Getting A Grip

gripFrom time to time my only female cousin comes to town and we literally talk until the cows come home. Both of us have grown children and grandchildren now and are retired from our jobs. We used to enjoy discussing politics and immersing ourselves in information and news that we shared with one another with great interest.  Of late we have decided to generally avoid all forms of political reporting and discourse. Mostly ignoring all of the rancor in Washington D.C. has been a welcome respite and one that we both agree will be our new habit. I suspect that we have many fellow travelers in that regard.

In her most recent visit my cousin revealed a whole new philosophy that has some merit. She noted that the two of us are growing older. Neither of us have any idea how many more years lie ahead for us. My mother died at age eighty four, but her mother, who is my mother’s sister, is still going strong at age ninety eight. Depending on which of the two our genetics favor we might still enjoy a good thirty more years or half of that. I suppose that neither of us can ever really know what is in store, but we can release ourselves from the constant stresses of worrying over the happenings in Washington D.C. 

My cousin pointed out that we have both had exceptionally good and productive lives. We worked at satisfying careers and had the privilege of parenting great kids who have in turn become incredible adults. Our time in the limelight is passing and leadership is changing hands. Our children and grandchildren are its future, not us. As such, she asks, shouldn’t we be asking them what kind of world they wish to have? She suggests that it isn’t up to us to foist our own wishes on them but to respect the ideas that they have developed. It is an interesting concept that might make a large difference in how we react to political trends.

My mother used to tell me that much as the Bible says, there is a time and a season for everything. I was once a mother but that is no longer my role. I have had to give my daughters wings and support them as they raise their own children. The way things are today is different from when I was guiding them. They must adapt to the changing times and I need to also be aware that parenting today may of necessity look very different from what it was like when I was a mom. So too it is with politics. The younger generations have different outlooks from ours which is pretty much the way things have been throughout history.

My very wise cousin has been through quite a few challenges. She has raised two sons as a single parent and battled a very rare form of breast cancer only to survive like a warrior. She believes that those of us in the AARP state of life will in all probability be just fine if we put our fates into the hands of the younger set. She argues that we raised them to have certain values and we should show confidence in their reasoning. I have to admit that I think that she is right.

I love the so called greatest generation of my parents but they have always had a tendency to be a bit bossy. Much like Queen Elizabeth they are loathe to relinquish power and control. I’ve often thought that many of the really older generation have never trusted those of us in the Baby Boomer group. It is up to us to break that cycle of domination and admit that we don’t always know everything and that sometimes a younger person is capable of better ideas.

I’ve been to a number of end of school year events of late and I am reminded again and again of how earnest and hard working most young folk today really are. They have hopes and dreams and desires that tend to be quite unselfish. They are prone to looking at the big picture and gazing into the future with positivity and hope. They genuinely want to save the planet and spread good will to all people. They have known less of racist thinking and phobias toward certain groups that my generation all too sadly witnessed firsthand. They possess boundless optimism and trust. At the same time they are far from being naive. I know them to be warm hearted and wise. I think that we must begin to listen to them and give their ideas more credence and less criticism.

My grandfather used to argue ferociously with my father over politics. The two of them would grow red in the face and their voices would rise to angry levels. By the time that I was old enough to talk about such things my grandfather would simply smile approvingly no matter what I uttered. He had learned to be far more accepting of differing points of view. He had his ideas and encouraged everyone else to have theirs. I suspect that his change came from years of experience and a growing knowledge that most people will cling tenaciously to their beliefs regardless of rebuttals.

It’s quite freeing to come to the conclusions that my cousin and I now embrace. I don’t feel a need to argue with anyone or to attempt to change minds. I find it interesting to hear whatever people have to say and rejoice that they care enough to have an opinion.  We may make mistakes and muddle through but in the end with each successive generation we always seem to find our balance and ultimately attempt to do what is right and just. I’m betting that the sons and daughters of me and my contemporaries will be more than up to the task, and that they in turn will be followed by their children who seem to have their heads on quite straight indeed. It’s good to feel so positive. Thank you, cousin, for the sage advice.

