The Number Line of Our Lives

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Last week I was at the University of Houston where I was planning to have lunch with a student who is considering returning to Texas from his out of state college. Our first stop was at the offices of transfer counseling services in the Cougar Village. I waited near the reception desk while he met with a representative to outline his needs and learn how to proceed in making the change. It was somewhat quiet in the office and my chair was right in front of the receptionist who was a tiny young woman who appeared to be quite businesslike but nonetheless polite and inviting. I thought of my own experiences with academic counseling at U of H in the long ago and remarked that I truly appreciated her kind demeanor, relaying a bit of my own experience when I too was little more than a slip of a woman.

My initial contact with the university had been quite a discouraging affair that almost sent me running. I sat for well over an hour before I was even seen by anyone. When my moment to garner information finally came I was greeted by a surly woman who literally barked the obvious fact that she was behind schedule and had very little time for conversation other than that related to the business at hand. There were no warm greetings, not even a tiny smile. Instead her angry demeanor set a tone for the interaction that left me flummoxed and almost as ignorant about policies and procedures as I had been before I came. My session ended on such a rushed note that I felt as though I was being pushed from the office. I somehow maintained my composure in spite of how I was feeling until I reached the ladies room down the hall where I found a stall and proceeded to cry for at least five minutes. Luckily once I got past the bureaucratic arm of the university it was smooth sailing. My classes were challenging and interesting, and my professors were always accommodating and determined to help me navigate through the years of my college life. I grew to love the University of Houston, but shuddered at the thought of having to deal with the business and paperwork associated with entering and exiting.

I joked a bit with the student with whom I had outlined my story and then she in turn relayed hers. She was from Asia and was majoring in mathematics. There were a number of career pathways that she was considering, but she was most interested in applying math in the business sector. She was excited about graduating in the spring and spoke of the many people at the university who had supported her when she first came and knew so little about the city or even our country. It was apparent that her efforts to be hospitable to those who visited the office had stemmed from her own experiences and the appreciation that she felt for those who come to the university attempting to make life changing decisions. She delights in the fact that she is now the one who greets so many of them. She wants their first impression to be be positive because she understands their fears.

I enjoyed my little talk with this stranger who now seemed a bit more like an acquaintance. I appreciated that she had taken the time to relate her own story with so much candor. I felt the kind of bond that two people enjoy in that brief moment when their worlds collide and they are willing to approach each other with mutual respect. It amazed me that even though our collegiate ties were separated by many decades we had both felt the same sense of apprehension and hopefulness as we imagined our lives stretched out before us. I was now viewing mine from the rearview mirror of nostalgia and she was just placing her foot on the accelerator to forge into unexplored territory full speed ahead. Both of us felt a kinship and gratitude for those who had helped us to reach our respective points in life. In particular I understood that her lovely demeanor toward everyone who walked into the office would set the tone for a wonderful experience that might encourage even those who felt lost to take the risks that most certainly would lie ahead.

Eventually the student with whom I had come for a lunch date finished his own appointment and we headed to a restaurant on campus. I saw in his eyes that his meeting had not given him the answers that he had hoped to hear. He felt a bit discouraged by all of the hoops through which he would have to jump if he decided to transfer his work from one university to another. It would be almost like starting over and losing all of the time that he had already invested. He was caught in a quandary that I too have faced, and so we began a quiet discussion of his options over a lunch of grilled cheese and tomato basil soup. The fact that it was a grey and cold day did little to help his mood, and I could see the wheels turning in his head as he calculated the cost of staying put in a place that made him miserable versus changing to a more positive environment where he has friends who care about him and encourage him to make the move as they have already done.

