My Electronic Secretaries

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The holiday season is upon us. You may have noticed in the stores last week that the retailers were hardly able to wait to toss all of the fall and Halloween merchandise aside so that they might bring in the Christmas items. Some even eschewed old time tradition in favor of bringing out the holly back in June or July. The old idea of enjoying each celebration in order is long gone, and if you want to secure the prime products you have to buy them and set them aside for the future. Of course, if you’re like me that means that you run the risk of forgetting that you bought a particular item or where you stored it until needed. When you finally decide to do some spring cleaning around March or April it will suddenly appear and then you have to store it again and hope that it doesn’t grow old in the back of a closet or drawer without ever being actually used.

My husband has most recently taught me to be a bit more organized with regard to things that I need to remember. He insists that I record future events on Google calendar and that I list upcoming projects on an app called Asana. It’s actually working out rather well with the exception of those times when I am feeling hurried and I tell myself that I will think about doing my record keeping duty tomorrow. Sadly that’s a bit more often than it should be and so I can’t quite recall if the appointment that I made to have my hair cut is this week or next. I’ll have to rely on a reminder email or phone message from the salon to verify. I know that I might call to confirm the date and time, but I have to do it so often that I have grown a bit embarrassed.

In the summer I purchased some bluebonnet seeds that needed to be sowed in October. When the time came to perform the task I was reminded by my electronic “secretaries” but unfortunately I was not able to immediately recall where I had placed the tiny packets for safekeeping. After a frantic search and some Sherlock Holmes style sleuthing I finally found them hidden under socks in one of my dresser drawers.

Now I’ve created a new wrinkle to my memory keeping rituals. I add a little note explaining where I have placed things so that my reminder in the future will lead me directly to whatever I have stored away. When I took down a lovely hand blown glass hummingbird feeder from its perch in my garden I not only set a date on my calendar to return it in mid May, but also made note of where it is safely stored until spring. I felt particularly proud of my effort because I will be able to walk right to it when there is no longer a possibility of a freeze that would no doubt break or at least crack the globe. An added bonus that I received for my foresight was saving the orb from an horrific storm that raged on Halloween night that undoubtedly might have wreaked havoc on such a fragile object. It has made me think that I should also record a date for bringing the feeder inside each fall while I my brain is in gear.

We all have so many appointments and things to do that our brains go into overload at times. I’ve been guilty of missing all kinds of events, especially since retiring. Without the constrictions on my time that a job provides I find myself losing all sense of what day it is. While this is actually a very pleasant dilemma after years of being bound to a clock and an unremitting routine, it can also create problems. Using different aids to assist my memory has been a kind of saving grace. Now I get reminders on my laptop, my phone, and even on my watch.

At first I thought of such electronic policing of my time as a kind of ball and chain. I wanted to be free to be me without any form of nagging. I soon learned that my tranquil lifestyle was festooned with chaos of my own making. The reality is that we humans really do feel better when we march to a semblance of routine. We don’t have to be overworked or over stressed, but it helps to keep track of when to take out the trash and be generally aware of the time of day. Devil may care attitudes are fine now and again but on the whole things really start to fall apart without some system for managing the business aspects of living. I have slowly learned how to free myself from future worries by spending a bit more time in the moment keeping track of obligations and tasks.

Last spring my hot water heater malfunctioned and many thousands of dollars later we had repaired our home to such an extent that it was almost totally remodeled. The plumber who installed a new hot water heater mentioned that we might never have had the trouble if we had simply set aside a time each year to have the appliance inspected. It’s a small idea with great merit, and so it is now part of our yearly ritual, something we have decided to do with our truck and our air conditioner as well. All such routines are hitting the calendar far in advance in the hopes of avoiding future catastrophes like the one that upended our lives for many weeks last April and May.

As a teacher I lived by a calendar and religiously followed routines to stay updated and prepared for anything that might happen from day to day in my classroom. I suppose that when that phase of my life ended I would never again be required to be so fastidious in keeping up with time. I’ve learned the hard way that a little bit of preparation goes a long way. Even the squirrels understand this as they collect their stores for the coming winter. I watched many of them working hard while I was recently camping in the bosom of nature. It’s the way of survival, and we all owe it to ourselves to keep track of the future before it surprises us.

