Far From Finished

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From time to time I get writer’s block and find myself searching furiously for a blog topic. That’s when I surf the web for ideas, and luckily there are a number of sites offering suggestions. I found myself laughing out loud at one post about lists that focused on ten things to do before one dies. It occurred to me that my time for considering such things is perhaps running a bit shorter than say someone in his/her twenties since I will turn seventy on my next birthday. While nobody ever knows when the time for parting this world will actually come, it is more and more likely to happen as the years go by, for none of us is immortal.

I’m well past many of the things that once tempted me like learning to be a downhill skier. My bones would be quite unhappy with the falls and I’d rather sit inside a warm chateau sipping on some hot soup at the top of a mountain than contemplating sliding my way down. The same goes for exploring the Amazon River. Such an adventure sounded thrilling until I saw a program about a trek that almost killed Theodore Roosevelt. After realizing how brutal such an excursion would be, I’ve given up all thought of even trying such a crazy thing. I’ll leave that kind of insanity for the young. My new ideas are far more in line with the limitations that age has imposed on my body.

I still want to travel as much as possible. I haven’t seen Buckingham Palace or the Eiffel Tower or the Vatican, and it seems to me that everyone should enjoy a view of those things at least once. I know that we are all a bit spoiled in this era because most of our ancestors were lucky to get a few hundred miles out of the towns in which they were born. Now such travels are rather commonplace, at least for Americans. I sometimes have to admit that I feel a bit guilty about our abundance and opportunities, but then I still dream of seeing more of the world and think I will be a better person for having done so. Travel opens the mind and the heart.

Of course, I still want my book to get published. To spur me forward my husband showed me a TED talk on planning. It made me realize what I need to do to move forward, and I am feeling more determined than ever. I have only a small bit of editing to do and then I must find someone who will help me design a cover. I already know how I want it to look, I just don’t have the skills to do it myself. After that I intend to send it to a company that will format it properly so that I can easily upload it to Amazon. I have to specify the time that I will do these things and then stick with the plan. I have friends and family who have already successfully published their works, so I need to be less hesitant to consult with them. I’m sure they will be more than glad to share their experiences to help get me going.

There are a number of small things that I think should also be on my list. I hope to live long enough to witness the next total eclipse of the sun. It’s not that far away and this time there will be great viewing right here in Texas. I also want to see the fall colors in Vermont and go to the Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. Maybe I might catch a showing of Hamilton while I’m in there.

I’d like to take a cooking class and then prepare a special feast for friends and family. My culinary arts are rather basic, but I’m fondly known as “The Bean Queen” and my gumbo might win a prize. I think that baking would be fun or becoming an expert in Italian cuisine. The art and science of food preparation is fascinating to me.

I want to reteach myself Calculus. I once did well with that subject but I was a good fifty years younger the last time I took a such a course. I never taught that subject nor had reason to use it, so it feels as though all memory of it is gone. I once began a review session at a junior college only to develop a bacterial infection after two days that left me hanging over the toilet bowl for over a week. I had to drop the idea of relearning, but never the desire to get back up to speed.

There are entertainers I would love to see in live performances like Yo Yo Ma, Celine Dion, Kelly Clarkson, Usher, The Gypsy Kings. As a matter of fact I would love to take advantage of all of the concerts that come to town. I find that even people that I never thought to be so great end up being fabulous. My in-laws once took me to see Andy Williams. I was polite about their generous offer but believed that it would be a snooze, It was not. In fact it was a very memorable evening that demonstrated what makes someone famous. In person Andy was incredibly charismatic.

I’ve seen a sunset over the Grand Canyon but I’d love to observe a sunrise there. It would be more than cool to be in Chaco Canyon for the solstice. I want to hear the bagpipers at Edinburgh Castle and walk through the streets of the towns in Slovakia where my grandparents lived as children. I’d love to be in the audience of Saturday Night Live or Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show or even better would be to see Ellen. I want to reread the great classics and pour over the newest bestsellers. When I become too frail to go too far from home I hope to watch marathons of my all time favorite movies and call friends just to chat.