Time feels very different to me than it does to a young adult barely entering his twenties. I have the advantage of knowing how quickly it passes. i have experienced enough to know all too well the importance of being happy. Our minds tell us when something is wrong and while it may be challenging to extricate ourselves from certain situations in the long run we will always land on our feet and find the contentment that we seek. I have learned all too well that life rarely follows a straight line. Instead it is a series of curves looping back and forth often throwing us off balance. It is a high wire act that is both frightening and exciting. If we take a deep breath we learn that most of the platitudes that we hear have some merit. We won’t fail as long as we follow our hearts and keep trying. The clock will keep ticking but we soon learn to ignore it as well as the unsolicited advice and critiquing from well meaning people who think that they have a better understanding of what we need than we do. We almost always find the confidence that we need to be the person that we want to be regardless of what others may think, Our happiness comes from discovering a sense of purpose rather than pursuing a job and concerning ourselves with wealth. In the process we often find that we get exactly what we have needed all along.

I can’t help thinking about the continuum on which we all fall in a kind of curvy number line of life. As long as we are breathing the ray of hope shines ahead. There is always time for adjustments to our trajectory. I am at a far end, but still aware that unknown challenges and joys lie ahead. The young lady in the office is both ending one phase and beginning another. The student with whom I had hoped to convey some wisdom is stopping and starting and making circles as he attempts to come to the right conclusion that will work for him. None of us is a fortune teller capable of predicting exactly what will happen once we make a choice, but based on what lies behind I understand perhaps a bit better that the secret to a full and rewarding life begins with a little spark that tells us when we are heading in the right direction and when we are not. We learn to alter our course and adapt more and more quickly on our journey. We become like  race car drivers whose muscle memories react quickly to bumps and turns in the ever changing environment. Somewhere along the road we also become proficient in rejoicing in our uniqueness and gain confidence in the choices we have made. We ultimately realize that when all is said and done it is in the people we have loved and the lives that we have touched that we have found the keys to our puzzling searches. 

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Propagate the Good

domestic-violence-recently spent a glorious weekend with relatives in Dallas. We had three days together and in between dinners, walks, movies, and a big party we talked about today’s problems. My niece commented that while the world sometimes appears to have gone crazy, most people are in fact very good. She suggested that the best way to make society better is for everyone who is decent to propagate the good. In other words, it is not enough just to quietly follow the golden rule, but it is necessary for each of us to spread goodness much like a bumble bee pollinates flowers. She insisted that we must be purposeful in our efforts to demonstrate all that is right and just.

There are many reasons why some people are angry and prone to negative behaviors. Some of them stem from evil, but others are simply the result of giving up on life. Recently a young man attempted to hang himself at the high school which serves the students from my neighborhood. It hit all of us hard to know that someone so very young had felt so hopeless that he was ready to end it all. I still don’t have any idea what exactly may have lead to his dramatic cry for help, but whatever it was must have been horrible in his mind. I can’t help but wonder if this incident might have been prevented if only the people around him had shown enough kindness to propagate the good. Perhaps he might never have reached such a point of desperation.

One of my high school friends posted a message that her granddaughter had written in response to this terrible tragedy. The young girl attends the school where this student had tried to kill himself. She hinted that he may have been a victim of bullying. She urged everyone to be kind, to watch their words, and to notice whenever someone is suffering. She suggested that each of us has a responsibility to speak up when we see cruelty and to assist anyone who appears to be suffering.

We tend to get very busy, so that we often purposely look the other way if we see someone being abused. It’s easier to just shrug and ignore such situations, but we never really know how a victim will react to the pain of being emotionally or physically tortured. Such individuals often need a hero, a person strong enough to stand up for them or at the very least comfort them. When we walk away from such situations the message that we send is that the world is an uncaring place.  Little wonder that so many people feel alone in their trouble and decide that it would be easier to stop the pain with death. How many times might such thoughts be changed by a bit of kindness?

Even as adults it is very difficult to stand up to bullies and the type of toxic individuals who berate and insult others. Those kinds of people are more often than not intimidating, and since so many people are unwilling to confront them doing so requires tremendous courage. When the obnoxious person is an elder or in a position of power it is even more troublesome to even think of standing up to them. They harm their victims with relative impunity and begin to believe that they are untouchable. Meanwhile the person who is the brunt of their bullying begins to feel that there is no means of relief.

