The Playlist

hqdefaultWhat if you attempted to create a playlist for your life. What songs would be there? Would the collection describe you or would it be composed of music designed to motivate and inspire you? How would the selections actually apply to the person that you are? I decided to attempt such a project and it was a bit more difficult than I at first imagined. There is so much music that I love just for the pure fun of listening to it. Finding songs that really speak to who I am, who I have been and who I want to be is a bit more difficult.

While I am a big planner I have found that life is full of surprises, many of which seem intent upon challenging us in ways that sometimes seem insurmountable and even unfair. The kinds of traumatic things have have happened to me made my first choice of music to be You Can’t Always Get What You Want by the Rolling Stones. The most important idea in the lyrics has always been one of my mantras, namely that while I may not always get the things that I think I should, sometimes I get exactly what I need. As Garth Brooks so beautifully reminds us in Unanswered Prayers we sometimes fail to realize that a plan even better than the one that we have imagined is unfolding even as we struggle to free ourselves from pain. It is in our darkest hours that we often come to realize what that we are made of sterner stuff than we may have thought or as Kelly Clarkson notes in Stronger what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

I wouldn’t wish some of the tragedies that have befallen me on anyone, not even myself, but they happened and I only had two choices when facing them. I might either have just given up and let them defeat me or I might have attempted to find a way to carry on. Each time I somehow embraced the will and the courage to keep going, usually With At Little Help From My Friends as the Beatles say. Like Learning to Fly by Tom Petty I took a leap of faith in myself and dared to do things that I never imagined, often because I was forced by fate to do so. I generally emerged from such experiences feeling pretty good about myself, even a bit proud. I was actually a better person for having to stare into the darkness and defeat it. I feel that I have become a warrior over the years and so another of my theme songs should be Roar by Katy Perry. “I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter dancing through the fire.” The Mother of Dragons has nothing on me!

I suppose that the key to my victories over difficulties has been my unswerving faith that somehow, some way I will always overcome my problems or at least learn how to make the changes needed to deal with them. I’ve always loved Don’t Stop Believin by Journey because my mantra has always been to keep on trucking regardless of how dire a situation seemed. The crazy thing is that I have seen and endured great suffering but because I truly believed that I was never alone I tended to Always Look On the Bright Side of Life just as the guys from Monty Python. That tune has always made me laugh even when things looked rather grim. In fact, I suppose that without humor, sometimes of a very dark nature, I doubt that I would have made it this far. A good chuckle can make a difference in even the dreariest of days and I so love being around beings who know how to help me to release my feelings with a good old fashioned joke, especially when that bit of comedy pokes fun at me and my worries.

I truly learned from each of the happenings that almost seemed unbearable at the time. I became wiser and more compassionate. I realized how much spunk I actually had and my confidence soared. I have always loved I Can See Clearly Now by Johnny Nash because it encapsulates my evolution from being a more self centered, silly and frightened child to becoming someone who manages to feel brave most of the time and to understand that everyone is burdened with struggles. I know now that I am not unique in my cares and woes. It is part of the uncertainty of living. One thing of which I am certain is that eventually things always get better which makes my next song one of great hope. Here Comes the Sun by the Beatles makes me smile and lifts the weight from my heart each time I hear its lilting optimism. Ironically another Beatle’s composition is also one that brings a smile to my face every single time that it is played, particularly as I grow older. Good Day Sunshine reminds me to be grateful for the blessings that I have and to see the good in the world rather than focusing on the many hardships that still plague all of us. I consciously choose to be Happy and so I dance away when I listen to Pharrell Williams’ tribute to feeling lighthearted. 

The world is still so imperfect and there are serious issues that are cause for concern, but I am still convinced that in the end we humans will choose good over evil. I tend to agree with Sting in his lovely creation Russians that people of all societies love their children just as we do. As such they will ultimately strive to build a future that will be better for all of us. We just have to Imagine as John Lennon says and continue to look for leaders and ideas that take us into a more perfect version of life. We might begin by reflecting on ourselves and asking what we may each do to help eliminate injustice and hatefulness. Man in the Mirror by Michael Jackson should be an anthem for everyone. We should start each morning by repeating, “I’m starting with the man in the mirror. I’m asking him to change his ways.” It is only in attempting to perfect ourselves that we will truly impact the rest of humanity.

