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.

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The World Is A Choir

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I have lovely memories of my home life when I was a very young child and my father was still alive. The house is filled with the sounds of piano concertos from the records playing on our RCA Victrola. My father sits reading, a habit that was integral to his daily routine. My mother is busy with baking or sewing, her own hobbies that she delightedly enjoyed. I bask in the calm of the moment when my life seemed perfect, and I had no idea of the challenges yet to come. I suppose that ever since those idyllic moments I have had a penchant for reading, and I have secretly wished to be a pianist.

I have few regrets about the pathways that I have chosen in life save for one. I have always wanted to play the piano beautifully. I had a cousin named Lily who entertained and awed us with her skill on those ebony and ivory keys. I so longed to have her talent. Somehow I have always imagined that is must be incredibly rewarding and relaxing to be able to bring music into the world. I have romanticized the very act of playing a piano and wondered what it must be like to have such a remarkable ability.

I have learned over time that there is definitely a branch of my ancestry that possesses musical talent. In fact many of them gather each spring in New Mexico to learn more about our family’s history and to sing and play instruments. I suspect that this may be the source of cousin Lily’s abilities, but in my own case it is rather unlikely that I would ever have been capable of taming those keys the way she did. My fingers are quite short and even in my younger days I was unable to stretch them far enough apart to span the distances between keys. Somehow I inherited the hands of my maternal grandmother, short and stubby and strong but not particularly flexible. I appear to have been made for other talents unrelated to making actual music.

Thus it is with each of us. We have the power to orchestrate different kinds of music that is as lovely and necessary as that of a concert pianist. Some like my brother Mike are masters of mathematics with the capacity to chart and direct pathways to the stars. Others like my friend Tricia have an innate ability to understand and guide our human natures to health and happiness. Jose is an artist in the care of my lawn. Dr. Septimus understands how to keep my body working in tip top condition. Teachers like Father Shane led me to finding my own talents and then helped me to perfect them. In other words, we each have destinies that are important for the functioning of our world. Some appear to be more glorious than others, but all of them are necessary for the smooth functioning of society. Each of us contributes in important ways based on our interests and our potential.

I was helping a young girl with an essay and I was reminded of how unique and important we each are. She is in that confusing adolescent stage during which we humans question ourselves and wonder if we will ever find the purpose for our existence. It can be a frustrating time during which we more easily see the wonder of everyone else, but can’t seem to realize our own essence. So it was with this teen.

She spoke of a friend who has the gift of compassion and wisdom. She wondered why she can’t be more like her brother for whom learning appears to come so easily. She complained that she works twice as hard as he does, and still comes up short. She worries that perhaps she will never find her own talents because she suspects that they may not exist. She is not yet able to understand that her willingness to take risks, accept challenges and dedicate herself to overcoming difficulties are qualities that will take her farther than innate aptitude. She is unafraid to experience the world warts and all. This will make her strong and interesting and able to persevere when the going gets tough, which it most certainly will.

We underestimate ourselves and the people around us. Sometimes we are unable to see the remarkable value of that person who smiles and greets us as we enter a Walmart. We joke about such jobs as though they are unworthy, and forget to consider the impact that the simple act of greeting has in humanizing us in a busy world. We take people and their life’s work for granted, focusing only on those whose skills seem superior. We rarely stop to think of the importance of each contribution made by our fellow humans.

I’ve recently become a Eucharistic minister at my church. It has humbled me and made me ever more aware of the people around me. I stare into the faces of the communicants and I am moved. I see longing and goodness and earnestness in their eyes. I realize how precious they are, and how much we need them. 

I don’t have to be able to play the piano. I can simply appreciate the music of those who do. I have found my own muse, my distinct talents and those of each of the people that I encounter. We are all important, unique, and wonderful. The glory of our diversity is what makes our world a choir. 

Broken Pieces

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Have you ever had one of those horrific dreams in which you forgot something crucial and it affected your entire life? One of my recurring nightmares is that I somehow fail to remember to take a final exam in one of my college courses, thus losing credit for the class. Time passes and life is good until this error is discovered and I end up having my degree rescinded and I lose my job. The emotions that I experience in my sleep are so visceral that I wake up feeling anxious and even a bit stupid as though I really did do something as farfetched as forgetting to take care of a major responsibility.

In the real world of wakefulness I generally take care of business without any close calls. I’ve missed a deadline here and there, but those moments were never fatal nor as costly as my dreaded dream. Most of my big mistakes have taken the form of accidentally breaking something or causing mishap because I have been day dreaming or thinking about some issue.