I suppose that my list is in fact rather endless. There is still so much to do and see. The world is an exciting place that I haven’t explored nearly enough. I’ll write about each of my adventures as they unfold, so stay tuned. I’m far from finished.

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The Lessons of Summer

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It’s been a tough school year for both students and teachers around here. There was a great deal of trauma to overcome in my neck of the woods. The fall semester began with hurricane Harvey and the spring neared a close with a shooting at Santa Fe High School. I suspect that everyone associated with education in these parts is more than ready to say hello to summer and engage in a bit of unwinding and relaxation. The trouble is that these days there is not always a great deal of rest for the weary.

After a very brief break summer school will begin and many teachers supplement their incomes with that extra bit of cash that working an extra month allows. Sadly some of the students who struggled during the year will have to make up for their lack of attention and effort. Then there are all of those required training classes that educators must take to keep their various certifications up to speed. I’ve also seen signs advertising all kinds of activities for kids that range from football, basketball, baseball and cheerleading camps to art and theater lessons. It seems as though few individuals enjoy summer the way I did back in days that were much slower paced.

Summer was a time for staying up well past bedtime and sleeping in each morning. Shoes stood unused in the closet, collecting dust with the exception of Sundays when they were donned for church. Every day brought new adventures, all unplanned and easy. There were three months of doing whatever sounded good at any given moment, and boredom was an unknown in our world.

My summer uniform was a pair of pull on shorts with a crop top that allowed the circulation of the warm air to keep me as comfortable as is possible in the humid Houston heat. My mother usually cut my hair short for the occasion and my brothers sported almost shaved heads. Our looks were all about simplicity and comfort. There was no need to worry about appearance because we were on vacation from routine.

We always managed to find something wonderful to do, and none of it involved watching television. Of course video games were in a future far far away. Instead we mostly played outside with the hordes of neighbor children who lived up and down our street. We invented all sorts of competitive games and used the middle of the street or someone’s big front yard as our playground. We were continually running and laughing and tumbling so that our knees and elbows were skinned more often than not. When the sun hit its zenith we often retired to someone’s home to play car and board games while our moms quenched our thirst with ice cold water or lemonade. If we were especially lucky our midday snack might include a cookie or some homemade peach ice cream.

Sometimes it was so hot that our moms would send us to our beds to rest a bit after lunch. I enjoyed lying in front of the open windows feeling the breeze that was produced by the big attic fan that worked day and night all summer long. Sometimes the heat would lull me to sleep, but mostly I used that time to read. I kept a collection of books from the library and went through them with such speed that I had to make many trips to the bookmobile in Garden Villas Park.

Of course there was always swimming and it never took much to convince our mother to drive us to the city pool where we had exactly one hour to luxuriate in the cool water playing Marco Polo and seeing who could stand on their hands the longest. If it wasn’t an especially crowded day, which was almost never, the lifeguards would ignore the clock and let us stay longer than expected. We so enjoyed those times, especially when we were joined by one or more of our cousins.

Sometimes I delighted in a world of make believe with my girl friends as we built houses for our dolls and pretended that they were stewardesses or glamorous actresses. I had created all sorts of furniture for my dream home out of milk cartons, tin cans, and cigar boxes. I knew enough about sewing to make pillows, bedspreads and tablecloths. I kept all of my gear in a cardboard box that once held green beans at the grocery store. My friends and I would spend hours with our little rooms spread out on the drive way and our imaginations taking flight.

Like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in film we often decided to produce a neighborhood talent show. Everyone had to audition of course but our standards were fairly accessible. It was rare for an act to be turned away. We’d dance and sing and tell jokes and perform magic tricks all for the entertainment of our moms. Admission was a quarter, a rather exorbitant amount for the times, but we were saving to earn enough money to build a fort. Somehow we never quite earned enough to actually erect the structure that we had envisioned but we did have some rather nice make shift efforts, especially the ones made out of sheets and quilts that we designed on the clotheslines.