Ultimately I see the beauty of life. Like the Beatles’ In My Life I have seen so much love that I truly feel that it will be the power that transforms us. I would like to think that the most optimistic song that I know becomes a reality for mankind. When Louis Armstrong sang What A Wonderful World I don’t think that he realized what hope it would give us. Listening to its strains and stanzas describe all that is lovely and wonderful reminds me to look for the beauty that is everywhere. My hope is that others will find that moment of contentment that I seem to encounter more and more often as I look back on a life of which I am proud. I Hope You Dance just as I now do. There is great joy in the most unexpected places if only we learn how to look for it. If we are lucky we find also the most Amazing Grace which is ultimately the greatest gift of all.

Music of Angels

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I was more than excited about having tickets to see Hans Zimmer in concert. I have enjoyed his soundtracks for years. I purchased the first one after watching the movie Greencard. Since then I’ve added The Last Samurai, Blackhawk Down, Sherlock and so many others to my collection of his works. Each of them is unique and captures the essence of the movie in which it was featured. Since I was going to attend the musical event in the company of my husband, daughter and two grandsons, I was even more excited about the evening, especially since my husband had suffered from a stroke after I had purchased the tickets. I thought it would be a grand way to celebrate life, but I expected to sit in the audience listening politely to some of my favorite music with perhaps a film clip or two to go along with the hits. I had no idea how much more wonderful the experience would actually be.

The concert began with Hans Zimmer entering the stage under a lone spotlight. He sat down at an upright piano and began playing. Slowly other musicians began to join him, adding a bit more interest to the tune. One by one they entered and the depth of the music increased until there was a full orchestra and a choir with the entire stage lit in cadence with the amazing sounds. It was one of the most musically exciting things that I have ever witnessed. It demonstrated the power of a single melody to expand with the help of multiple instruments and intricate arrangements. It was like a lesson in the development of a soundtrack or a symphony. I found myself almost imagining the workings of Mr. Zimmer’s mind as he develops the wondrous music that enhances so many movies. He manipulated our interest and our mood with the help of remarkably talented individuals who have worked joyfully with him for decades.

I was particularly taken by his use of amplified instruments to enhance the normal orchestral implements. There were guitars, violins and cellos all amped up and making the most incredible sounds. To use a terrible pun it was quite electrifying. I was particularly enchanted by an Asian woman playing an electric cello. She was wildly enjoying her work so much so that I was enchanted by her. The audience would learn that she has been playing since the age of three and that she practices for eight hours every day. Such dedication to a craft is almost unimaginable but it has paid off for her.

The concert featured some of Hans Zimmer’s most popular works including music from The Dark Knight, Man of Steel, Angels and Demons, Interstellar, Inception, Driving Miss Daisy and many more. With lighting designed to operate in time with the music it was a very interactive evening, and I was thrilled beyond anything that I hoped to see and hear. I swear that I actually felt the music on my skin and I’m certain that my seat was vibrating from the sounds. I know that there were moments when I became so emotionally involved with the music that I felt almost breathless. I even joked that some of the music was of the type that I imagined I might hear as I enter heaven one day. At least I hope that it will be that lovely!

After the concert I read an interview with Hans Zimmer in our local newspaper. He mentioned that he was concerned that so many orchestras worldwide are losing money and audiences. He fears that we may one day see the demise of such local musical troupes because they have failed to capture the interest of younger audiences. They struggle just to keep the older folks in the seats. He suggested that the orchestras employ more fun and innovation in their presentations, and he believes that the people will then come. He noted that the composers of the past were often way ahead of their time. They experimented with music and created new forms. It was the excitement of their compositions that made them famous. Now we seem to simply offer stale copies of their inventiveness. He urged musicians to instead be more daring as he has tried to be.

I completely agree with his analysis because I found his presentation to be so stunningly exciting that I would have stayed for hours more if only his musicians had continued to play. The concert hall was filled with people of every age group and everyone appeared to be enchanted. My grandsons who are college age were as taken by the concert as my husband and I who are in our sixties. The affair spoke to the genius of humans and their ability to create sounds that both please and tell a story. The level of brilliance and musicianship was astounding and mesmerizing.

As people we have incredible creative talents. What we have achieved scientifically and medically is a testament to our intelligence. It is in the arts, however, that we truly demonstrate an aspect of our essence that goes beyond utility. We enjoy art for arts sake, for our pleasure. Our ability to fill our environment with sights and sounds that elevate the human spirit is what truly makes us different from the animals. We take words and string them together in beautiful combinations. We draw lines and curves to create visions from our souls. We use sounds blended together to intensify our stories and our moods. We use our voices and play instruments crafted out of wood and metal and strings. What we have done is so amazing if we really stop to think about it.