Of late we’ve witnessed far too many instances of people unfairly exerting their power over others. In some cases the ugly behaviors are insults and in others they are actually physical attacks. We’ve learned that often such activities were generally known and tolerated by large groups of witnesses out of fear.  In spite of the fact that most of us believe that propagating the good means stepping up to the plate even when it is frightening to do so, we continue to be reluctant to take the initiative.

I heard of a young man who went to see a play that featured acting by some of his friends. His intent had been to demonstrate support for the cast but things took a bad turn. He and a group of classmates sat together at the performance and one of the group began to kibitz and joke about the play’s message. Soon enough they were all laughing inappropriately and angering members of the audience as well as the actors. The young man felt horrible about what was happening but rather than moving, asking his buddies to cease their rude behavior or at least sitting in silence he chose to go along with the antics. His apologies only came after the director expressed his anger. He had allowed himself to become involved in a situation that he felt was wrong, but he simply did not have the courage to do what was right. His was a case of allowing peer pressure to dictate his poor judgement.

Each of us has no doubt been guilty of such cowardly inaction. We really don’t want to get involved in something that might get messy. It’s easier to just ignore acts of ugliness. Few among us are able to honestly say that we have never left an individual to fend for him/herself in a bad situation, even understanding that our intersession might have ended the abuse.

I wonder how many times a suicide might have been stopped had someone been willing to defend a tortured soul, or at least to seek help for him/her. We know how harmful words and actions can be, and yet we are all too often seized with fear when faced with such realities. If such unwillingness to become involved were confined to the very young it might be understandable, but all too often even adults prefer to protect themselves, their relationships or their jobs rather than speaking the truth that might make a world of difference for someone who is being unfairly targeted with hatefulness.

There are indeed more good people than bad, but when the good people are silent we end up with innocents being loaded into boxcars that carry them to concentration camps. When we refuse to speak we may later find someone battered or even murdered. If the good people shout with a collective voice they will be heard just as surely as the world eventually listened to the words of Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King. Goodness must be shared if it is to have the desired impact on the world. 

The Art of Discourse

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I’m going to let my age show a bit like a tacky slip hanging out from under a skirt. My commentary has to do with how people sometimes react fearfully to the idea of being with their relatives on holidays. I was listening to an NPR interview and callers were complaining about relations who annoy them. They actually spoke of dreading gatherings and even wishing that they did not have to attend them. Most of their comments focused on discussions and comments with which they do not agree that invariably seem to come from certain family members whenever they re gathered together. The respondents made it clear that they don’t want to hear anything that is contrary to their own thoughts. They expressed strong feelings of wanting to leave when such discussions occur.

I actually found their ideas to be a bit strange, mostly because my interactions with my own extended family when I was young were laden with loud pronouncements, many of which lacked any form of finesse. The truth is that I loved witnessing such familial debates. They taught me several things. One was that there are a number of ways to consider a particular point of view, and the other was that two people can disagree and still love each other. None of the discussions that I observed ever resulted in one person feeling so hurt that he/she was left unable to forgive. In fact, one minute the two verbal opponents might be expressing opposite philosophies and the next they were laughing and hugging.

My father and grandfather were particularly prone to expressing points and counterpoints. Both of them were exceedingly well read so there were few emotions presented as arguments, but rather tons of facts. Their verbal sparring was fascinating to me instead of frightening regardless of which side of an argument each chose. Rather than feeling uncomfortable in the presence of such disagreements I learned the art of debate. I respected both men intensely, but I always mentally chose one as the winner over the other. I was fascinated by their intellectual prowess and mutual respect for each another, and I noticed that my grandmother always listened to their words with a look of pride on her face. She seemed to enjoy that the two most important men in her life were so knowledgeable. Like her it never occurred to me to be upset that they brought up controversial topics. I liked the freedom that such temporary disagreements implied.

I honestly don’t know why people take comments with which they are at variance so personally. I have always been able to simply shrug them off and laugh inside. I see little reason to become upset. I know every member of my family would literally do anything to assure my safety and comfort. Their love is real, and so it doesn’t matter to me how they think about things. When we get together the liberal Democrats mix right in with the ultra conservative Republicans. I listen to what each has to say and then form my own opinions. It’s something that I learned to do from the time that I was very young. I also became well schooled in how to be respectful even when I heard something that seemed outrageous.