Our bicycles were our ticket to exotic places like the bayou or the woods where we felt as adventurous as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. When I grew older I even learned a route to Gulfgate Mall that I followed on my bike with one of my friends. We’d window shop and get cool inside the stores and sometimes even have enough money to actually purchase an ice cream sandwich or a candy stick.

At night we’d lie on our backs in the grass gazing at the stars and telling scary stories. We could hear the whispers inside the households up and down the street because most people had their windows and doors wide open. By that time of day our necks would be ringed with little necklaces of dirt and sweat that we called Grandma’s beads. Our feet would be black from all of the running and playing we had enjoyed. Our contentment was sublime and we seemed not to have a care in the world.

We had little idea back then how much the world would change. It would become rarer and rarer to see children outside all summer long. The kind of unscheduled lifestyle that we so enjoyed would be replaced with carefully choreographed activities designed to keep kids busy and free from boredom. Everyone would be rushing around almost as much as they did during the school year. There would be required summer reading and math packets to complete. The freedoms that we so loved would be replaced with more purposeful pursuits or hours spent in front of a computer or video game.

The sounds of summer that were once so comforting to me are rarely audible these days. Neighbors move in and out. Children are either inside or off doing more structured things. Dream houses for dolls are manufactured out of plastic and little girls only play with them for a short time and then they become too mature to engage in such things even though their ages indicate that they are still children. It’s unsafe for little ones to be unsupervised for even a moment. The freedoms that I enjoyed are unthinkable today and that actually makes me sad. I wonder if the magic of summer vacation is somehow diminished by our efforts to orchestrate it so. Our children have lost a wonderful opportunity to learn how to find simple pleasures in very small things. Perhaps many of the problems we face today might be resolved if we were to once again allow them to get outside and explore the world on their own. The lessons of an unstructured summer may well be the most important of their lives.

Planting A Garden Of Love

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While there are still signs of winter in many parts of the world here in Houston, Texas spring has definitely arrived. The azaleas in my yard are blooming and the roses are bursting forth in all of their glory. The once barren trees have tiny leaves peeking from the limbs, and tiny ferns are popping up from the soil. Signs of life are everywhere with even the pair of doves that live in my backyard cooing in harmony with the noisy mockingbirds and jays. This is one of my favorite times of year when nature reminds us of redemption and possibilities.

This year I decided to plant some vegetables in my flowerbeds. It’s been many years since I have done that. For a time when my daughters were still young we had bountiful crops each spring and summer. Our larders were filled with green peppers, tomatoes, squash and cucumbers. This year I am hoping to enjoy my former success at gardening, but a worry about the pesky squirrel that often visits my yard or the countless birds searching for a meal. I’ve been doing some research in how to prevent critters from consuming my vegetables before I have the chance to harvest them and I’m not so sure that I will be able to ward them off because I don’t own the one thing that is supposed to be a great guard against pilferers. Namely my best bet is to have either a cat or a dog to chase them away.

Back when my farming was so successful we had a fabulous dog named Red. She was a born hunter who often displayed her trophies for us to find. She was a golden retriever who had perfected every one of her instincts. She was fast and always alert. No mice dared come near our place and birds were very respectful in her presence. They tended to stay perched in the trees rather than attempting to make a snack out of my vegetables. I suppose that I never really thought of just how much Red was doing for us in the way of standing watch. I knew that she was a great guard dog when it came to humans, but I didn’t appreciate her vigilance over my garden as much as I should have.

Red was as smart as they come and always faithful. She loved everyone in the family and most of the neighbors as well. Sometimes she hopped the fence and took little strolls around the block but she always came back home. I was amused by the fact that she was able to get out of the backyard but could not seem to get back in, so she just waited patiently on the front porch for us to notice that her wandering was done. I’d sure like to have her back, but she crossed the Rainbow Bridge long ago along with other friends like Buddy and Scarlet and Shane. So I guess I’m on my own in protecting my garden this summer if I’m to taste some juicy tomatoes or enjoy a bunch of succulent squash.

It’s going to be fun watching all of my plants grow from the sun and the rain. I’m anxious to see what varieties will be the most successful. I have onions and potatoes, cucumbers and tomatoes. There are peppers and squash and all kinds of herbs. Last year I enjoyed having fresh basil and oregano for my soups and salads. This year I’ve added parsley, cilantro and thyme.