I can’t imagine living in a time in which there were few opportunities to hear the best music from the finest composers. Because of our inventiveness anyone has the opportunity to listen to the sounds of angels wherever they may be. It is a gift that I enjoy and cherish every single day. I wonder that we don’t seem to fully appreciate such miracles born of our creativity.

Some seem to believe that we are teetering on a precipice as people. I happen to think that as long as we continue to celebrate and enjoy music and art in its many forms we will maintain our humanity. Music is universal. It brings us together without a need for translation. It speaks to each of us and burrows into our very souls.

As a new school year approaches I find myself thinking of a child will picking up a cello and brimming with excitement upon plunking the strings and creating music for the first time. Perhaps that youngster will one day be entertaining all of us. I can’t wait to hear from him/her. We so badly need such souls in our midst, so I hope we will be careful when making cuts to education. I can’t imagine anything more thoughtless than using arts programs as a way of saving money. We truly need our most creative individuals to keep us centered. It is in our natures to desire enrichment of our imaginations. Bravo to the musicians, singers, dancers, artists, and actors who make our world all the more beautiful with their gifts. Like Hans Zimmer I truly hope that we don’t lose any of them.

Embracing Life

Come-to-Your-Senses-940x627When my daughter was in the first grade her teacher noticed that she appeared to be reading lips rather than listening with her ears. After a visit to the nurse it became clear that my little girl had lost over forty percent of her hearing. We took her to see a specialist who eventually performed surgery on her ears. As we were leaving the hospital she quite suddenly gasped and asked us what all of the noise was. Her eyes were as big as saucers as she heard normally for the very first time. For her it was a grand experience that she rewarded with a great big smile.

All too often we take so much in our world for granted that we miss some of the most remarkable pleasures. We rush from here to there with our heads full of thoughts about what we need to accomplish. We don’t even notice the hue of the sky or the singing of the birds. We fail to see the tiny gecko skittering across the yard or pay attention to the laughter of children in someone’s backyard. Our eyes don’t even see the beautiful white texture of the milk that we pour on our cereal. We don’t smell the aroma of the coffee as it brews. We are far too busy to stop long enough to allow our brains to appreciate the wonderfully simple miracles that are happening all around us, that is until something forces us to consider the most basic aspects of our lives. Then it is as though we have received a new pair of spectacles or a special hearing aide that allows us to fully experience the world as never before.

Those moments when we pause long enough to appreciate what we have refresh and renew us. They remind us that in most cases our blessings far outweigh our difficulties. We realize that the vast majority of the people we encounter are smiling and friendly. We feel the love and affection that comes our way and see that we are never really alone. We begin to fully understand the importance of the many tasks that people are performing to help us, sometimes so quietly that we hardly notice that they are there. In taking nothing for granted we are filled to the brim with optimism and gratefulness.

I pass the medical center of Houston all of the time without actually thinking about the people inside all of those hospitals. At any given moment there are so many people in distress who are being assisted by kind, caring and well trained medical personnel who are there ready to hep even on a big holiday. They do their work day in and day out with little fanfare simply because it is what they do.

I hear the sirens of passing fire trucks and ambulances rushing along the streets of my neighborhood and quickly return to whatever I was doing without considering how those noises signal that help is on the way. The men and women who rise from their sleep in the middle of the night are good Samaritans in every sense of the word. Their work is critical to us and yet we don’t even think of them until they are coming to our own personal aide.

We complain about our teachers and joke that they may not be the brightest bulbs in the pack even as we have to acknowledge that our entire workforce is built upon the foundation of the knowledge that they provide. Somehow in spite of our constant criticism they carry on with their duties, faithfully striving to help our young to learn. Neither salary nor respect matter as much to them as enriching a child’s mind.

Who ever considers the enormous contributions of engineers who anonymously advance our world? We use their inventions and products with little thought of the effort, inspiration and intelligence needed to build them. We travel down roads and cross bridges as though they somehow just miraculously appeared.

Our garbage disappears because of people who toil in the heat and the cold. Our homes are comfortable because workers built them to be solid and safe. We enjoy an abundance of food because of farmers working in fields hundreds and even thousands of miles away. Every single aspect of our lives is affected by the hard work of countless individuals who use their skills and hard work not just to earn a living but to make the world a better place. Even that ketchup bottle filled with a homespun kind of sauce is a miracle of sorts that we should never think of as just being ordinary.

