Dancing With Reckless Abandon

to_dance_around_the_sun_by_schakoyana

My empathy meter has been in overdrive of late. It has been a rough few months and weeks for so many that I know and for others whom I have never met, but for whom I have great sympathy. I have felt incredibly frustrated because I have not been able to actually give tangible help to any of the people about whom I have worried. The best that I have had to offer is a kind word, a listening ear, a hug and some prayers. The list of people for whom I am sending entries to God has steadily grown to the point that I just say, “you know who needs your help” whenever I implore the Lord to give them comfort and maybe even a miracle. Still, my efforts feels so feeble because I tend to be a control freak and the world is crowding out my ability to take charge. For that reason I reached a low point recently and felt that I needed to find a way to lift my own spirits. That’s when something rather extraordinary happened.

I was idly perusing the posts on my Facebook wall when I saw a photo from my friend Serena. It was a picture of her and her daughter at the beginning of the school year. My relationship with Serena goes back decades when she and I were both teaching mathematics at South Houston Intermediate. Our principal had chosen both of us to attend a conference and so we shared a hotel room where we got to really know each other. Serena was literally young enough to be my daughter. In fact, she was around the same age as my two girls.

I suppose that I appeared to be a middle aged motherly figure to her but that all changed when she set her alarm to play music to wake us up one morning. The radio clicked on at the appointed time and played a song by Depeche Mode. Serena quickly apologized for not thinking that songs from such a group might be a bit too strange for me. When I laughed and admitted that Depeche Mode was one of my all time favorite bands our friendship was sealed. We talked about which of their songs we liked best and what other groups we enjoyed. That broke down the wall that our differing ages had created and from that point forward Serena and I regularly got together for long and very deep conversations. It was only when she decided to return to her home state in the midwest that we lost touch.

Eventually Serena and I found each other again on Facebook and I happily learned that she was married, had a daughter and was still teaching math. I have taken great joy in viewing her happiness over the years and I’ve even considered making a trip up north one day to visit with her once again.

That takes me back to seeing a photo of Serena at the time when I was feeling rather dreary over all of the pain and suffering that is going on around me. It made me smile to think of how wonderful Serena’s life has been, but it also reminded me of a time when I was a forty something woman at the peak of health, joy and accomplishment. In those years I regularly listened to Depeche Mode at full volume and danced around my house with reckless  abandon. It was an unbelievably freeing experience that unleashed the person that I truly am. The photo of Serena triggered those feelings of elation that I used to feel and I thought what elation dancing has always provided me. I suddenly decided to ask Alexa to play some Depeche Mode and when I heard  those familiar sounds I pranced around my great room like I was at a party . I didn’t feel at all silly since my husband was off helping his father with a computer problem. I was energetic and free and chasing away all of my negative thoughts.

One thing led to another as I took a kind of walk down memory lane and felt a genuine sense of happiness in thinking of friendships that I have cherished with people like Serena. I also harked back to my teaching days and how I had felt such a sense of purpose in helping so many students to master the fundamentals of mathematical concepts. The faces of my students literally passed through my mind. That’s when I realized how to channel my worry for those about whom I care into something meaningful.

I am presently working with a student who is feeling rather anxious about his high school math class. Helping him will be so constructive, and it is something that uses one of my talents in a positive fashion. I also now homeschool seven other students in math. It takes little of my time, but makes me feel as though I am still contributing to the good of the future. Somehow I have always found a modicum of comfort in the act of learning during the most difficult times of my life. Focusing on something that engages my brain helps me to stop the cycle of anxiety that builds up when things are going awry. I’ve found shelter for my fears in academic pursuits from the time that my father died and all through the years when I was caring for my mother. I highly recommend learning of any kind as an antidote to sadness.

I also realized as I was dancing around that any effort that I make to ease the pain of someone else is a good thing regardless of how small it may be. I know that I whenever someone has sent me a card or thought to call or invite me to something that might take my mind from my woes, I have always felt better. They could not change the situation that concerned me but just knowing that someone cared was enough to get me through the worst times of my life.

It’s funny how that little photo of Serena lifted my spirits and helped me to think more deeply about how to tame my sadness. Friendships are like that. They reach across the miles and and through the years to remind us of the blessings that we have. My heart is lighter now and I know that there will be brighter days ahead. They always come and I foresee lots of dancing my future.    

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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.

The World Is A Choir

black and white keys music note
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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

abstract break broken broken glass
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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.