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At the age of thirty my mother was left alone with three small children in an era when women were still mostly housewives, not yet integrated into the work force. She was faced with raising her little family with no money, not even a life insurance policy to ease her worries while she quickly learned how to make ends meet and provide safety and security for herself and her family. A little more than then years later she would have proven her mettle and determination to make things work, but her troubles were far from over. The symptoms of her bipolar disorder revealed themselves in full force with a psychotic episode of paranoia that would make her life even more difficult in the years to come.

Her hospitalization and treatment would weigh heavily on her mind for the rest of her life. It was a frightening experience for everyone, but mostly for her. The nurses carefully checked her belongings to be certain that she had no objects with which she might harm herself. They spoke of great fear that she might be suicidal. Of course no such thoughts were ever present in my mom’s mind. Her faith in God and profound belief that he would always love and protect her insured that she was never going to consider such violence upon herself. Even in the worst episodes of her illness suicide was not part of her frightening thoughts. The psychiatrists who took the time to know her well all insisted that she was never at risk of killing herself. Somehow her profound faith was like a protective shield of armor even in her most confused moments.

This past Easter season I found myself being reminded again and again of how much my mother loved God. She was one of those persons who proudly displayed the palms that she received at church on each Palm Sunday. During Holy Week she virtually lived at the church beginning with Holy Thursday and culminating with special services on Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter itself. She seemed to have a very special relationship with Jesus, and she found great comfort in the story of his short life here on earth. She often spoke of how he protected widows, and she sincerely believed that he was actively caring for her from heaven.

Good Friday was a particularly moving occasion for my mother. She seemed to understand the message of Jesus’ death on the cross far more clearly than most Christians. She often cried at the very thought of the pain that he endured and the injustice of his execution, but she saw it as the ultimate sacrifice that anyone might make for his/her fellow human. She also thought of it as a model for the kind of suffering that each of us will experience on earth. She felt that such challenges would ultimately be a passing thing when our time here reached an end and we are reunited with God in heaven. She was so unswervingly convinced of the truth of her beliefs that she literally glowed with joy on her deathbed in the knowledge that she was about to receive the ultimate reward for all humans who have done their best to live good and decent lives.

I admittedly often felt sorrow for my mom. It seemed to me that she had convinced herself that the tragedy of her life was not nearly as bad as some seemed to think. She focused on the prize and never once wavered in her beliefs. She often spoke of how blessed she was and how good God had been to her. Not poverty, nor illness, nor the loss of those that she loved ever led her to question that love that she was convinced he had shown her. She daily read her bible and made it from one difficulty to the next with an optimism that sometimes annoyed me. It was only at the very moment of her death that I felt that there was something bigger than the challenges of humanity at work in our lives. In the years since she left this earth I have found myself remembering just how much comfort she found in the words and deeds of Jesus. I have recalled how she actually felt privileged to have suffered a bit like he did. She found so much joy in the spiritual relationship that she had with him, and she truly believed that he was the reason that she had made it.

My mother was a very special and saintly woman, a tower of strength in spite of the illness that rose up to threaten her again and again. Where I became angry about her fate, she saw it as life unfolding just as it was supposed to be. Somehow she found virtue even in her own imperfections. Her interpretation and understanding of the message of the Christian gospels was one of great exultation. I on the other had often over thought and focused on the horrors that I saw in the world, particularly those inflicted on her. Unlike my mother I wanted to know how she could be so content when she seemed to have been give so little. I had a hard time accepting her belief that she was fortunate and blessed.

In the years since her death I have found myself pondering her life and realizing just how carefree and generous she always seemed to be. While I was worrying about worldly things, she was viewing life through a far more spiritual lens. She did not need the trappings of humanity to feel good. She was truly like the lilies of the field in her innocence and her willingness to find beauty and peace in small things. She needed little more than her bible to feel safe and secure.

Somehow this past Easter season I began to truly understand her life, and mostly her faith. I had moments when I was overcome with emotion in the realization of how powerful her relationship with God had been. I felt her presence in my heart and it allowed me to feel closer to her and to God than ever before in my life. I realized that I too have been the beneficiary of God’s goodness even when it was not apparent to me. Somehow I began to have a clearer understanding of his message to us. While I cannot explain it to the extent that I wish, I now understand that it is about surrender, the same kind that Jesus demonstrated when he allowed himself to die on a cross. It is not about rules or judgements or the kind of things that we humans have added to virtually every religion on earth, but about love and trust. That is the secret that my mother discovered, the truth that kept her untroubled even when her story seemed to be so unfair. I’m working on becoming more like her. I still have a long way to go, but I can see a ray of light that has never been there before.