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A Festival of Fall

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One of the grandest discoveries of my retirement has been finding the Houston Garden Club Annual Bulb Mart. When I was first adapting to the concept of having all of the daylight hours to myself I began looking for things to fill the time. I signed up for a class at Rice, found a tutoring gig, began writing daily, and treated myself to going to the movie theater in the middle of the day. Because I tend to be a high energy person I still needed more to keep my mind entertained. That’s when I decided to search on Google for special events around my town. Luckily I found an advertisement for the Bulb Mart, and I’ve been attending ever since.

The ladies of the garden club plan their gala fundraiser all year long, and quite wisely choose a date in mid October when the weather in Houston is generally Chamber of Commerce level glorious. Somehow they avoid the rains that so often are a precursor of fall. I’ve often wondered if they consult the Farmer’s Almanac because in the seven years that I have been attending, not once has there been even a cloud in the sky. In fact the weather has always been glorious to match the moods of all of us who walk around with big grins on our faces as we gaze at the lovely offerings.

The venue for the event has changed from time to time, but it has been held at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Westheimer for the last few years. The main focus of the occasion is on an incredible variety of bulbs including tulips, irises, day lilies, amaryllis, an more. Table after table offers a variety of genres and colors. There are also many plants native to the Houston area as well as those that thrive in our particular growing zone. The ladies who volunteer are always knowledgeable and helpful in providing good information about how to best grow a delightful garden. For those wishing to have more information there are lectures and little seminars happening throughout the two day event as well.

My backyard garden is filled with gorgeous amaryllis plants that burst forth in glory each spring. They are magnificent in variety and color and never fail to fill me with joy. It’s exciting to watch them display their unique features one by one after the winter freezes are gone. I add one or two bulbs each year to go with those that have faithfully bloomed since I first began this glorious tradition.

The plants from the Bulb Mart are made for the gumbo soil, high humidity and rain soaked environment that Houston gardens must endure. I have yet to have any of them fail to flourish. I have a particularly wet side of my house that is exacerbated by the runoff from my next door neighbor’s backyard. Their entire area is dominated by a large pool and concrete decking that makes for intense drainage problems for me. On most days the area that abuts on their property is water logged. I invested large amounts of money trying to find something that would grow in that condition all to no avail. The roots would rot and I would have to try something new. Last year I spoke with the experts at the Bulb Mart and invested in a plant that seemed to be suited for the habitat. To both my surprise and delight the plant has thrived and bloomed with delicate white flowers even as the watery problem has only worsened with the continual rains of September and early October.

I attended the Bulb Mart again this year just as I have for the last seven. It has become a “must do” for me. I get an email in the summer reminding me of the date and I literally plan my October activities around it. This year I pre-ordered a few items to insure that I would get certain varieties before they ran out. The day was as lovely as it always seems to be and I found myself falling in love with my city one more time. The smiling faces of the workers and the shoppers reminded me of what a friendly place Houston is. It’s a kind of small town with four million people. The first hint of fall made me forget the heat and humidity that has kept us indoors for weeks. It was a picture perfect day in every possible way, made better by the joyful plants that I bought to enhance the gardens that bring me peace and contentment all year long.

I’m not a person who can countenance change too quickly. I like a certain orderliness in my life. Too much shuffling around creates a kind of chaos in my heart and mind. I prefer quiet and routine. The Bulb Mart has become a constant for me, a mediating force for the variables of living. I depend on it to bring me peace and contentment. Thus far it has yet to fail me.

If you happen to be in Houston around the second week of October check the events calendar to see if the Bulb Mart is happening. The admission is free and everyone gets an informative little book describing the various kinds of bulbs and when and how to plant and care for them. There are even door prizes for a lucky few. Best of all there is a festive and friendly spirit that is so typical of Houston. It’s fun just to walk around and celebrate the glory of nature at her best.

