A Tiny Grain of Sand

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A home is not a particular structure with objects inside. It is the sum total of the people who inhabit it. A neighborhood is likewise not just an address, a golf course or a community pool, but the essence of the many folks who live and work inside it. A school is so much more than just classrooms and desks and curriculum. It’s heartbeat is found in the students and teachers and parents who pour their hearts into it. A church is not the edifice or the clergy but the people who share a spiritual journey. A nation is far more than domed buildings, memorial statues, politicians and laws. It is the collective hope of the people.

We humans with all of our potential along with our imperfections are the true reason that any of the institutions that we have formed soar with the eagles or crash and burn in a state of destruction. Whether we realize it or not we have the power to set the tone wherever we decide to engage. When we see problems it is up to us to first look within ourselves and ask what we might have done to prevent the difficulties in the first place and what we plan to do to ensure that things improve. When we simply sit on the sidelines ignoring those who parade without clothes our troubles are sure to endure. More often than not making a difference means walking in the shoes of those who appear to have failed before we begin advocating far flung changes.

There are certainly enormously toxic situations in the world today that may worry us. Few people have the power to actually influence the entirety of society, so we have to conserve our energies by wisely choosing the battles that we are going to fight. Perhaps we should always keep in mind the old adage of putting our own house in order first. Love literally emanates from a home in which each person is loved and respected. Because we are all very human and prone to making mistakes, some of which are more grave than others, we must always be certain to include mercy in the daily workings of our households. An old adage suggests that we never allow the sun to set on our anger toward the people that we hold dear. In justice we may have to hold them accountable for bad behavior, but in mercy we should always forgive them once they have shown a willingness to atone.

Each of us have particular causes that resonate in our hearts. It may involve improving and providing excellence in education or reforming government systems. We can certainly vote to express our desires but the results often fall short of what we had hoped to accomplish with our trip to the polls. Keeping ourselves informed and taking the time to use all available avenues to express our ideas are ways that each of us can work toward the goals that linger in our hearts and minds. Sitting on the couch grumbling or shouting at those with opposing views does little to move the dial of any institution. Like the ants that almost silently move dirt to build a mound so too must we work with the people around us to quietly create a better world.

Each of us has a particular talent that will bring the kind of positive change that works for the betterment of the entire community. If we are respectful of what each person has to offer great things may happen. Teamwork is of the essence and we have to be aware that all groups and organizations follow a continuum of behavior that includes the process of forming and assigning tasks, periods of confusion and perhaps even disagreements, and eventually states of performing smoothly. Sometimes simply realizing that a situation is ignoring our human natures is all that is needed to grease the rails of success.

One of my heroes is Rosa Parks. She was a seamstress who lived in Montgomery, Alabama and worked at a popular department store. She altered the clothing of most of the well dressed white women in that city. She was liked by the customers of the store but her blackness reduced her to indignities that were untenable for such a refined and dignified woman. After work she rode home at the back of a city bus and on particularly crowded days she had to surrender her seat to any white person who wanted it.

We all know her legendary story by now. We marvel at her courage in refusing to participate in the demeaning injustice toward her people. Like the shot heard round the world, her simple act of refusing to leave her seat launched a movement that continues even today in the spirit of upholding the unalienable rights of all people. She demonstrated like so many have done that individuals begin the process of improving the world in which we live. All change happens one step at a time, one tiny pressure after another and its spirit lies in the willingness of humans to come together one by one.

All groups are complex. Creating a healthy family is no easy task. Guiding a school to caring for every individual inside its walls is daunting. Making a community or a city or a church or a nation a place noted for harmony is a balancing act of fully respecting each of the many beliefs of the participants. It requires great diplomacy and wisdom to keep all of our institutions working together. We can help by sending support to those who agree to work for a common good rather than a single idea. Doing so means that there will be many moving parts and numerous possibilities for disagreement, but it also provides a framework for the mutual respect needed for compromise. It is a system that works in the smallest and largest of relationships as long as all parties are willing to value and understand people.