We should all be like my child who rejoiced in the simple gift of hearing. The world is filled with the voices of those who would make us better. It is a repository for the music of nature and of composers who use instruments to bring us so much pleasure. It is but one of the incredible senses that we should never fail to enjoy. Even the feel of the clothing on our backs should fill us with joy and thankfulness.

Perhaps I have been reminded of late that it is a most unfortunate attitude to ignore the wonder of the people and things that are right under our noses. While a trip to an extraordinary place is a special adventure, our own backyards are also filled with treasures that we need to embrace. Rejoice that the sun rises and sets. Feel the rain as it falls. Enjoy life in every moment. The pleasure and happiness that you seek is already right in front of you. Embrace it with gusto.

Time Flies

Time-Flying-By-For-Sunny-And-Her-Sweetheart-3-kraucik83-21592704-380-270Time flies when you’re having fun! I celebrated my fiftieth high school class reunion last October. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles groundbreaking masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. I’ve been attending countless seventieth birthday parties for friends. We are nearing the time when it will have been half a century since we traveled to the moon. News clips from my teenage years look like ancient history, and I find myself explaining what life was like back then to my grandchildren as though I am speaking of the Middle Ages.

Of course all of it seems like yesterday to me. I can’t imagine where the time went or how my contemporaries became so gray. I remember my biology teacher telling me that one day I might begin to shrink as my bones aged. I found his conversation to be bizarre at the time but now I measure my height and find that I have lost two and a half inches to the effects of osteoporosis. The arthritis in my knees has caused my legs to bow. My hair is thinner than it once was. My face is beginning to wrinkle. Time has visibly changed me and my long time friends, just as it has done to people for centuries. Our aging is as inevitable as the rising of the sun.

I do my best to stay in concert with the times. I had a great role model for that in my grandfather who read voraciously and interacted with the young people from his church often enough to keep his fingers on the pulse of the world. I myself attempt to be informed by staying involved with friends of all ages. I like to travel and observe. Much as my grandfather did, I read constantly. I talk with my grandchildren to learn about the current state of things.

Still I have a very difficult time accepting that I have traveled through so many decades. In my mind everything happened to me only yesterday. I suppose that I view myself as a fresh faced twenty year old rather than someone nearing her sixty ninth birthday. I literally forget that I am old in the eyes of most individuals until I experience the deference that people so respectfully give to senior citizens. I realize that nobody needs to check my driver’s license anymore to determine if I am of age. I often shock myself when I glance in a mirror. It takes me a second to recognize the older woman whose image is reflected in the glass. My brain and my body seem almost to be at odds.

What is the most remarkable to me is how quickly I have rushed through the many phases and milestones of living. I have been so busy that I hardly took time to notice the clock or the calendar. I’m still mentally sitting in a rocking chair holding my babies and singing to them, but the reality is that both of my girls are middle aged women with children of their own who are rapidly nearing adulthood.

I remember my first day of teaching as though it happened only minutes ago. I can see my students sitting expectantly in front of me not knowing that my heart was beating with fears that I would not be able to provide them with the guidance that they needed. One group after another came to me and I poured out my knowledge and my love in the hopes that I might somehow make a difference in their lives. All the while the clock was ticking and I never took note until one day I was walking away from a career that I so loved and handing over my responsibilities to a younger generation.

Wasn’t it just last night when I married the man who has been my best friend for decades? When did we come to think in tandem, so much so that we complete sentences for one another and read each other’s minds? How is it that he still makes me catch my breath now and again when I see him and realize that he has loved me faithfully for so many years? I can’t believe that I have lived with him longer than I did with my parents.

The world keeps turning through its twenty four hour cycles, its three hundred sixty five day years. We work and play, celebrate and grieve. We are but a small part of a history that moves relentlessly forward. What seemed like forever when I was a child now feels too quick. I want to squeeze every single drop out of time and all too often I feel rushed in my efforts. There is so much more that I want to see and do and experience. I worry that I won’t get to everything on my bucket list. I tell myself to slow down and linger longer over the moments that I have.

I more and more find myself enjoying the slower quieter times. Spending a few hours with my father-in-law seems like a gift. Sitting in my garden watching the birds is more exciting than attending a concert. Perhaps this is a sign of age, or maybe it simply means that I have learned to value simplicity and the true essence of living.

I think of walks that I took with my grandmother in the hills behind her farm. We did little more than stroll under the shade of ancient trees listening for the songs of the birds and breathing in the fragrances of the grasses and wildflowers. We were quiet and deliberate in our personal journey as though ours was some sacred quest not to be rushed or intruded upon. My grandmother was in her eighties by then. She had developed a wisdom that I did not yet completely understand or appreciate. It would be years before I would look back on the simple conversations that we shared and understand their importance.