A Brilliant Choice

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On this day in 1968, my husband Mike and I pledged to love, honor and cherish each other for the rest of our lives. For fifty years we have steadfastly done our best to live by the standards of our pledge, but in truth being married for five decades has required far more than adherence to a promise. The two of us are best friends in every sense of what that concept may mean. We enjoy being together and sharing our lives both as individuals and as a couple. We have certainly grown during our five decades together, and become even better as a team than we might have been alone.

I was nineteen years old when I walked down the aisle. My mother had to sign a document giving permission for me to marry. I was as naive as anyone might be when entering such a serious contract with another person, but I was dead certain that Mike and I had a very special relationship that was centered on love. I have often been reluctant to take a firm position of belief during my lifetime, but on the Friday evening when I walked down the aisle of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic Church I had no doubt that I was doing exactly what I was meant to do. Somehow it seemed as though the heavens themselves had aligned to bring me and Mike together, and I was unafraid to take the grand leap of faith that binds two people together for eternity.

We were joined by friends and family for our celebration. The church was gloriously bathed in light as Mike stood at the front of the church. The organ began to boom accompanied by the crystal clear sounds of a trumpet and my bridesmaids, Susan, Nancy and Ingrid made their way slowly toward the altar along with the groomsmen, James, Jack and Alan. When it was my turn I held on tightly to my brother Michael’s arm thinking of how proud I was that he was doing such a grand job of standing in for what might have been my father’s duty. I was lightheaded, giddy and nervous but mostly ecstatically happy. Admittedly once I reached the front of the church and stood next to Mike much of the rest of the ceremony became a blur. I recall the homily with clarity and I can still hear Mrs. McKenna’s beautiful soprano voice as she sang Ave Maria, but mostly I remember how secure I felt just being with Mike.

Our reception was a simple affair as most of them tended to be back then. We gathered in the Parish Hall and feasted on cake, punch and finger sandwiches. Mike and I greeted our guests and did all of the traditional tasks of cutting the cake, throwing out the garter and bouquet, and running under a hail of rice as we rushed to our car which was decorated with shaving cream and streamers of tin cans. Then we were off to our honeymoon in New Orleans and a life filled with challenges and good times.

We certainly did our best to be loving and honest and supportive of one another over the years. Our intentions were put to the test less than a year after we had married when my mother had the first of her mental breakdowns. It was such a strain that it might have broken our bonds, but Mike would prove to be my rock, my foundation, my support. It was a role that he would so lovingly assume over and over again whether during the times when I was caring for my mom or when I got ideas about degrees that I wanted to attain or work that I wanted to do. Mostly he was always and forever my sounding board. A voice of wisdom and concern on whom I knew that I might depend.

Our joy with one another only grew over the years as we were blessed with two daughters. We had a happy little family that was made better and stronger by the friends and family members who shared our child rearing years. I doubt that we would have been nearly as successful in our efforts had it not been for them. We had fun and exchanged concerns and sometimes even shed a tear or two together. Our circle became bound to an ever growing number of incredible people who were critical to our own matrimonial success.

Before we were even able to catch our breaths our daughters were leaving to begin families of their own. Our nest was empty and we began to enjoy the quiet contentment of just doing simple things with each other like sharing a passage from a book or laughing over a funny movie. We worked hard and together found solutions to the inevitable problems that enter every life. We centered our focus on God, family and friends. We lost loved ones and met new and wonderful individuals. The sun rose and it set through one day, one year, one decade after another.

We have weathered many a storm and celebrated even more joys. Our love has been the constant in our lives along with the people who shared our journey. We have seven grandchildren who are our pride and joy. Our daughters are as good as we had hoped we might teach them to be and they are married to very fine men. We are quite content with the story that we have created together. We know that not everyday will be sunny, but we have somehow always managed to weather the storms.

Joining our lives together fifty years ago was the very best thing that either of us have ever done. Together we are stronger than we might ever have been alone. We know that our family and our friends have also been part the success that we have enjoyed. I thank God every single day that we made that brilliant choice on October 4, 1968.