My Uncle Paul often made shocking statements. I had to catch myself to keep from rolling my eyes when he spoke, but I also knew that when all was said and done he was one of the most generous and forgiving people in my world. He would complain about so called worthless people in almost vile language, and then provide the family of a homeless drug addled young man with a place to live, a job, and food. When my mother first showed signs of mental illness he quietly paid her bills, insisting that there be no fanfare for his largesse. He did not want her or anyone else to learn of his good deed. I learned from him that judging a book by its cover is often tempting, but not always accurate.

To this day my family’s get togethers are laden with vigorous discussions of all sorts of topics. Sometimes the younger folk don’t quite understand that it is all just good sport. My favorite occasion was when my two brothers were arguing over evolution. At one point there was a brief interruption of their discussion. When they finally came back to the topic they had seamlessly changed sides, something not everyone even noticed. It made me giggle to realize that they were just having a good time practicing the art of discourse.

Of course at any family gathering there may be the older relation who has primitive points of view regarding any number of ideas. While they may be annoying, I have always approached them with a sense of understanding. I know that they grew up in a different era and that it is no doubt way too late to change the way they view the world. My mannerly ways tell me to just listen and smile. I know that they don’t intend to hurt me and they are not threatening me in any way, so why should I grow angry?

Of course I am not talking about someone who is either emotionally or physically abusive. I don’t think they should be invited to family occasions at all unless they learn to curb their violent tendencies. Nobody should have to submit to anger or insults. That is a different issue altogether, but if it’s just someone voicing an opinion on the latest news I see no harm.

We live in a world in which we get way too hot under the collar whenever someone expresses sentiments with which we do not agree. It’s much easier and in keeping with a spirit of love to just allow the commentary and then walk away unscathed. There is also the possibility that we may actually learn something new if we just listen rather than immediately preparing a refutation. I personally think it is great fun to find out what people think about various situations. As a student of human nature I am never disappointed by the great variety of ideas.

Perhaps the biggest problem that we face in our country today is a stubborn unwillingness to hear each other’s ideas. Maybe a good place to practice being more responsive is to do so in the safe environment with family members who will love us no matter how crazy they may think our notions are. So keep an open mind if someone decides to bring up politics or religion or any of those highly charged topics that seem to drive people away more often than not. If we can’t be honest with family, where can we be? It’s time to enjoy those discussions for the value that they provide us rather than viewing them as triggers for negative thoughts. My father and grandfather had the right idea when they turned their differing beliefs into intellectual exercises. We all learned from those moments and always walked away better for having witnessed them.

Being What We Want Our Children To Be

kids-learn-from-adultsUntil last week I really had no idea who Harvey Weinstein was. I’ve seen and enjoyed a number of movies that his film company produced, but never really paid attention to who was responsible for them. I thought that some movies like Pulp Fiction were the products of unadulterated genius and others not so much. I didn’t realize that it was because of Weinstein’s efforts that Shakespeare In Love won the best picture Oscar when it was up against movie gold like Saving Private Ryan and Elizabeth both of which were far superior to the winner in every imaginable way. I’ve since learned that Weinstein was masterful at garnering votes for movies produced by his studio. With his business acumen he made a name for himself and was quite the powerful man, not just in Hollywood but in political circles as well. In just a little more than a week his reputation and possibly his empire have come tumbling down. It appears that he has been taking advantage of his power by sexually harassing and maybe even attacking  young women who fell victim to his advances out of fear of destroying their careers if they came forward with accusations. The old stories of producers and directors having casting couches abound in the history of movie land and appear to be alive and well to this day.

I can’t say that I am all that surprised. I find the Hollywood scene to be so artificial. Let’s face it. Matt Damon is not really Jason Bourne anymore than any of the actors are the characters that they play. We tend to be star struck and to idolize them to the point of taking them more seriously than we ought. At the end of the day they are as human and imperfect as we are. Take away the lights, makeup, and film editing and they are often rather ordinary. The same goes for their thoughts and beliefs. As my mother always said, they have no more insight into how we should think than anybody else. In fact, it is generally in the most ordinary of circumstances that we find the most remarkable people.