Negativity in a World of Plenty

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I’ll be visiting London in may. In preparation for my tour I’ve been immersing myself in films, television programs, and history from Britain. I’ve learned about the Victorian era and the age of the Tudors. One unmistakable thing that I have learned is that even for kings life back in the day was often short, ugly and brutish. While we may romanticize life before our time, the reality is that the average person had a really tough time.

When Henry VII was king in the fifteenth century people slept on straw along with the dogs and livestock. They didn’t take many baths and there was no such thing as shampoo. They were no doubt a rather rangy bunch who hardly dreamed of reaching ages that are commonplace these days. They were unlikely to do a great deal of smiling for portraits even if they were royalty because their teeth were probably rotten and black, when they weren’t missing completely. Medicine was built more on superstitions and old wives’ tales than any real knowledge of disease and how to combat it. Times were hard for most people with little sanitation and a looming threat of starvation. Small wonder that many people chose to risk the uncertainty of traveling to the new world once news of its so called discovery reached their ears. The chance of finding something different must have been tantalizing.

The Victorian era was not a great deal better if one were born without wealth. It was a hard life for the average soul both in Great Britain and here in their rebellious cousin, the  United States. Homes without electricity or indoor plumbing were still very much the norm, and work was often dirty and mind numbing. Forty hour weeks with benefits were still dreams of the future with most folks working themselves into states of bad health with little concern about either their safety or their welfare.

The twentieth century eventually led to modernization, but not before people had endured two world wars, a devastating depression, and a flu epidemic that killed millions. It saw revolutions that placed countries under the rule of communist despots, and the murder of untold innocents by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, among others. Somehow the people of the world soldiered on and slowly began to develop economies and political systems that allowed greater numbers of individuals to live with opportunities and modern conveniences that not even kings might have imagined.

Today here in the United States and many European countries and other rapidly developing parts of the world advancements have been so great that we live in relative comfort with our food, appliances, cars, medical care, educations, and ways of life. We take our beds and our shampoos for granted. Our daily showers are just part of an under appreciated routine. Even our dogs live in greater comfort than people did five hundred years ago.

While we have made such great advances for virtually everyone, we still seem to spend far too much time complaining about what we do not have. We envy those who have more and plot to find legal ways of taking what they have earned and so that we might have a share of it. Instead of appreciating what we already own we moan about what we are yet to have, rarely sacrificing our visits to restaurants or the small luxuries that were unheard of for any but royalty in another time. I wonder why we spend more energy listing our grievances than counting our blessings.

There is certainly nothing wrong with improving the world, making progress, but we have become a world filled with gripes and jealousy. We see far too many people wanting to take rather than give. We forget that the great strides forward in history have had their costs in hard work and innovative thinking. We seem to believe that if we simply legislate equality of living standard it will miraculously overtake society and all will live blissfully. History tells us that such thinking has no basis in fact. Lenin did not create a society that built better lives for the Russian peasants than they had experienced under the czar. Such a dream must be built on the ingenuity and drive of individuals, not the dictums of a government whose chief goal is to maintain power.

Having a purpose and a feeling of contributing to the greater good of family, neighborhood, village, and society is what makes us happy with our states in life. It is not what we own or how much capital we store in a bank that brings the contentment that we desire, although it doesn’t hurt to have those things. In the end it is how we feel about ourselves in relation to those around us that brings us happiness. Each of us has many talents that we may use to keep the engines of a society roaring. There is great satisfaction to be found in contributing love, ideas, work, service. When we are engaged outside of ourselves we don’t have time to nurse anger or hard feelings. Going to bed tired but filled with a sense of doing something meaningful brings restful slumber and contentment.

I used to do a daily exercise as a teacher to keep from being discouraged by minor problems in my classroom. At the end of the day I listed all of the things that appeared to have gone right as well as the experiences that made me smile. I made sure to go minute by minute, period by period so that I would not miss anything. Then I would write down my grievances and mistakes. There was never one day when the bad happenings outweighed the good. It taught me to be conscious of what I had working for me that would help me to improve what was going wrong. My perspective was centered on the positive and thus my solutions tended to be optimistic as well. I was honestly able to exclaim that being an educator was a joyful experience because I was consciously looking for the good.