There are no unicorns and always blue skies. There is no place like Atlantis. We can’t always have puppies and kittens making us happy. The reality is that it’s tough to make things work for each of us, but it is a worthy task. It’s only when we find ways to work together that great things begin to happen and sometimes such a relationship begins as quietly as that ant moving a tiny grain of sand.

We Can Do It!

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It’s true that the city of Houston floods, and that flooding affects large numbers of people whenever it happens. What is not necessarily true is that the floods that we see are something new in the grand scheme of Houston city life. As a matter of fact there are recorded incidents of inundated streets from time to time dating back over one hundred years. Both my mother and my mother-in-law spoke of witnessing Mother Nature’s soggy fury in their childhoods. The city’s proximity to the Gulf of Mexico which is only about fifty miles away makes it vulnerable to violent storms that dump indescribable amounts of rain in a short period of time. Add to that the countless bodies of water that dot the landscape and a recipe for periodic trouble emerges. 

Before World War II Houston was a rather small town. Neighborhoods ringed the city center which has the highest elevation in the area. People studied the behavior of the bayous and the patterns of storms and built homes accordingly. To this day it is extremely rare for the houses near where my mother and mother-in-law grew up to flood. There was a certain care taken in choosing a site on which to build a homestead but the war created a demand for oil and Houston became a boom town with its location near production sites and its port to deliver the products.

The growth of Houston necessitated new neighborhoods and the new suburbs were sometimes built rather hastily with little regard or knowledge of flooding patterns. Nonetheless there was still so much open land that drainage was often accomplished by vast open fields. In the meantime the population continued to expand so that more and more of the raw land was being developed into roads, businesses and houses. The prosperity continued without any sign of slowing all the way into the nineteen eighties and with it came construction in areas that previously might have been considered unsuited for safe habitation. The old timers had always had a sense of where the water might flow in a big storm, but the push for expansion negated all of their concerns. 

All of the places where I lived as a child in Houston often became islands when big storms came but literally they have never once taken on water inside. Not Allison nor Harvey nor our most recent Imelda have encroached on them. My husband’s experience has been the same. Many of the places around town that flood regularly were built from the nineteen sixties to the present. They were erected on land too close to bayous and river ways which made them attractive in dry spells but posed danger when the rains came. The demand for housing created more and more risk taking thus increasing the likelihood of damage and loss when the inevitable storms come our way.

My husband lived within walking distance of Interstate 45 and remembers when it was being constructed. He used to watch the construction crews create the roads and the overpasses. In the evening when they went home he rode his bicycle on the unopened highway. He pointed out that the massive system was actually designed to serve as a place for water to go when it rained so that the side streets in the neighborhoods would be spared. Whenever he sees images of a flooded freeway near his home he notes that the construction is working as it was supposed to do. His old house is always high and dry and the addition of that massive expanse of concrete has actually protected it from harm.   

It has only been recently that there have been serious discussions about how to deal with the big storms that are certain to rage over Houston and flood the streets just as they always have. The question becomes how we might manage to provide housing that will withstand the effects of the weather. It is apparent that some areas will need to be turned into parks or wildlife refuges and construction will need to take storms into account. Hunkering down in safe conditions until the rains end is not all that inconvenient, but having to repair thousands of homes that fill with water is unnecessary and untenable.

Stricter rules about where and how construction takes place have to be considered. Advanced drainage systems should be installed. More land needs to be left open. Bayous should be deepened and widened. The city should invest in studies and partnerships with engineers in places like the Netherlands where once historic flooding has been virtually eliminated with modern technologies. There are things that can be done with a bit of imagination and sacrifice if only we have the will.

Houston proves again and again that it is a magnificent city because of its people. When disaster strikes ordinary folks come to the rescue without regard to race or socioeconomic status. Nobody riots or loots or burns places down. Instead they rise to the occasion again and again. Perhaps the time has come to think of improvements that might prevent some of the destruction. It won’t be easy and it will cost a great deal but the investment will make Houston stronger in every conceivable way. Our ancestors understood the dangers from the periodic flooding. They built for safety and long lasting value. With all of the modern technology that we have we should be able to do things even better than they did to transform this glorious and worthy city into a model of human ingenuity.