Think about the totality of your life and you will be able to recall a cast of characters whom you have known who will never receive rewards or accolades, but whose ways of living were worthy of the pages of books or even the bright lights of the big screen. I recall teachers, neighbors, relatives whose impact on my development was positive and inspirational. There were so many of them, and they were oh so real. They were truly as courageous, generous and loving as they seemed to be. There was no trickery or illusion. They were the real deal, hard working people who quietly showed me how to become a responsible person in my own right. I watched them with the critical eye of a child and then a teenager and learned from them by example. I’ve never needed the moral dictums of movie stars or directors, because ordinary people have always been around to show me how to behave and treat others.

It is often said that children will do whatever they see the adults around them doing. I feel certain that that is true, because I often find myself emulating the behaviors of people that I admired long ago in my little corner of the world. My mother demonstrated unconditional love and acceptance each and every day of her life. Even when I was grown I often felt humbled by the generosity and selflessness that she demonstrated day after day without any thought of receiving thanks or praise. I had some incredible teachers who with their examples literally taught me how to be a good educator. Not any of the professional development that I have taken has ever been more effective than watching those inspiring mentors who encouraged me to love knowledge. I learned well what works in a classroom and what doesn’t from them. From my childhood neighbors I came to understand that we all live in a village in which we are keepers of one another. It is our duty to protect the people around us as much as we protect our own.

Perhaps more than anything I recall what I learned about being a woman, and those lessons were continually conveyed to me by other women who demonstrated strength and dignity in everything that they did. They showed me how to respect and protect myself. They made me aware of how to keep myself safe, and most importantly how to refuse unwanted sexual advances. I learned how to be aware of my surroundings and when to know that I might be in danger. They repeatedly helped me to understand my own importance in the world and let me know that I need never do anything that makes me uncomfortable. They gave me the tools that I have used to achieve an equal footing with my male counterparts without ever having to surrender my principles.

I feel for women who have been subjected to unwanted sexual harassment. My mother was a particularly beautiful woman and men were quite attracted to her. Sometimes they crossed lines in their behavior toward her, especially after she became a widow. She never allowed herself to be lured by promises or power, not even when she was struggling to keep up with the finances of leading a family alone. Still, she always felt such anger and humiliation whenever men attempted to take advantage of her. They always seemed to insinuate that she had somehow asked for the unwanted actions.

Why anyone would treat another human in such a vile way is beyond my comprehension, and yet we hear of such disturbing behavior again and again. Sadly it is not unique to men. It is sick and disgusting and yet we all too often see it happening and say nothing because we are frightened or simply don’t want to get involved. It’s up to each of us to not only be unafraid to report such things, but we have to get past the idea that certain people bring such incidents on themselves. We have a tendency to blame the victims of sexual violence more than we should. What’s even worse is when we assume that people from certain backgrounds are more likely to be lying whenever they step forward with stories of abuse. We need to listen to anyone with a story of sexual violence and then seek the facts that will ultimately reveal the truth. By the same token we need to be careful not to find someone guilty before we have all of the evidence that we need.

It is always shocking to learn that someone whom we trusted is not the person we thought him/her to be. What is especially sad is when many people know of abuse but look the other way. I tip my hat to anyone who has the courage to speak the truth no matter how powerful the offender may be. As a society we have to insist that nobody be given a pass regardless of who they are. Common decency and fairness requires us to be honest in dealing with abuse because our children are indeed watching. The messages that we send, the hypocrisies that we accept will mold their futures. We need to be certain that what they are seeing and hearing reflects the way we want them to one day be. The only way to curb the kind of behaviors that lead to powerful people believing that they can harm people with impunity is to bring what they have done into the daylight, and demonstrate that we will not tolerate such indecency from anyone. Right now we seem to have a long way to go before we set aside all of our false posturing and stand up for what is just.