A Fevered Illness

seagull-flying-aroundI woke up one recent morning with an illness that has overtaken my body just a bit more with each passing day. There is no medication for what I have nor is there a reliable treatment. I can’t be immunized to prevent the recurrence of the symptoms because nobody has yet thought of a reliable way of preventing an epidemic. My only hope is that it will pass without inflicting too much damage. I’ve had bouts with the same disease now and again since I was a child. It always occurs at about the same time of year right alongside the allergies that cause me to sneeze incessantly and otherwise fill my eyes and ears with fluid draining from my sinuses. It is a debilitating sickness that has caused me at times to take off days from work while I wander lethargically around my home. I suspect, but am not certain, that it may be infectious because the people around me sometimes show symptoms similar to mine whenever I am down with a full blown fever. This year in particular I appear to have a real doozie of a case.

The signs that I have been infected are always the same. I’m an industrious person, someone who never really sits still. I can’t even hold a conversation without moving my hands or wiggling in my chair. I’m always on the go and measure the accomplishments of each day with precision, reflecting on how well I have done by calibrating the merits of each of my actions. When the sickness comes my productiveness slows down to a crawl. My home fills with dust bunnies while I sit quietly outdoors listening for the sounds of the birds and watching the antics of the squirrels that scamper in my garden. I lean back and gaze at the brilliant blue sky enjoying the cool breezes that brush across my face. I think back to the games that I might have played as a child and how wonderful the new grown grass felt on my bare feet when the days became warm enough for me to toss my shoes into the far recesses of my closet.

I imagine myself flying to the beach with the seagulls that squawk as they pass overhead. I suddenly long for the life of a gypsy, one in which I have no responsibilities and I go wherever my heart leads me. I pass my time without being aware of the hour. I toss dishes into the sink and look away from the pile of dirty clothes that grows ever larger. I have better things to do. I take long walks without saying a word or drive to lovely places that seem to be calling me to tarry for just a bit. I sleep longer in the morning and stay awake deep into the night. I eschew my usual habits and become quite lazy, a person so unlike myself that I might worry if I were in a normal state of mind and body. But I am not, and so I just let the illness run its course for I have learned that if I simply go with its flow it will soon enough pass.

There is indeed a name for my affliction. It goes by the seasonal label of spring fever. it has been stalking me for as long as I am able to remember. In some years it passes over me with hardly a notice but in others it attacks me with a vengeance and I become a hopeless victim of its control. This seems to be an especially toxic year for me. The start of it came without warning and thinking that it would soon be gone I did little to steel myself against its effects. Unfortunately my symptoms have grown almost out of control as my usual routines have been neglected to the point of absurdity. While the fact that I am retired makes the impact of my idleness matter less, there are still things that must occur to keep my little world running smoothly but I can’t yet get myself fully back into the groove. I use any excuse to dally and to dream.

If I were able I would begin a long journey on foot and just keep going like Forrest Gump until I finally felt as though I was done. I would soak in the world and its creatures like a gigantic sponge. I’d bypass our manufactured creations in search of the ones that nature has made. I would quietly watch the passing parade of people and try to imagine what they were all thinking and doing without ever uttering a word. I would be little more than a fly on the wall, an observer whose only job was to watch and learn.

I suppose that it will not be much longer until I am myself again. I’ll chide myself for letting things go so badly when I finally take the time to look around. I’ll make new lists of things to do and become an industrious cyclone. I won’t notice the doves in my backyard so much when I’m busy dusting the baseboards. I’ll set up appointments and keep them. I’ll join the mad race that is always swirling around me.  I will be in a normal state of health again and firmly in control of my Type A personality. The fever will be gone, replaced by a sound determination to keep my eye on the challenges of life. Nobody will accuse me of sloth or shiftless behaviors. I will be fully engaged in the routine swing of things.