Good Fortune

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From September until the end of December I have always been deliriously happy. It somehow seems to be the best time of year for me. Six of my seven grandchildren were born in those months. My own birthday is in November and I was married in October. Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas are all celebratory times for me when I have the pleasure of being with family and friends. It’s difficult to dull my joy at this time of year, and yet I have also lost some of the most significant people in my life in the midst of all of my merrymaking. Those moments have been brutally difficult, causing me to just go through the motions of events that normally would have made me ecstatic.

Back in 2001, not long after the collapse of the Twin Towers I was already feeling quite distraught when my husband’s best friend, Egon, died suddenly from a heart attack. He had come into our lives when we were all quite young, and over time he was more like a brother than a friend. He had come from Germany to study at the University of Houston  where he eventually met the woman who would become his wife. His journeys back to his homeland would be only to visit his parents. Houston would become his new home, and he enjoyed bragging that he was not born in Texas, but had come as soon as it was possible.

Egon was a brilliant man with an astounding memory and an uncanny  ability to spin a story with vivid detail. His conversations were filled with information and insights. We often listened to him for hours on end, marveling at his ability to recall facts and describe ideas with such clarity. He would have been a remarkable college professor, but went into a career in sales instead where his skills in noting small details made him a super star. His death hit us quite hard and created a kind of emptiness in our lives that still lingers even seventeen years later.

Around the same time only a few years later my mother-in-law had a stroke that left her in a coma from which she never emerged. It was a major blow to all of us, and for me it represented losing perhaps the major source of wisdom upon which I had relied as an adult. I still long for the chats that she and I had on Sunday afternoons over a warm pot of tea. Perhaps that is why to this day drinking a cup of the brew brings me such comfort.

My mother-in-law was the kind of intellectual and confident woman who might have held court with the cafe society of Paris that included some of the world’s greatest thinkers, writers and artists. She was not just well read, but someone who was analytical and able to advance her opinions and thoughts with a persuasiveness and encyclopedic knowledge that few possess. She was the person who was able to provide me with solutions and serenity whenever I faced problems. She left a huge hole in our family that has never been properly filled.

A few years back my cousin, Jack, died from heart failure. He was a year younger than I am and it seemed rather unfair to lose him so soon. He and I were quite close when we were growing up. So many of my fondest memories of childhood were spent at his side. When I think of fun, his image almost always comes to my mind. He loved a good joke and always had the most delightfully impish smile, even in his final days when his health was failing him.

Jack was such a good man that my cousins and I joke that he is surely a saint, someone to whom we might send our prayers and petitions. He was kind and generous and loved. He was most certainly the best of us with his faithfulness and quiet ways of making us all laugh even when we were feeling down.

Last year, again at around this time, our dear friend, Bill, died. I had always said that Bill should have had his own talk show. He was incredibly entertaining as he spoke of books that he had read, trips that he had taken, or just expounded his political views. He had led a quite interesting life that took him from Detroit, Michigan all the way to NASA in Houston, Texas. He was a pioneer in the computer industry, and one of the bright young men chosen to help send humans into space.

After his wife died Bill liked to come by our house unannounced. He’d ring the doorbell in the middle of the day and then regale us for hours  with tales of his current adventures. I liked nothing better than to set aside my routines and just enjoy his visits. He is yet another person who was not just quite interesting, but also terrifically wise. There was something about him that made the world seem a bit more steady than it otherwise might have been.

I think of these remarkable people with a bit of sorrow, but I also celebrate the memories that I made with them. Those will never go away. They are tucked away so close to my heart that I am able to retrieve them anytime that I need a smile. I choose to celebrate my good fortune in having known them rather than focusing on the sadness of no longer expecting to spend a glorious afternoon or evening with them. I am one of the lucky ones who was close to them. I rejoice in my good fortune, even as I celebrate the season.

Atonement

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I often joke that I may have to spend some time in purgatory when I die before earning a place in heaven. I note that I can rock along for quite some time doing my best to be a good person and then I do or say something not so nice that cancels some of my kindnesses. Truth be told I’m about average when it comes to my humanity. Like the scores of people who came before me and those who inhabit this earth with me I make mistakes. Such is the inevitability for most of us.