I once backed out of my garage with the gate on my SUV still in the open position. I was on my way to a funeral and not really feeling like myself when my thoughts were interrupted by a big bang and a neck wrenching jolt. I stopped immediately and as I exited my car to see what had happened I saw one of my neighbors doing his best to stifle his laughter as he considered the ridiculousness of what I had done. I felt so sheepish that I quickly closed the mangled part as best I could and continued on my way. Luckily my husband was infinitely understanding when I later explained to him what had happened. In fact, he suggested that it had no doubt occurred because I was in a delicate state of mind. He’s always known how to make me feel better.

Because my spouse is a very good man I wanted to do something special for him as we near the one year mark of his stroke and the many trials and tribulations that he has experienced in the months since that terrible day. I found a special way to celebrate when I saw that Joe Bonamassa was scheduled to perform at a nearby venue. I excitedly purchased tickets and announced that it was an early Father’s Day present for him.

Joe Bonamassa is a gifted guitarist and my Mike has listened to his music and watched videos of his playing for years. Once when we attended a graduation at Syracuse we saw that Bonamassa was performing in town that weekend, but all of the tickets had already been sold. I knew that Mike would be thrilled to be able to finally see and hear the artist that he so admired, and it was a grand way to put aside the health challenges he had faced.

At the time that I bought the tickets our house was literally turn apart and encased in plastic and grime from the repairs that resulted from a leaking hot water heater.  From start to finish it took around eight weeks to return to normal. During that time I carefully guarded the tickets lest they become lost in the mess that surrounded us. I watched over them as though they were the most valuable item in our home. When all of the dust finally settled and we had returned to a state of normalcy I still knew exactly where the tickets were, and I gleefully imagined how much fun we were going to have as I watched the days move ever closer to the date I had saved on our family calendar.

It seemed fitting that we would be going to do something fun on May 28, Memorial Day, because I have had a difficult time with that holiday ever since my father’s death on that day of remembrance over sixty years ago. I become anxious and admittedly a bit morose year after year. I find myself reliving that moment when I found out that he had died, but this year was going to be different. I was determined to put away my childhood fears and do something fun with the man I love. I anticipated our  glorious evening all day long on May 28, and when the time came I had a lilt in my step as I readied myself for our outing.

In his usual manner Mike decided that we would have dinner near the venue and so he went online to determine how long it would take to drive from the restaurant to the concert. His search lead him to the home page of the arena where he noticed that there was no mention whatsoever of a concert featuring Joe Bonamassa. He rushed from his office to our bedroom where I was relaxing a bit before our departure and asked to see the tickets. When I handed them to him he instantly noticed that they clearly listed the date of the performance as May 21. We had missed it entirely!

I went into a state of shock and disbelief. I could feel a storm of tears gathering in my heart but I showed only a stunned reaction. I kept looking at the tickets as though somehow I might magically change the printed date to the one that I had erroneously recorded on our calendar. The difference between a 1 and an 8 is rather clear, not like a 1 and a 7. I wondered how it was possible that I had been so discombobulated as to make such a mistake. I felt as foolish as I ever have. Not only had I ruined the wonderful evening that I had planned for Mike, but I had also just flushed a great deal of money down the drain.

As usual Mike came to the rescue. He insisted that we still go out to eat and he jokingly played some of Joe Bonamassa’s music as we drove to our destination. After dinner we walked around different shops for a time and then splurged by sharing a piece of cheesecake. He made no mention of his disappointment but instead kept us laughing and having a good time. Eventually we moved our party back home where we sat on our patio under a full moon enjoying glasses of wine and ending our evening with more of Bonamasssa’s music. The best part came when Mike sweetly announced that a good night was just being with me. That comment put everything into perspective and I didn’t feel as foolish anymore.

We’re all human and we do silly things, but when all is said and done they rarely become the nightmares that we so dread. Things break, fall apart, get lost and always they remain just things. People are all that really matter, and so we pick up broken pieces, throw them away, and move on.

Jack

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Jack is one of those names that almost instantly brings warm feelings to my heart and a smile to my face. I suppose that it is mainly because that was my father’s name and he set the standard for the type of person whom I believe should bear that moniker. Jack of Titanic fame only confirmed my belief that those who bear that designation are adventurous, loving, and courageous souls just like my dad. Then along came Jack from This Is Us who reminds me of my own daddy in so many ways. In fact I’ve yet to meet or hear of a Jack that I didn’t like, souls so full of joy and intellect, people like Jack Kennedy and even a man with whom I attended school for dozens of years who still makes me laugh with his humorous ways just like those with which my father so impishly entertained us. One of my brothers officially bears the Jack designation even though he goes by Mike, and a grandson honors his great grandfather by living with the same level of joy that seems to go hand in hand with being known by that grand but simple title. Even a favorite cousin was named Jack and the two of us enjoyed the most amazing childhood together.