We have much. All of us do, even those with very little still have more than their ancestors. We must build on the progress that we have made and ask ourselves what got us here and what we have changed along the way. We can make things better, but not if all we do is grumble.


vans-2015-summer-geoff-rowley-footwear-collection-11My grandmother was one of those people who saved all of her nice things for some future day when she would need them. We used to joke that our Christmas gifts to her would be stored away and not seen again until the things that she had been using were worn beyond usefulness. When she died there were items still wrapped in cellophane and stored in boxes. I suppose that hers was the habit of a woman who had lived in a state of poverty for most of her life. She was brought up to use what she had rather than to concern herself with acquiring abundance. I suspect that there were many people of her generation and economic status who did exactly the same thing. It sometimes made us sad that her tendencies prevented her from fully enjoying the advantages that we sought to give her. I suppose that it mattered little to her because by then she was set in her ways, but it always amused me that we kept trying to provide her with luxuries even as she resisted our efforts. Perhaps in some ways she was actually wiser than we were because she was perennially happy with little more than our presence. The things we brought her were not required to make her smile.

I was reminded of my grandmother recently as I helped a friend to dispose of her deceased father’s possessions. I realized as we packed away boxes and boxes of items that he had accumulated that most of us probably own more than we ever really use. When all is said and done we are drowning in stuff and yet we continue to shop and add to our collections. I wondered if we have our priorities straight or if we are simply addicted to consumption, victims of enticing commercialism that convinces us of what we must have rather than what we actually need.

I mentioned to my friend as we worked that perhaps we would all be best served by pursuing memories rather than things. She smiled knowingly and noted that she had planned a summer trip to Alaska because of that very idea. It occurred to me that we don’t always recall all of our purchases, but we do think about experiences time and time again. Our trips and outings are the stuff that often make us the happiest and leave the longest lasting impressions.

I have two friends who live frugally so that they will be able to take phenomenal trips each year. They have travelled the world and seen wonders. The wisdom of their choice to buy vacations rather than things really made sense when their home was flooded by hurricane Harvey this past August. The one thing that they did not lose was the joy that their journeys had brought them. They were certainly devastated by the damage done to their abode, but somehow I found comfort in knowing that they still had memories that not even floodwaters could wash away. What after all, do we really require to live full lives? Is there a way to enjoy ourselves and still be mindful of our tendencies to waste our resources and purchase more than we truly need?

Years ago a cousin noted that we begin our time as an adult in a tiny apartment which soon becomes too full, so we move until we have accumulated so much more that we are once again searching for room to store everything that we own. The practice continues again and again and in many ways we end up with bigger and bigger homes not so much because we actually want the space, but mostly because our possessions have overtaken us. I have often felt guilty as I fill every nook and cranny including the attic with my acquisitions and  wonder if I need to scale back.

What would I truly want to keep if I were somehow forced to pare down my life to a barer minimum? I suppose that it would require a bed on which to sleep with enough linens to have a clean surface for my slumbers and a blanket to keep me warm. A chest to hold my socks and underwear, pajamas and some clothing would probably be good to have. I’d want a table and some chairs for partaking meals, and a couch on which to sit whether I’m reading or visiting with friends. I have to admit to my need to own a television if for no other reason than to have access to the news, but in reality because I enjoy relaxing with shows that touch my imagination. A few lamps would be nice and bookcases to hold my treasured volumes, but I suppose that I might even eliminate that necessity by purchasing electronic copies of my favorite titles. I’d need a refrigerator and a stove and I’ve grown accustomed to having a microwave oven, a coffeemaker and a toaster. I could wash dishes by hand but I wonder if that method is as efficient as doing a load now and again in the dishwasher. I also must have a clothes washer and dryer or at least a clothesline in my backyard along with some cleaning tools to keep things tidy. A few changes of clothing and some towels would round out my needs, and yet I own so much more than that and seem to think that it is important to preserve it all in a kind of shrine to my accumulations that takes twenty seven hundred square feet plus a garage and an attic to store. I don’t want to live like a monk, and I find nothing wrong with decorating and collecting, but I sometimes imagine my children and grandchildren one day culling through my things and wondering what to do with all that I possess. 

My mother once told me that she had never been owned by things. She commented that she might have carried all that really mattered to her in two suitcases which is in fact what she did in the last two and one half years of her life. She spent those months living with me and my brother with little more than a weeks worth of clothing changes, her bible, and a radio for listening to Houston Astros games during baseball season. She had uncluttered her life so totally that she had few worries related to possessions. When she died the distribution of her estate was uncomplicated and debt free. My brothers and I could not have had an easier task. Her life was in order because so little of it focused on things.

I know people in Houston who are back in their houses after having to leave when four feet of water flooded the insides back in August. They once again have walls instead of bare studs, but they walk on concrete floors and sit on lawn chairs. Somehow they are happy because they feel the warmth and security that they worried had been destroyed by the waters. They realize that it was never the things inside that made their houses feel like home. Perhaps each of us should consider how much we truly need and begin to live with less dragging us down. We may find freedom, joy and purpose in learning to live with what we need rather than being possessed by our wants. Perhaps my grandmother had the right idea all along.