While I was searching for ideas as to how to keep the marauders at bay I found recipes for preparing a hot pepper concoction to create a ring of protection around my plants. That’s when I discovered a cute little poem about how to plant a garden of love. It suggested that it’s time to squash hate, prejudice and jealousy while peppering our actions with kindness and compassion. I liked that idea and began to think of how appropriate it is to focus on renewing ourselves as well as our gardens at this time of year. Much like the plants that are springing back to life, now is a time for each of us to consider how we might grow and become the best versions of ourselves.

Working in the soil and creating life is one of humankind’s most basic tasks. As we plunge our hands into the dirt to plant seeds and cuttings we become one with nature and feel the kind of unity that we should always enjoy with the world around us. We need to be the stewards who care for the wonderful things that we have, and that should include the air, water, plants, creatures and people with whom we share this earth. We cannot forget our obligations to treasure this amazing planet and all that it holds. Springtime reminds us of what we need to do.

When I think of Red I realize the kind of traits that all of us need to cultivate. She was as sweet and loving as any creature might ever be. Best of all was her infinite loyalty and unwavering instinct to protect. She was also sensitive and compassionate as in a time when I was very ill with the flu and she slept by my bed all day long, making certain that I would be okay. We might all learn a thing or two about faithfulness from a wonderful pet like Red.

I jokingly told my eldest grandson that I was turning into my grandmother Minnie Bell. I would like to think that I am somewhat like her, but I have a way to go to be as remarkable as she was, a humble and uncomplicated woman who simply enjoyed life as it was given to her. She had an almost sacred communion with nature and the people around her. Without judgement she embraced every person that she met. Those are things that I am still working on achieving, but sometimes when I’m puttering in my yard and listening to the birds I think I understand how Grandma found her contentment. I realize that all the things in the world cannot compare to the pleasure of seeing someone smile or watching the earth burst into a symphony of sounds that rival the most glorious musical composition. I hope that my plants provide me with a bountiful crop, but more than that I want to spread the seeds of love this spring and all the year through.

Winter In My City

winter-weather-and-chimneys-houston-tx-lords-chimneyThe weather on Christmas Day was glorious, but the days following have been cold, damp and dreary. The only thing to do in such a situation is make soup, hot chocolate, tea, coffee or all of the above which is exactly what I have been doing. Being from Texas my first inclination was to make chicken tortilla soup, but I’m known as the soup and bean queen so I had a number of possibilities, including a really mean potato leek concoction that I sometimes prepare. Somehow the standby chicken tortilla soup seemed most perfect for the occasion, and so I settled on preparing a steaming pot to take the chill off of the day. I suspect that I’ll be making all sorts of delicious brews in the coming weeks because winter in Houston is brief but almost always rainy and bone chilling when it occurs.

Coats last forever around here because we don’t really wear them that much from year to year. I’ve got jackets and capes that have served me for decades. Sweaters go out of style long before they become threadbare. They are more likely to dry rot or get eaten by moths than to fall apart from use. I always wonder why the stores carry so many heavy items in October and November when the temperatures are most likely to be in the eighties, and then replace them with spring clothing just when it finally becomes cold enough to use that sort of thing.

The few times that I have been in traditionally cold climates I have truly enjoyed the frigid weather. I’m told that I would soon grow weary of winter weather if I had to live in such places, but as a visitor who rarely witnesses low temperatures or snow, I get quite excited by what I consider to be normal climate. I’ve got wonderful memories of walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago with snow falling on my face. The best such event, however, was in a little mountain town in Austria where I went on a nighttime sleigh ride through the countryside. I was so cold on that trip that I literally lost feeling in my limbs even though I was wearing long johns as well as snow boots and woolly socks that I had purchased from L.L. Bean. I’ve had those shoes for twelve years now and never had occasion to wear them again. I keep them just in case but unless I travel far from home in the winter I don’t expect to need them ever again.