Each day, each minute is precious. We take time for granted when instead we should treasure it. It won’t be long till we are wistfully looking back and wondering where it all went. If we have used our hours well we will also be able to point with pride to the purposes that we have fulfilled.

  

The Strong

AlejandroAt one of my grandsons’ recent track meets there was a fun race that featured beefy football players running against one another. Of course there was also a big twist to the competition. Each of the guys, who looked like defensive linemen, had to carry a tire as they circled the track. They had everyone laughing and having a good time, and I was reminded of a story that my grandfather loved to tell.

Grandpa grew up in small town Virginia. In fact he was so far out in the country that he wasn’t even sure if the place where he lived even had a name. The townspeople had to create their own entertainment. There were no theaters or musical venues or such, just whatever talent they were able to throw together from the locals.

On one occasion the citizens decided to have a race between the biggest guys in the county. The idea was that they would have to run through a course carrying heavy barrels of flour. They had to ford rivers, climb over fences and go through fields strewn with rocks while lugging the heavy containers. The path extended for several miles and was so treacherous that only a truly strong man would be able to survive the grueling adventure.

Grandpa said that everybody’s money was on one particular man who was built like  Paul Bunyan. His arms and legs rippled with muscle and he was well over six feet tall. My grandfather was in total awe of this contender, and so he wagered a small amount of his earnings on the outcome.

From the beginning of the race this incredible hulk of a man sprinted far ahead of the competition. Nothing seemed to stop him and in one phenomenal show of prowess he even climbed over a fence without stopping to set down the heavy barrel. Grandpa laughed as he pointed out that there was actually no contest, and his bet was as safe as if he had placed his money in the bank.

We humans have always had a fascination with individuals who hone their bodies into powerful machines. Here in the Houston area we are all enamored with J.J. Watt, an affable defensive player for the Houston Texans who at times seems to most surely be related to Superman. He has performed some spectacular feats on the football field and in the locker room, including jumping from a standing position to the top of a chest that was at least three or four feet off of the ground. When I think of J.J. I understand the admiration that my grandfather had for his hometown strong man.There is something almost mystical about such people. They metaphorically represent the strength of mind and body that we all wish to have.

Of course we are not all made of the necessary stuff to enable us to accomplish such remarkable physical feats. Even in the race with the tires that made us all laugh at my grandsons’ track meet there was one young participant who was significantly smaller than the rest and in spite of tremendous grit he was not able to keep up with the bigger boys. Still, there was something quite appealing about his willingness to try even as he fell farther and farther behind. In the end he received as much cheering and applause as the winner. We all somehow knew that his positive attitude was as laudable as size and speed.

My grandfather’s stories all had a common theme, namely that we humans are continually faced with challenges and the best among us fight with all of their might to succeed. He himself overcame one difficulty after another, and somehow lived to tell about his adventures with a hint of laughter and the wisdom of someone who had traveled along life’s highway for one hundred eight years.

We love our athletes because we understand how much hard work and pain it takes for them to do the things that they do. They push themselves beyond the limits that so many of us simply accept. This is also true of those who take their minds to heights of thinking and learning that literally result in unheard of discoveries. There are people among us who are not satisfied with being ordinary and their dedication to their craft separates them from the ordinary.

A couple of weeks ago one of the former students of KIPP Houston High School performed in his senior recital at Wabash College. To say that Alejandro Reyna is talented would be an understatement as evidenced by what he has achieved since the beginning of his education there. As a freshman he regularly wrote a blog detailing the adjustments that he had to make in a place far away from home with a culture unlike his own. His openness and sincerity made his writing an instant hit, but it was only the beginning of the incredible things that he would ultimately do. By the time that he had reached his senior year he had composed original music for oboe, piano and strings in addition to being a proficient singer. The works that he wrote were stunning and plant him firmly in the ranks of incredibly talented individuals. In his own way he is as splendid as the strong men who have been the stuff of fascinating legends. We will most surely continue to hear from this exceptional man. 

Each of us is endowed with particular talents, but we don’t always push ourselves to be our very best. Athletes work hard and often ignore pain. Those who are brilliant move beyond the ordinary in their quest for knowledge and answers to questions. There is much perspiration involved in achieving greatness and that is why we humans are so in awe of those who push the envelope of life. They become our heroes and live in the stories that we tell of them. Alejandro Reyna has already earned a place among them and he has only begun.