What Did You Do This Summer?

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“What did you did this summer?” It’s a question that will no doubt be repeated many times in the coming weeks as schools open and students return to classrooms once again. I’ve answered that query countless times, but only once has my answer held as much transformative impact as it does for this particular summer.

The last time that I felt as changed by events was when I entered the fourth grade after my father died. I wasn’t doing very well then. I was still quite afraid of what the future might hold for my family.. Everything was so uncertain and my faith that all would eventually get better was severely shaken. Our family would prove to be up to the task of moving forward with only one parent, and I would learn how truly strong we actually were, but it would take a great deal of time for me to realize that. This year’s ringing of the school bells marks another moment when I have been severely tested, but this time I have enough confidence and wisdom from experience to understand not only that I will be alright, but also that I have found a newfound contentment that comes from the certainty of knowing what is most important.

I am the first to admit that I am a planner and control freak. I’ve already placed appointments on my calendar for December. I like to have routines and keep things flowing smoothly. Deciding how I was going to spend my summer was no exception. I wanted to take my grandson to New Orleans in June because he had never been there. Our trip was indeed quite successful, but it was only the beginning of all the wondrous things that I was prepared to do, including experiencing a grand adventure traveling to Cancun and attending the wedding of a very dear friend. That particular journey was so incredibly exciting and made even better by the pleasant emotions that I shared with others who attended the ceremony who also happen to be quite important to me. I returned from my trip filled with joy and so many stories. After such a remarkable excursion I might have been content to spend the rest of my summer at home, but I had planned for so much more to come.

After spending the Fourth of July holiday with all of my children and grandchildren I was slated to relax for a week in a lovely Texas state park with friends Monica and Franz. Then I was traveling to Colorado to meet up with my brother and his family so that we might drive together to Wyoming to observe the total eclipse of the sun. I already had purchased the special glasses that I would need for the viewing, and I was beyond excited about that once in a lifetime event. I had no idea just how radically everything that I had scheduled would change, but it all did.

On July 3, my husband had a stroke as many of you who regularly read my blog already know. The thing is that as soon as I saw him lying on the floor unable to get up, with his mouth and eye drooping, nothing else mattered to me but the fact that he was still alive. If I had been required to give up every single material item that I own to keep him with me, I would surely have agreed to do so. As it was his symptoms disappeared within minutes and he is doing well these days even though he is not yet out of the woods. We’ve been mostly tied down to the house and our days have been rather quiet and uneventful. Because there is an increased chance that he will have another stroke within the first ninety days after the one that occurred in July we have cancelled all of our out of town plans, and it doesn’t bother me at all.

What I did this summer is change. I don’t want anything other than to enjoy the moment that I happen to be experiencing. I am finding happiness in the most ordinary activities, and I am so filled with love that my heart is fairly bursting. I have had the time to take stock of my blessings and they are many. I feel like a newlywed with my husband. After almost forty nine years of marriage I admit that I had been taking him for granted, but now I treasure every second that we are together. I like to hear the sound of his voice, and things that sometimes irritated me before now seem quite adorable.

I have also learned to appreciate the challenges and struggles that my friends endure. I find myself thinking about the shut-ins and the widows, those fighting illnesses and those who are afraid and uncertain. I am no longer as ignorant of their feelings, nor as cavalier about how brave they are. I have a new found respect for those who are wounded are marginalized. I have realized in a very spiritual way that nothing on the face of this earth is ever more important that its people.

I have enjoyed my interactions with friends and family as never before, and in the process I have remembered and appreciated those who helped me to become who I am today. I have had many thoughts of my departed mother and mother-in-law, and my only regret is that I never truly thanked them enough for the love that they showered on me. Now I understand how important it is to let people know exactly how much I care about them, not tomorrow but today.

I am like a whole new person, and it feels so very good to be me. I have found a contentment that is peaceful and fulfilling. I know that God is with me and that I have never been alone nor ever will be. I may be tested again, and my worst fears may come to pass, but I will be okay. This is what I learned this summer, and what a glorious time I have had reaching this destination!