My idea of truly enjoying a snowy place would have to include having someone to shovel the white stuff from my driveway and sidewalks, not to mention retaining an experienced driver to take me on my errands. I haven’t mowed my lawn in years, and I don’t think I would enjoy shoveling snow either. I just want to enjoy the experience like a tourist, and then return home when I grow tired of the work associated with winter.

Even in my temperate climate I somehow I love the wintery moments far more than the summer. I like log cabins in the mountains and hillsides glistening with snow. I enjoy sitting by a warm fire and wearing layers of clothing with cute boots and warm gloves. I like hearing the crunch of snow under my feet and building snowmen. Somehow in spite of the fact that I have always lived near the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and rarely experienced a true winter, I long to have that experience. It just seems more natural than wearing Hawaiian shirts and flip flops in the middle of January. Still, I love my hometown and have no desire to leave except for a brief interlude that might provide me with the winter wonderland of which I dream.

It’s ironic that so many snow birds come our way for the winter because they have grown weary of the long relentless winters. They’ve traded in their snow shovels for RVs that allow them to be sun seekers. One of the prime spots for such folks has traditionally been Rockport, Texas, a small town only a few hours away from Houston, which welcomes folks from northern states each winter. The town is usually filled with refugees from Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and other frigid places. This year there is no town of Rockport. It was quite literally blown away by hurricane Harvey. There are tent cities in vacant lots even six months later, and there is a grave shortage of places for the natives to live. The rebuilding has been brutally slow because in some ways Rockport has been forgotten and many of the citizens worry that the quaint seaside town will never again be the same. The regular visitors have had to find other places to stay this year and it’s possible that they will never return again now that they have been forced by circumstances to find an alternative location for wintering.

I suppose that the grass is always a bit greener in places that are not like our own. We wish for things that we don’t have without really thinking about the implications. I never consider how much work it might be to live in a place that fills with snow, while those who come to our neck of the woods rarely consider the horrors of the hurricanes that now and again come our way.

I suppose that I will have to be content to have a kind of make believe winter experience. I’ll wear my winter gear when I can and enjoy our small doses of soup weather with an appreciation for not having to endure the more difficult aspects of Jack Frost. I’ll crank up the fireplace and maybe even build a bonfire in our outdoor pit on cold dry days. I know that I probably appreciate the cold more because it is so rare, something very special around here. Soon enough it will be warm again and I’ll be donning my sleeveless shirts and sandals.

I’m afflicted by never ending hot flashes. I’ve been told that if they have not gone away by now, they never will. I’ve done research to find out how I might minimize them and learned that the best way to do so is to live in a cold place. Since that is not going to happen, I’ve had to learn to live with them much as northerners understand how to avoid frostbite. It’s funny how we adapt to whatever our situations may be.

This is still my favorite time of year even though it’s wintery aspects are short for those of us who live this far south. I’ll miss going to visit the Whooping Cranes that winter in Rockport each year. I hope that their habitats will be sufficient for them because I suspect that the humans who generally protect them are busy with their own survival this year. We’ll all make do with what we have, but I still have hopes of a snowy January day.

A Good Year After All

main-qimg-296478081c816a7cde7561d1337b3514-cAnother year is drawing to a close, and what a year it has been. I find myself thinking of the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a character so full of vigor in the beginning who gradually grew old and weary by the end of his time. Perhaps more than most of our three hundred sixty five day journeys around the sun this one has been treacherous for me and most of my friends. Those of us who made it are far from unscathed, but determined and hopeful for better results in our coming opportunity to try the new revolution of around our favorite star. I’d like to believe that the future will be brighter in the coming months, but that is something that remains to be seen.

So many truly good people left us this year to begin a new and eternal life with the angels. They were joined by beloved pets as well. I have shed more than a few tears in saying goodbye to dear friends with whom I shared so many wondrous moments and  sweet animals who so often delighted me. My Google calendar is dotted with far too many reminders of death and the ultimate reality of our mortality. This year has taught me not to take anyone for granted because in the blink of an eye they might be gone forever. I have learned the importance of appreciating each pleasant moment that I share with someone whom I love, and of letting each of them know how much I care. The point has been driven home that we never ever know what is going to happen from one second to the next. All of our plans sometimes change in the blink of an eye, so rather than constantly worrying and thinking ahead we should all learn how to revel in the wonder of a moment.