For now though I plan to feed the fever that has overtaken me and actually enjoy its impact on my attitude. It is ironically a disease that I secretly appreciate. It slows me down enough to show me the side of life that I miss when I am one of society’s most productive contributors. It adds zest to my personality and a lilt to my steps. It is the one illness that actually makes me feel good. Since I am retired I am now able to surrender to the siren song that is calling me to embrace the beauty and the joy that comes to such glorious life each March. There will be time enough for labor when I have become myself again. Today I am going to let my spring fever run its course.

Dark Side of the Moon

DSOTM farside NASALast week I went to the Burke Baker Planetarium at the Houston Museum of Natural Science with my daughter’s family and watched a light show accompanied by music from Pink Floyd. The computer graphic extravaganza shown on the domed roof of the planetarium features the sounds of the rock album Dark Side of the Moon flush with the inventive sounds that made the band so popular. The experience was a feast for the senses that carried my mind and imagination to many places.

Long ago I had spent a similar night out with my daughters and my dear friend Pat and her kids. Because she had an adventurous spirit I never knew what to expect on our excursions and true to form she surprised us one evening with the announcement that we would be attending a laser show at the Burke Baker Planetarium called Dark Side of the Moon. We arrived to find an odd gathering of young couples enjoying date night, sixties hippie throw backs with graying long hair, and groups of college students raucously joking and jabbing at one another. Our menagerie filled the theater and expectantly chattered in the semi-darkness waiting for the program to begin. With the first sound of heartbeats that mark the beginning and end of Pink Floyd’s musical adventure, our “girls‘ night out” became a time to remember, one of the many well orchestrated events planned by Pat.

I find myself missing the excursions with my dear friend and our patient daughters who stoically put up with our embarrassing antics even while they secretly enjoyed them. We ferreted out the Houston nightspots suitable for family and often found ourselves sipping on milkshakes at the 59 Diner at midnight or perusing the musical selections at one of the late night record stores where the only other customers were all decked out in their anti-establishment regalia. Pat of course never met a stranger and loved engaging in conversations with an array of interesting characters who introduced her to the quirky hidden treasures of our city like the Orange Show which we ultimately had to find and experience for ourselves. Pat opened windows on the world that I might never have even noticed had we not enjoyed those grand junkets together.

So it was that I thought of her when I once again sat in a remodeled Burke Baker Planetarium watching an updated version of Dark Side of the Moon. The computer graphics were more intricate than the old rendition and the sound literally reverberated on my skin. The sights and sounds once again drew me in. My mind traveled from the past to the present and into the future. In certain moments I felt as though it was 1972 once again and I was a young twenty something woman living through the excitement of an historical time so chaotic that our human destinies seemed certain to end badly. I was idealistic and rebellious back then, intent on bringing change and universal peace to the world. I identified with the challenging thoughts set forth in the lyrics by Pink Floyd and reveled in the inventiveness of their music. I naively believed that we humans had evolved to a point where we might actually find a way to live together in harmony forevermore.

Of course as I lived through that faraway decade to this moment I watched as humankind made a bit of progress here and there only to revert back to some of our baser habits in so many less than admirable moments. The years taught me that people follow patterns that even our long ago ancestors might have understood. We layer ourselves in the trappings of progress but have bad habits of creating false dichotomies of us versus them. We waste our time on pursuits that bring us only temporary happiness and run after money as though it is the ultimate goal of life. We measure our own worth against what we see as success in others. The brain damage that we inflict upon ourselves when we neglect to just breathe and indulge our senses in the colors of sight and sound that are all around us can leave us gasping for air. When all is said and done, as we find ourselves approaching the last decades of our lives we begin to finally see the world as it actually is rather than how we want it to be.

As I sat in the dark theater with my family sitting nearby I felt a sense of calmness as I pondered the questions posed by Pink Floyd and contemplated the brilliance of our species. My days have now slowed down. I no longer feel a sense of urgency in the things that I do. My goals are geared toward demonstrating the profound love that I feel for the people who populate my little corner of life. I have the luxury of pausing to enjoy the show produced by nature that is even more complex and exciting than anything that has ever been done by man. I appreciate both our glory and our flaws. I hear the heartbeat of mankind’s struggle to become loftier and more noble as well as our breathless sighs that demonstrate how much farther we have to go.