Free to Pursue the Truth

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The truth is found when men are free to pursue it.” —-Franklin Roosevelt

So we have a football player objecting to all sorts of American flags and many conservatives objecting to him. We have baristas at Starbucks asking law enforcement officials to leave because they are triggering other patrons. This person bothers that person and before long we are removing books from libraries, taking down crosses and monuments, refusing to shop or eat in certain places. How about just calming down and allowing each individual the right to his/her own thoughts, occupations, and choices? As long as nobody is being hurt why do so many of us come unglued? The thought patrol is making it feel dangerous to express ourselves publicly, because even the most benign ideas have the potential of being misunderstood, misinterpreted, and considered offensive. The mere choice of a wrong word may unintentionally cause pandemonium.

The quote that I chose to use at the beginning of this post might be construed to be sexist because it applies the word “men” to all humans. The idea of freedom to pursue the truth in today’s world often involves narrowing the parameters of what and who a person may choose to study. Unlike the days of my youth when I was encouraged to consider multiple points of view including before drawing conclusions, these days it has become risky to admit to actively searching out the merit of diverse ideas. Now there is a kind of closed mindedness requiring each of us to choose a particular side and then eschew all others. It flies in the face of all that I was taught to view as the pathway to wisdom.

I’ve learned over the years that there is rarely perfection in any person, organization, nation. As humans we make mistakes. Judging anyone or any group or any idea with a snapshot of only one moment is a ludicrous act. Instead we have to consider the totality to truly understand the nature, the character of all human pursuits. Each of us grows and evolves and changes over time as do even organizations. It matters less what someone did or said as an adolescent than how that individual eventually chose to live. Few of us would pass muster if the only yardstick for determining our morality were to view a few random moments from our youth. So t0o it often is with people who have spent decades in the public view. Our question should always be how they have changed to become better versions of themselves, not how they once were. The same is true of our country.

What I have always loved the most about being a citizen of the United States is my right to express myself without fear of being incarcerated or ruined. I have always understood that I had to follow certain guidelines with regard to my job because when I spoke, even in the private sector, I was still representing my employer. Nonetheless I always felt comfortable in supporting causes that I believed to be important. Mostly nobody really cared one way or another if I differed with them. Of late, however, it suddenly feels very different. People seem compelled to argue with me and tell me that they are disappointed whenever my views differ from theirs. Complete strangers come unglued by the mere mention of certain hot topics, even when I point out that I am attempting to hear the voices of as many different philosophies as possible before drawing conclusions.

It has become fair game to be close minded. Even in our universities where free thinking was once the norm, we shut down alternative discussions in the name of making everyone feel unsafe. Our debates are no longer ways to display differing ideas, but rather showcases for solidarity. Nobody wants to stray from the party line lest they be derided for abandoning the mutual cause. The result is a kind of stagnation of thought that is preventing solutions to very real problems and causing fear among those who genuinely wish to carry on lively discourse to find the truth.

I become wary whenever I hear the same phrases being mindlessly repeated again and again. I know that I am in the midst of propaganda rather than receiving facts. I have to explore different sources on my own, hoping that there will be people who have been willing to speak rationally about various topics even as they worry that their words may land them in a world of trouble.

We still have liberty in our country, but it does not feel as comfortable as it once did. The thought police are everywhere making it feel a dangerous game to engage in meaningful dialogue. As a nation we are far too busy pontificating rather than asking questions and then really listening to the answers. Sloganeering has become the fashion and in the process it is eroding the very freedoms that the grand experiment begun by the founders of this nation had hoped to achieve. So far we have yet to completely cross the line into tyranny, but our freedoms are threatened from both the far right and the far left. It’s time we demonstrate the courage to protect our precious liberties by letting those who would constrain our thoughts know that we are not so easily intimidated or bribed into submission. We are thinking people who want facts and information, not politicized propaganda.