Somehow when I hear the name Jack I have a Pavlovian reaction of comfort and happiness. I suppose that there are actually Jacks who are not good at all, but I have never met them. My own reaction to hearing that short but sweet sound is always positive and my Aunt Polly’s two husbands, my uncles, only strengthened my belief that there is something magical about people who bear the appellation of Jack.

My first Uncle Jack was a delight. He was a tall thin drink of water with a grin that lit up his face like Times Square. He seemed born to laugh and was an encyclopedia of  stories and jokes. He is the man who introduced me to westerns, and I liked nothing better than spending time watching those old black and white adventures like Maverick, The Rifleman, Gunsmoke, and Have Gun Will Travel with him.

After my father died it was Uncle Jack who saved my family by helping us to purchase a new car to replace the one that was wrecked in Daddy’s accident. He accompanied us as we searched for a home to settle into our new life. He was smart and understood how to get things done even though his education had been limited. He was a practical soul, a survivor, someone who overcame challenges. I loved him so, and always felt quite safe when he was around. He was the uncle who was the most fun, someone who actually talked to me. Sometimes he seemed like a kid himself who never became too old to have a good time. When he died suddenly I was heartbroken. Like my own father I felt that he was far too young to leave us, but I suppose that some people are so spectacular that they have only a limited amount of time to live on this earth.

My Aunt Polly has always been a beautiful and gregarious woman who doesn’t spend much time feeling sorry for herself. It wasn’t too long after Uncle Jack’s death that she began socializing once again. In the process she met a new Jack and the two of them fell in love and were married. His full name was Jack Tolbert and he like the other Jacks that I have known was sweetness itself, as well as being a most interesting character. He had experienced great tragedy and yet he somehow always appeared to be so serene and pleasant. He loved music and often carried his guitar with him so that he might lead a group in song. He played with other musicians and found much delight in strumming different tunes with his friends. He also had a profound love of God that no doubt sustained him through the trials that he endured.

When Jack Tolbert was only eleven years old he was riding with his older brother when one of the tires on the car blew out. He waited inside the vehicle whole his sibling was replacing the flat. Without warning another driver came speeding by and hit Jack’s brother, killing him instantly. This terrible event was only the beginning of a string of tragedies that would seem to haunt his life. Another sibling was later crippled while hunting, and a third died in the assault on Normandy on D-Day. Jack’s parents both left this earth while still in their forties, and still he carried on, working for an airline and finding solace in his music and his God.

When Jack was in his sixties his beloved wife was diagnosed with ALS. For three years he cared for her with patience and love until she succumbed to the crippling disease. Like my Aunt Polly he eventually began to embrace life again and that is when the two of them met and fell in love. It was a second chance at happiness for both of them and in the next twenty five years they would have great fun together, traveling and hosting big parties for family and friends. As always Jack would regale those of us who were his guests with song and his own sweet smile.

Aunt Polly and my new Uncle Jack liked to play cards and dominoes and loved seeing their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. They would sadly lose sons even as they grew older and older. Just before Christmas one year they were decorating their front yard with lights when their house somehow caught on fire and quickly was engulfed in flames. So many of their belongings and memories burned before their eyes. They were in their nineties by then and the loss took a terrible toll on their health. They moved to a home for seniors and Jack’s mind slowly began to fade away. It was not long before he was a shell of himself, barely understanding what was happening from day to day. Last week he quietly passed away at the age of ninety nine, leaving friends and family to remember what a fine man he had always been, another Jack of such distinctive character, someone who had grasped life with all of his heart.

The Jacks that I have known have been a noble lot, the kind of men who seem to spread delight wherever they go. I miss the Jacks who have already gone to be with God, but I will never forget how wonderful they made my life and I appreciate the ones who are still here to lift up my spirit even on difficult days. Jack is such a simple name and yet the Jacks I have known have meant so much to me that the very sound of that single syllable is music to my ears.

Stayin Alive

article-2708593-04EAC45700000514-459_634x652-optimisedForty years ago the iconic movie Saturday Night Fever debuted and became not just a an instant hit, but a film classic. I was a twenty nine year old mom with two little girls and a sense that a lifetime of adventures lay ahead of me. I had matured beyond my years not just due to my parental responsibilities, but also because I had helped my mother through two difficult mental breakdowns and had watched helplessly as my husband endured chemotherapy to combat a life threatening disease. Still I was young at heart and ecstatic when my mother suggested that we go see the movie together. I knew that it was not the kind of fare that my husband would enjoy, so I was happy to have a companion with whom to share the enjoyment of escaping into a world of music and dance for a few hours.