I understand now more than ever how important it is to catch those rainbow moments that my friend Pat invited me to enjoy with her. I realize that even a simple diversion like a light show with music from Dark Side of the Moon might be a life altering experience, a defining memory of friendship and a meeting of minds. It is up to each of us to open our hearts to the possibilities that are all around us and to now and again tarry just long enough to reflect on our progress as people.

The dark side of the moon is not a place without light, but the area of the lunar surface that is unknown to us because it faces away from the earth. There is no doubt  that we have yet to discover much about life and the universe, just as there are potentials within our own minds that have not been plumbed. The frontier inside our souls is worthy of our exploration. Perhaps Pat always understood that in the end it is not up to us to rearrange the trajectory of the world but rather to embrace the power and glory that we already possess and then share what we find out with others. That is when our windows on the universe fly open and we finally see the brilliant light that has always been there. 

Off Season Adventures

Rocky-Mountain-National-Park-16-HD-Image.jpgMost of my life has been directed by the school year calendar. Whether as a student, a parent or an educator I measured my days in six or nine week cycles filled with reading, study and compositions. It was only in the warm months of June, July and August that I had enough free time to experience the wonders of nature beyond the confines of places near my home. I saw the world from the perspective of only a quarter slice of time. I had little idea that so much was happening in the places that I so loved while I was ensconced in classrooms and libraries. Because I did not have the benefit of taking a vacation at a time of my own choosing I never truly experienced the changing of the seasons or the differences in color and light from one month to the next. Mine was always a holiday shared with vast crowds. It was not until I finally retired from my labors that I began to see the world around me in new and quite enchanting ways.

Travel is quieter and less hectic when schools are in session. Campgrounds and hotels generally have many vacancies from which to choose. The roads are less congested and the drives are leisurely. There is no ticking clock announcing a need to hurry. There is a glorious feeling of aimlessness that allows for random explorations that lead to exciting discoveries. For the first time in my life I am at liberty to take advantage of my freedom from an academic calendar and head in any direction that I choose on any day that I wish. I experience an exhilarating freedom every time that my husband and I hitch up our trailer and head onto the open road.

I have seen the rich hues of red, orange, yellow and gold that paint the fall landscape. I have felt the crackling of the fallen leaves beneath my feet and the sting of a cool afternoon on my nose. I have stood all alone in a forest while the wind blew across my cheeks and tousled my hair. I have listened to the silence all around me. I have enjoyed a steaming hot bowl of chili at the top of a mountain in a restaurant preparing to close for the coming winter. I’ve stopped at a Buccee’s when I was able to park right in front of the door and walk straight through without bumping into hordes of people. These were wondrous moments for me because heretofore I had never been able to enjoy such experiences. I would have been busy imparting the knowledge and skills of mathematics to the latest members of my class.

I have learned that the ocean is perhaps at its loveliest in the winter. Its aspect changes from hour to hour. It may be draped in early morning fog and then glistening in afternoon sunshine. The beaches are pristinely empty and it takes little imagination to feel the sense of wonder that may have been the reaction of the first explorers who landed in such glorious places. There is a majesty in hearing only the sound of the waves and the flapping of the wings of the birds who have reclaimed the area for the season. I so love staring into the horizon and feeling as though I am looking into forever. I think of all of the people who have stood in the same spot from which I am viewing the splendor of the sea and wonder what dreams and stories unfolded from my vantage point. I find buried treasure in the form of sand dollars and shells of many shapes and colors. I eat the lunch that I have brought in silence, starring out as far as my eye can see and feeling that surely I have found a tiny slice of heaven.

I have passes to the Texas state parks and all of the national parks as well. I love to explore the trails and pathways that invariably lead to the most delightful destinations. I feel my energy and health improving with each step. It is a glorious way to exercise. I have no need of machines when the great outdoors is beckoning me. Everything that I need to shed anxieties and pounds is right in front of me. I forget about the stresses and concerns that so often plague me when I am communing with the forests and the creatures that skitter around me. I feel at home enjoying the bounty that no man is capable of reproducing. For all of our genius we cannot build a mountain or an ocean but we can enjoy and honor the wondrous bounty that nature still provides us and there is no better time than when our footprints do not have to compete with big crowds.