Our process for selecting leaders has become as silly as a high school popularity contest or a beauty pageant. We don’t need clever soundbites, or demonstrations of insulting behavior. We need concrete ideas that are likely to actually become solutions to looming problems. We also need leaders who will accept our many differences and then use well thought out judgement to work for all the people, not just a small slice of supporters. It’s time for each of us to once again feel free to pursue the truth.

“Without Forgiveness There Is No Future”

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“If you want peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.”– Desmond Tutu

“Without forgiveness, there is no future.” – Desmond Tutu

During the summer months a nice breeze finds blows into my backyard along about dinner time,  so my husband and I usually enjoy our dinner outside each evening. We talk and enjoy the birds that find their way into the trees on our property and onto the fountain that they use as their personal birdbath. We hear the voices of neighbors who are bustling about on walks or doing a bit of work while the temperature is bearable. We linger at our seasonal dinner table until the sun is about to set and then we go back inside to end our evenings with reading or a television program before we retire for the night.

The big three channels are filled with silly summer offerings that are of little interest to us, a waste of our time. We search instead for more riveting fare and for that Netflix and Amazon Prime are difficult to beat. Recently we encountered a movie starring Forest Whitaker and Eric Bana called Forgiven that proved to be both entertaining and enlightening. It was set in South Africa in the days just after apartheid became illegal and Nelson Mandela had been elected President of the country.

In a spirit of unity Mandela had insisted that it was a time for reconciliation between all of the people so that they might all move forward together. He appointed Archbishop Desmond Tutu to head the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, a group tasked with examining crimes against humanity that had taken place in the past and determining how to deal with the both the victims and the perpetrators in a fair and compassionate way. Archbishop Tutu was a brilliant choice for this endeavor because he had worked tirelessly for social justice for most of his life, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

The movie uses a fictional character played by Eric Bana to portray the racist and murderous nature of those who had previously inflicted murderous treatment on the native peoples of South Africa. The film creates a storyline to demonstrate the intent of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in which Forest Whitaker as Desmond Tutu is frustrated by discoveries of mass graves and extreme violence. In the process Tutu becomes personally interested in the tragedy of one mother whose daughter simply disappeared on day never to be heard from again. He promises the woman that his commission will find the answers that she is seeking even while he struggles to fully understand what happened.

Archbishop Tutu receives a letter from a prisoner, the Bana character, seeking amnesty for his crimes. The convicted murderer is vile and violent, unrepentant for the horrific things he has done, virtually challenging Tutu to maintain his composure and his belief in the ultimate goodness of all people. The movie is a thoughtful and well acted commentary on mankind itself.

As I watched the plot unfold I found myself contemplating the differing schools of thought regarding how to deal with violence, racism, and other evils in the world. Some like Archbishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela chose models of kindness and reconciliation as a tool to bring people together. Others in history have eschewed such behaviors for aggressive militancy. Today we appear to be in a time in which passive resistance is out of fashion, and instead an unwillingness to even consider alternate points of view is the more popular problem solving methodology. Those who find ways to expose flaws and judge without understanding are winning the day and I find the trend to be difficult to stomach. My personal heroes are people like Mother Teresa, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Archbishop Tutu.

In my own country I find it difficult to watch the ways in which we are tearing one another apart. The trend has been simmering for some time and now it is in full blown mode. I was certain that President Donald Trump would be rejected for his bullish ways, but instead he has been viewed by many as a kind of hero for his brash insults. Now we have some candidates for the Democratic nomination for President vying to bring down even those who mostly share the same points of view as they do.

Frankly I was quite embarrassed when Kamala Harris chose to publicly chastise Joe Biden for his past even as she insisted that she did not really think he is a racist. If that is true then I wonder why she felt it necessary to even bring up the matter. I was stupefied when the very person who began the “food fight” of the debate condemned what she saw as the childish behaviors of the other candidates. Even more confusing to me is the fact that her popularity has suddenly increased as many see her antics as a breath of fresh air rather than the bullying that it is. 