Mother Earth has been speaking to us this year, and she has not been happy. The devastation that we have witnessed has been great from California to Florida to Puerto Rico to my hometown in Texas. Surely instead of worrying so much about how people choose to live, it is in our best interest to consider how we might change our ways and improve our structures to meet the demands of storms and fires. We have a tendency to concern ourselves with things that don’t really matter that divide us into camps, and then when horror strikes we somehow manage to pull together. Wouldn’t it be nice if we were able to live together in more harmony all throughout the year? I suspect that if we did not allow ourselves to be manipulated by politicians and the media the world would be a much kinder place to be. We shouldn’t have to get fifty one inches of rain that floods our homes to realize that ultimately we are all in this exciting thing called life together.

Politics have gone crazy, but there are small signs that we have grown weary of all of the sound and fury and that we are generally more decent than those who would lead us. The good folks in Alabama sent a message to the world that they will not accept unworthy and immoral people as their leaders. The margin by which they chose goodness was slim, but nonetheless won the day. I’d like to think that all politicians are now on notice that we expect more of them than they have been giving us of late. The new year will bring a big election and a great deal of posing behind a screen of smoke and mirrors. Hopefully we the people have learned how to see beyond the tricks and illusions.

We still have evil among us, but we have to remember in all cases that we cannot draw stereotypical conclusions from the actions of the few. Republicans should be reminded that a handful of terrorists is not representative of the millions of good people who hale from the same religions, countries or political persuasions. Democrats need to understand that from the millions of gun owners only a tiny percentage choose violence. We all need to calmly approach our problems with a willingness to provide solutions based on facts rather emotions. The news isn’t really fake, but the ways in which it is interpreted for us often is. This past year it has become increasingly difficult to know the truth because so many are preying on our fears rather than trusting us with the truth.

We are ending this year feeling wounded and even beset upon. It would be easy and even natural to feel cynical and sad after all that has happened, but I would like to suggest a different point of view. The truth is that we are all still here. We may have cuts and scrapes and feel more weary than at any other time in our lives, but if we are still drawing a breath we have time to change our attitudes just as Ebenezer Scrooge decided to do. When the whole world seems to be out of control the only thing over which any of us have sway is how we choose to feel. We can defeat the naysayers and the blues by having the determination to dust off our troubles and just keep trying. We don’t ever have to feel defeated.

I once attended the musical premier of a story about Holocaust survivors. It was a moving experience that brought me to tears multiple times. One song that has followed me spoke of our human resilience with the simple words, “I’m still here.” I’ve echoed that phrase many times over whenever there appears to be a conspiracy to bring me down. It taught me that even if I am stripped of every possession and many of my loved ones I have the capacity not just to survive, but to flourish. It all depends on how I choose to react to both my good and bad fortune.

So goodbye to 2017, a year that sorely tried my patience and my energy. If I am truly honest I will admit that there were far more positive days than those that almost broke my spirit. I watched two men pledge their love for one another on a beautiful beach. i witnessed the fulfillment of the dreams of many of my former students. I laughed and cried with friends and realized how loved I truly am. I did not lose my best friend and husband when he had a stroke, but instead received a second chance to help him become healthy and to show him how much I love him. I met new people who have already enriched my life. I learned that my city is one of the most glorious places to live on planet earth, something that I had always suspected but now know for certain. I watched my favorite baseball team win the World Series. I had my faith in mankind renewed by two incredible athletes and a man who owns a furniture store. I saw the light of understanding in the eyes of the students whom I have tutored and taught. I attended the weddings of former students so demonstrative of love that they filled my heart with great hope. I spent quiet moments with friends and others that were boisterous and filled with laughter. A grandson earned all A’s in his first year of college and other grandchildren won races and contests while still being the kind of young people that our world needs. How can I not think that when all is said and done it was a good year after all?