I never sleep as well as when my trailer is parked in a secluded area surrounded by trees or the vistas of a lake. I am caressed by the quiet and warmed by the heavy blanket that I always carry for cold nights. A simple cup of tea tastes like the nectar of the gods on such nights. The starry sky puts my own place in the universe into perspective. I understand that I am but a tiny speck in the grand scheme of things and yet I am unique and important. I feel content as I become a shadow in a darkness that is not possible in the lights of the city. I feel relaxed and I find the comfort of slumber so easily.

The food that I eat on such journeys always seems to be so good. A bite of baked chicken or a crisp apple lingers on the tastebuds of my tongue. I have no need to hurry my dining. I sit at the table and slowly partake of my simple feast while enjoying the antics of a rabbit or laughing at the cardinals that zip past my window. Sometimes a family of deer strut through my campsites and on occasion I see something truly exotic like a moose or a turkey or a roadrunner. It is like having dinner and a movie, more special than the most expensive night out and often I am among an elite group lucky enough to be present when few others are there.

I feel blessed to be able to enjoy my little adventures and to discover the world as it is during the school year. It is truly grand to visit places in the off season when the tourists are mostly gone. Sometimes my husband and I may be the only people in sight. In those moments I feel as though I am royalty enjoying a private beach or a castle in a forest of my own. Who knew how many simple pleasures were just waiting for me to find them? Traveling at odd times of the year is truly one of those little known secrets. It is the best.

The Silver Lining

silver-liningEvery time I am in the Santa Fe area I make it a point to travel to Chaco Canyon. Getting to that remote national park is difficult. In the last many miles the road becomes so unbearably rugged that I always consider turning back. Since I know what adventure lies ahead I always choose to continue the journey to my destination. I am never disappointed. Chaco Canyon is one of the great wonders of our country and it is worth all of the effort to see it.

The year 2016 has been much like navigating the trail to Chaco Canyon. There have been many potholes and bumps in the last twelve months that made life a bit more difficult that usual but now that I am at the end of the course I can see the breathtaking beauty of my trek. All things considered, 2016 was another wonderful year in my life even though it may not have been quite as spectacular or free from loss as other times have been.

I learned when I was teaching that I should never judge the worth of a day’s work by a single negative incident. There were many times when I felt like a rockstar only to be plummeted to earth by a negative encounter with a difficult student. Early in my career when I still lacked experience and maturity I was overly critical of myself, always seeking perfection and hopelessly disappointed when my teaching was even slightly flawed. I lost my optimism and felt that I was a failure as an educator on many a day. A wise mentor came to my psychological rescue when she suggested that I begin to list both the good and bad aspects of each week in two columns. She assured me that I would almost always have visual proof that my efforts had been far more positive than I had thought. She noted that we humans have a tendency to magnify and remember negativity so much that it often overwhelms the excellence in our lives. In carrying out her suggestion I learned that even in the most frustrating weeks I had always accomplished way more than I had realized. It became my habit to look at the totality of a day, a week, a month or a year before focusing exclusively on the moments that had seemed to threaten my happiness.

Such it has been with 2016. I lost a friend and a very dear cousin during the year. I took a number of unexpected financial hits that strained my pocketbook and forced me to change some of my habits. I was surprised and disappointed by the results of the political primary races in the spring and then the national election itself in the fall. I grew weary and worried about the massive divide that has so torn the citizens of my beloved country apart. I worried about world events that seem to threaten peace. It would be easy for me to write off the last twelve months as a total loss if I were only to think about the things that made me sad and weary but that would be an incomplete analysis of the year. When I take the time to wander through my memories I realize that I was graced with many glorious blessings in 2016.

The year began in Galveston with all of my children and grandchildren. It was too cold for the beach but we spent time playing games, watching football, enjoying Moody Gardens and The Strand. It was fun and best of all I was with the people that I most love. It was really a dream come true because in most years my kids are so busy with other pursuits that I may see them on Christmas Day and not again until February or even March. I will always treasure January 1, 2016 as a very special day when we celebrated together.