I am quite saddened by today’s political environment. It seems to be propelling us backward in time rather than pushing us forward. I do not believe that it will bring us to solutions to our problems nor will it heal the divisions that are growing like an ugly crack in the windshield of a car. We desperately need a peacemaker to step forward to lead our country back into a place of forgiveness. As Archbishop Tutu so brilliantly contends without it there is no future. 

It’s Complicated

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I recently freaked out over the results of my annual bone density test. I have had osteoporosis for years which isn’t too surprising because it is rampant on both sides of my family. For two years I injected myself daily with a drug called Forteo. It was a pain to carry the medication in a little bag that kept it cold no matter where I went. I had to bring my prescription papers to airports and check with hotels to be sure that I would have a refrigerator in my room. The shots themselves were easy and I had no side effects, so essentially all went well. I was exhilarated when a followup bone scan revealed that I had grown so much bone that I no longer had osteoporosis.

I set out with determination to keep my bones strong. I took double doses of calcium pills and included every form of natural calcium that I could put in my diet. I took vitamin D to help with absorption and gave up sodas lest they have a negative impact on my progress. I walked for miles and miles and went faithfully to a gym. It was hard work, but for a good cause, and I was feeling better than ever. When I went for my bone scan this year I expected to have wonderful results, but that is not what happened. The had osteoporosis returned. I had lost some of the bone that the Forteo had grown.

I ranted on Facebook and worried about what my future might be. I saw myself in a wheelchair like my aunts. I even went so far as to mentally redesign my home for what I was sure would one day be my handicap status. I went for an injection of Prolia that my doctor prescribed, but I felt defeated. I wondered if my efforts were of any use. Finally I sent a message to my doctor asking about my pathway forward after I did hours of research on the Internet. His response was call me in for a conference and walk me through the complexities of my situation.

After a thirty minute talk I understood what was happening, why it was so, and how to move forward. I had not seen all of the facets of my situation, and my doctor clarified them for me and left me with hope and optimism. He reminded me that above all I was still very young, even at the age of seventy, and that there were already people diligently researching solutions for my problems. He indicated that within the next ten years he believes that we will see amazing results that may eventually make the symptoms of severe osteoporosis a reality of the past.

My personal difficulty and its sweet analysis by my physician has caused me to think about even bigger problems that the world faces, and to understand that we all too often get tunnel vision about a particular situation. We want quick fixes, instant answers based on a limited vision of all of the ins and outs of a particular question. We base our analyses of what is happening on our incomplete knowledge of the present with little regard to what may happen in the future. We forget just how complex every single human interaction truly is. Nothing operates in a vacuum. To believe that we only have to do X,Y and Z to set things right is ridiculous. We in fact need those people who can help us to see all facets of a situation rather than just what we wish to see.

As a teacher I learned quickly that there is no one size fits all magic pill for turning a classroom into a dynamic place. Things change from one minute to the next. Each person is individual and requires a unique approach. So it is with questions about immigration, abortion, climate change, the economy. The truth is that we need to hear from all sides, not just those with which we agree. It would be a profound mistake to silence the voices of people who are able to see the glitches in political ideas. We should be loathe to shout down anyone who asks us to consider a slightly different way of thinking.

When we speak of immigration there appear to be two very distinct ways of dealing with the issue, but in reality each side is a little bit right and a little bit wrong. Unfortunately neither is willing to admit that there is something to be learned by incorporating a plan that is a fusion of the best ideas of progress and caution. Somehow we have to either hold the line and build a wall, or welcome everyone with open arms. We categorize sides as all good or all bad depending on our point of view. We rarely stop to think that everyone truly cares about people and what will happen to them, they just see the solutions a bit differently. We actually need to truly and respectfully hear each voice and then make difficult and complicated decisions. 

So it is with any question that we face. We have to curb our desires to just jump in with whatever fad or idea that makes us feel good for the moment. As with my doctor we need to seriously analyze all of the possible outcomes with seriousness and respect for opposing ideas. We can’t just fall for imagery and emotions. When sorting life we have to remember that it’s complicated.