Back then there were still several drive in movie venues in the Houston area and Mama thought that it would be fun to watch the flick in the comfort of her car. Just as she had done so many times when my brothers and I were children she created a bed for my girls in the back seat of her automobile and brought sandwiches, cold drinks and a huge bag of homemade popcorn for our dining pleasure. I loved that she was feeling so healthy that she was her old self, and I laugh now that it never occurred to either of us to consider that perhaps the content of the film might be a bit inappropriate for my underage children. We headed off with great anticipation, glad to be a group of girls out on the town.

As it happened we were all stunned by the movie. John Travolta amazed us with his dancing and the music from the Bee Gees and other disco groups of the era was incredible. We were even surprised by the actual quality of the story and the acting. My daughters who were then three and six years old never fell asleep, because they were as taken by the film as my mother and I were. I assumed that they were unable to understand the adult nuances of the plot and simply enjoyed the characters, the soundtrack and the display of talent. As for my mom and I, we were smitten and felt like a couple of giggly teenagers as we gushed about the film on our way home. Both of us had fallen for John Travolta in his white suit, and my mom who was a stunning dancer in her own right gave him a high grade for his artistry.

I suppose that I reverted to the silliness of a high school groupie when I recounted our evening to my husband. He sensed my excitement and because he has always been quite sensitive to my every need purchased several items related to the movie as Christmas gifts for me that year. Among them was the soundtrack album which I wore out with repeated playings. The girls and I danced our hearts out on many a day, pretending that we were boogying on a disco dance floor in a contest that we would surely win.

In addition to the music my man gave me the iconic poster of John Travolta dazzling the world in that gorgeous white suit in a dance pose that seemed to represent the disco era in all of its glory. I mounted the image inside my closet door and there it stood for decades making me smile every single time that I caught a glimpse of it. It made me love my husband even more because it was symbolic of his efforts to make me happy as much as possible. While I knew that he thought that my giddiness was silly, he enjoyed seeing me smile, and so he never once suggested that maybe it was time that I finally remove my remembrance of a movie that I truly loved.

When my man and I celebrated our anniversary the following year he even went so far as to present me with a lovely dress and a pair of shoes most suitable for a night at a discotheque, as well as a promise that he to take me dancing. This was the ultimate sacrifice on his part and a sign of his undying devotion to me, because everyone who has ever known him understands that he does not like to dance. I have often joked that he is almost perfect save for that one little glitch. The very idea that he was going to subject himself to a night of twirling me in rhythm to the music was stunning, but he indeed spent an entire evening making me incredibly happy as I imagined that he and I were the most striking couple on the floor. My purple dress and and new hairstyle were virtual clones of the outfit that Travolta’s partner wore in the film and my spouse was stunningly handsome. It was a night that I shall never forget.

Somehow the next forty years flew by. Drive in movies became as difficult to find as dinosaurs. My mom continued to endure peaks and valleys in her fight with mental illness. She and I and my daughters continued to dance to whatever the latest tunes happened to be. My husband reverted to his old ways and rarely tapped his feet again unless he heard the strains of a Michael Jackson tune. My children grew into lovely young women and there came a day when that old poster that still hung inside the closet had begun to dry rot. When I finally took it down it tore in so many places that I threw it away rather than attempting to salvage it. Nonetheless, I always remembered how much I had enjoyed Saturday Night Fever.

My youngest daughter laughs to think that my mother and I actually took her to see the movie when she was only three years old. It seems that she understood a great deal more than we had imagined, but it doesn’t appear to have harmed her in any way. Like me she recalls the dancing and the music so fondly and eventually she and I sat down with her daughter to relive the moment when we became so enchanted with the film long ago. We laughed at how we had missed the scene when John Travolta was preparing for his evening on the town. There he was in all of his glory blowing his hair dry while wearing nothing but a pair of black briefs. With the beauty of modern technology we were able to rewind the scene any time that we wished, and like adolescents we took full advantage of that feature while we laughed at our silliness and my granddaughter rolled her eyes.

Back in 1977, I had barely begun my lifetime of teaching. I had not even met so many of the people who would become my dear friends. I was exiting a dark and difficult time and had become far stronger than I had ever imagined I might be. My optimism was full blown in spite of the stops and starts that had changed the trajectory of my life. Saturday Night Fever gave me a moment when I did not need to feel so serious. It provided me with a memory of just how fun my mother actually was. It blunted that pain that I had so recently endured and helped me to realize that with a balance of work and play in my life I would be able to handle any challenge that came my way.

So much has changed in forty years but the essence of the human heart and its longings that the film portrayed so well is virtually the same. Each of us have dreams and experience love and joy along with tragedy. We find ways to heal and to move ever forward. If we can do so with a lilt in our steps and a little song inside our heads, we are all the better. It’s how we stay alive.