On January 6, Mike and I met with a group of friends at Killen’s Steakhouse. The food was certainly a treat but being with Adriana, Tim, Jenny and Eric was the main attraction. I always feel revitalized just being around them and that evening was no exception. In fact it was one of those unforgettable times that bring warm feelings to the surface whenever I stop to remember.

There were the usual family birthday parties for my brothers, sister-in-laws, nieces, nephews, father-in-law, husband, children and grandchildren. All of them were fun and festive and gave us a perfect excuse to clear off our calendars and celebrate the love that so defines “the best family ever.” Perhaps the most extravagant and wonderful of them all was a Harry Potter themed birthday spectacular for one of my nephews who lives in Dallas. There was a quidditch game, a magician, a sorting experience and some of the best food I have ever tasted. As Muggles, Mike and I were in awe of the magic of that evening.

My sister-in-law retired from her work as a NASA contractor and spent many weeks touring in Europe with her sisters. My brother hung up his boots and retired from the Houston Fire Department after a career that spanned his entire adult lifetime. Both of them had gala parties in which we celebrated their dedication and achievements which were numerous. I felt so proud of both of them and excited that they now have the time to pursue their hobbies and to travel to their hearts’ content.

Of course Mike and I went camping and sometimes met up with our friends Monica and Franz in Huntsville or Blanco and enjoyed the solitude and the local sites together. We even traveled with our long time buddies to Colorado and stayed in my brothers’ cabin for a glorious week in the fall. We enjoyed nature’s colors and the art festivals as well as the food and quaint shops. Mostly we realized just how much we love being with our dear friends.

In the summer we took two of our grandchildren William and Abby on a grand excursion in our trailer. We reveled in the sights from Santa Fe to San Diego. We took that terrible road to Chaco Canyon and almost baked in the punishing summer sun but were enthralled by the powerful images of a past long gone. We stood over the rim of Grand Canyon at sunset and marveled at the beauty of Sedona. We escaped into a world of make believe at Universal Studios in Los Angeles and spent an entire day slathering our bodies with sunscreen at the beach. We sat under a clear sky and watched the stars in the Davis Mountains. We realized how vast and beautiful the United States truly is.

In October I met with many of my high school friends in a fifty year reunion. It was wonderful to see so many of the people with whom I had spent four years of my young life. They each had special stories to tell and even though the evening flew by with the pace of speed dating I walked away with renewed friendships and a glorious feeling that we had all learned our life lessons well. The people there were good and honest folk just as our teachers had wanted us to be.

There were glorious graduations. My cousin earned an advanced degree and a number of my former students became the first in their families to hold bachelor degrees. I gave a party for those who graduated in May and together we celebrated their stunning accomplishments. I felt a sense of pride in knowing how dedicated they had been and what wonderful futures they would surely enjoy.

I watched my grandchildren perform in musicals and plays, in swim meets and cross country competitions, in robotics games and concerts. I realized even more than ever how gifted and talented and hard working they truly are. I understood that in those moments when I don’t get to see them they are busy charting their own trails that will most assuredly lead them to achieving the goals and the dreams that they have designed for themselves. They will be ready to accept the challenges of the future and be the generation that keeps the faith in our family values.

I met with friends and family and former students throughout the year and truly enjoyed those quiet moments when we conversed and considered the challenges of the world. One particularly fun evening was spent with a large group of women laughing at the antics of less than perfect moters in the movie Bad Moms. The film reminded all of us to be kind to ourselves.

It was in the laughter and the love of friends and family that 2016 was transformed from a frustrating year to one that brought me enough happiness and satisfaction to make me optimistic about life and the world in which we live. Those bumps in the road were a mere disturbance far outweighed by the spectacular moments that happened when I least expected.

Happy New Year to everyone. May 2017 bring each of you the love and the happiness and the simple pleasures that make each day just a bit brighter. Look for the silver lining even on the cloudiest of days.