Now and again I see another soul who seems to have achieved a bit more perfection. Both of my grandmothers would fall into that category. They were generous, loving guileless women, but I have often thought that being isolated from most of the ugliness of the world as they were may have helped them not to back slide. Women today spend decades out in an often unforgiving world and the temptation to fight back sometimes leads to anger and invective of the sort that my grandmas never invoked. I believe that I will ultimately be forgiven for my lapses because I also firmly feel that my God is all about redemption. I mean, isn’t that more or less what Jesus told the world as He died on the cross?

I have been reminded of the power of honest contrition by admissions of weakness by heroes of mine like Mother Teresa, Jimmy Carter, and John McCain. All three made it clear in their writings and orations that they sometimes failed to follow their own principles. They spoke of making faulty decisions. In other words they were as human as any of us, which I suspect was also the case of my grandmothers, not withstanding my idealized image of them. As humans we are filled with imperfections and contradictions. When all is said and done the question becomes how we have attempted to live the majority of our days, and whether or not we have been willing to admit our transgressions and attempted to change.

My mother and my teachers all taught me that to sin is human, but to ask forgiveness is divine. They also insisted that once I demonstrated true contrition it was important that I move forward rather than eternally looking backward at my failings. I was schooled in the idea that I should love all of my fellow men, and that my hatred should be aimed at behavior that I found to be egregious, not people. That’s an admittedly difficult formula to follow, but it became a glorious model to use in my work as an educator. I was able to separate the flaws from the person, and deal with behaviors while still caring about the child.

We are in a cycle of judgmental excess, all around. We even take our self righteousness to the extreme of looking back in history and condemning entire civilizations and ways of thinking. We forget the rule of social science that tells us that generalizations are rarely acceptable in assessing humans. We also forget how different the world was from ours even a hundred years ago.

I have been watching the Amazon Prime series Lore and have been taken by the ignorance and superstitions that were prevalent in the world of my ancestors. Scientific and medical knowledge was so antiquated. Philosophies were often based on superstitions. People were generally uneducated much like my two sweet grandmothers who were unable to read or write, much less understand scientific and sociological intricacies. I find it oddly ridiculous that in our modern era there are so many who would overlay our own knowledge and understanding on people who often lived in isolation with little or no education simply because they appear to have behaved badly in a past that was as human as the present.

I also have a problem with pointing fingers of judgement at historical figures who attempted to atone for admitted transgressions and mistakes. It is so easy to insist that none of us would ever have been willing to follow bad leaders, but then we will never know if that is true or not. We cannot possibly put ourselves totally in the shoes of someone from another time and place. We would have to become them in every sense of the word, and of course that is impossible. Instead of looking backwards and admonishing people who lived in times far different from ours it is up to us to look forward. We can do that by learning from the past. Reading and studying with an open mind will teach us how to find the best thoughts and ideas. If we are to be fruitful in our quest for a more equitable society then we must spend more time constructing than tearing down, finding the good and building on that foundation.

I saw a group of students from Harvard who asked a professor what they might do right now to begin to foster positive change in our society. His answer stunned them a bit, but it was brilliant. He suggested that they take full advantage of their educational opportunity by becoming persons who have knowledge and the ability to think critically. He challenged them to acquire the tools that they will one day need to become great leaders, He spurned the idea that they spend their time protesting before they knew enough to come to reasoned decisions.

I also seem to go back to the folksy wisdom of my mother who was indeed a brilliant woman. In her times of clarity she understood human nature as well as any sociologist or psychologist. She often told me that people evolve over time, and that life is a journey through many seasons, all of which make us better people if we are willing to grasp the importance of each. She noted that youth was a time for observing and learning. She spoke of knowing when and how to grasp the reigns of leadership and when to pass them down to the next generation. She felt that a wise person would understand that we are all hoping and dreaming and failing. Each of us is an imperfect being with the potential for greatness. Our journeys in that direction challenge us to be humble and compassionate and forgiving. She always believed that there is an overwhelming goodness to this earth that beats with one heart. If that is our focus we will find happiness and purpose, even as we falter.