I like pop music and I have enjoyed rocking and singing along with Lady Gaga in hits like Telephone, Bad Romance, and Alejandro. I smiled at her goofy costumes that I never thought she actually needed to attract attention. I liked her music just as it was, but I suppose that in today’s market there have to be ways of standing out from the crowded field of would be artists. It was when I heard Lady Gaga sing a duet with Tony Bennett that I first understood what astonishing talent she had. She stood next to him in a black evening gown reminiscent of the 1940’s and without much more than the accompaniment of a piano sang a torch song that displayed her voice as never before. Later she sang the National Anthem and both surprised and thrilled the crowd with the realization that she was much more than just a flash in the pan of music.

Still, it was other information that I had learned about Lady Gaga that made me a dedicated fan, someone in her corner for the long haul. I was tutoring students at a local high school when I met a sweet young man who was struggling not just with mathematics but with all of the kinds of angst that torture teenagers. He was trying to find himself and to determine the direction in life that he truly wanted to follow. He was a bright and reflective individual who constantly considered probing questions about the world and his place in it. He worked hard to improve his knowledge of math, but also was dedicated to critically thinking about life in general. He often spoke of both his fears and his dreams and I enjoyed being of small help in his journey of self understanding.

At one point he had an opportunity to apply for a spot at a conference for teens sponsored by Lady Gaga. He asked me to write a letter of recommendation for him which I was more than happy to do. Not long after he excitedly announced that he had been chosen to participate in the gathering of young people from across the United States. I was happy for him and felt that the committee that selected him had been wise in noticing how earnest he was to learn more about coping with our human condition.

The student returned to our usual tutoring sessions with a renewed spirit not just about his academics, but also his feelings about himself. He glowed with a new confidence and spoke of how inspiring all of the sessions had been. He showed me photos with the friends he had made and breathlessly described how he had surprisingly been tapped as a leader. Then he talked about Lady Gaga and how she had motivated him and all of the kids to love themselves and be proud of whomever they were. He showed me a video of her speaking to them that was so encouraging and understanding. He felt as though she understood the struggles that he and the others had been enduring. He noted how her concern for them showed in her facial expressions as she seemingly spoke to each of their hearts.

When I listened to him and then to Lady Gaga’s words I felt her compassion and sensed her wisdom. I understood why he believed that she was targeting him with her gaze and her advice. She was not a star pandering to her audience but a human with a generous heart hoping to help heal those that where broken or confused. It was a moving experience for me to see just how much she really cared about the teens who had come to find some kind of solace from her.

I’ve since learned that Lady Gaga is from a big happy Italian family. She enjoys old fashioned Sunday dinners with them and is unabashedly proud of her heritage. She is a sensitive soul who worries a bit too much and like many is sometimes her own worst critic. All of her natural beauty and talent and vulnerability came through in her movie portrayal under the direction of Bradley Cooper. What we saw on that big screen was as though a butterfly was emerging from a cocoon and we rejoiced at the wonder of it.

I suppose that most of us are romantics at heart. We enjoy a good love story and A Star Is Born is certainly one of those, but it is also a story of illness and addiction. I believe that given her real life efforts to help those who struggle it is little wonder that Lady Gaga’s role as an unconditional lover was a perfect part for her. Every aspect of the wonderful person that she is burst from the screen and into our hearts.

As we watched Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper perform at the Academy Awards we witnessed a personal chemistry that may be the love of friends, the love of collaborators or perhaps even a bit of romance. Whatever it was came directly from Lady Gaga’s heart and Bradley Cooper’s belief in her. It was so true and good and devoid of guile that like my student we felt as though she was sending us all a personal message, telling us to be brave enough ourselves. There is nothing quite as beautiful.

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.

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.