Renewal

revolution

We humans like traditions. They tend to be anchors that keep us moored. We often attach our ways of doing things to special dates so that we might have reminders that it is time once again to repeat them. We turn on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade while we prepare for a family gathering later in the day. We watch fireworks on the Fourth of July. We hang lights on our houses and set up trees for Christmas. We celebrate birthdays with cakes and candles. Each year we plan for a succession of such events to break the routine of work and daily living, Traditions give us something wonderful to dream about when we are weary of the trials that so often beset us. They are mostly about spending time with people whom we love, forgetting about our challenges until another day.

Sometimes our difficulties are so overwhelming that they intrude upon our traditions. A death or a serious illness may make it impossible to feel the joy that usually comes with such occasions, We feel like outsiders as we see what appears to be the entire world having fun around us. We can’t imagine how they can be so happy when we are so bereft. Our woes are part of the natural cycle of life just as much as our joys but somehow we have a very difficult time accepting them in the midst of general revelry. We can’t imagine how it will ever again be possible to join the fun without heavy hearts.

Life is a repetitive cycle whether or not we humans take note of the changing seasons. It goes on and on and on just as it has done for centuries. We are part of its story and in our tendency to manufacture ways to take control of it, we create those traditions and cling to the constancy of them. They somehow help us to feel better but they can also be vivid reminders of loss. Our emotions are tied up with our traditions and we associate certain people and places with them so much so that they can at times hurt as much as they help.

Today is the first day of a new year and a new decade. In our human need to demonstrate a modicum of mastery over our existence we have created traditions to mark the passage of the earth’s journey around the sun. We eat special foods that we associate with good luck and we make resolutions to improve ourselves in the days ahead. Renewal and redemption is a constant theme in the human experience. We falter and then we forgive ourselves and hope that others will as well. We begin again hoping to be our best. It is perhaps one of our most noble characteristics.

I hear of many worthy resolutions on this day. People vow to take better care of their health or to pursue learning. They set goals of traveling more or spending time doing more purposeful things. The list of possibilities is endless and wonderful. It feels good to have the opportunity to renew ourselves, to jump start the goodness in our lives one more time. It’s also a moment when we might glance around us to find those souls who feel so broken and lost that they are unable to join the rest of us in the feelings of happiness and renewal. Perhaps there is no greater resolution than to show them comfort.

I spend a bit of time on Facebook each day just to get a feel of how my friends and family are doing. I see so much joy on my wall but hidden in the corners are hints that tell me of those who are suffering. I suspect that their sorrow is compounded by the celebratory images that they see. This most wonderful time of year can be quite hard for them, at least for awhile. Healing is a slow process but it need not be endured alone. There is nothing more curative than receiving small gestures of kindness and remembrance from people who care.

A friend posted a wonderful idea just before January 1. She suggested that each of us choose one person for whom we will pray each and every day of this new year. I’d like to add the idea of making time for that person as well. Giving to others is a tonic not only for them also but for us as.

May this new year of 2020 bring you and those you love the contentment and strength that you need to keep moving through another revolution of the sun and an opportunity for renewal.

The Game that Filled Her Head With Dreams

houstonastros

When my father was still alive football was king in our household. Of course it was not just any brand of football. It was always about Texas A&M football. After my dad died my mother kept his love of the Texas Aggies alive. Anytime a game was aired on television she faithfully tuned in and sang all of the school songs with gusto. Thanksgiving dinners were always timed to work around the annual game against the University of Texas. She’d get almost reverential when chanting the Aggie cheers and songs on those occasions and she fill our heads with stories of the times that she spent with my father on campus when they were young newlyweds and he was earning his degree in engineering.

She had a way of making Texas A&M seem like a magical place with her tales that she spun like the fairytales of old. The Aggies were heroes in my mind and my father was a knight in shining armor who captivated my beautiful mother with his Aggie manners and brilliance. I listened to her memories of happy times with a kind of reverence and awe.

My mother remained faithful to the Texas Aggies and their football team throughout her life with a fervor that belied the fact that she had not had the opportunity to be a student there because it was an all male institution back when she was young. Sometimes she even hinted that she thought it should have remained that way, but once my youngest daughter was a student there she changed her tune. She was quite proud of finally having another Texas A&M graduate in the family and felt doubly blessed that she also gained an Aggie grandson-in-law in the bargain.

If possible, my mother was an even bigger fan of baseball. She made sure that both of my brothers took part in Little League and was rather proud of their prowess on the field of dreams. She recounted the times that she attended baseball games for a minor league team in Houston back when she was young. Baseball was her game and she knew it well. As soon as the city of Houston landed a major league team she became an instant fan. The guys started as the Colt 45s and she would take us to watch them play in an outdoor park filled with hot nights and mosquitoes. Those were amazingly fun times when my mother became as raucous as the most enthusiastic fans. 

Eventually the Houston team got the first ever indoor playing field and a new name, the Astros. Mama was giddy with excitement each spring when the season began and she never once lost her childlike spirit when it came to the hundreds of games that the Astros played. If she wasn’t at the stadium or if the team was out of town she tuned in on her radio listening to every play and punctuating the air with her cheers and groans. I’ve never known anyone to be as faithful to a team particularly during some years when the Astros were not doing well at all. She weathered many disappointments with optimism and spoke of the players as though they were her good friends.

Mama had grown up listening to the radio so just hearing a game was as vivid to her as being there in person. She was able to feel the excitement and see each play in the vividness of her mind. She often spoke of the stats of each player and described their incredible feats as though they were living heroes. She knew the opponents just as well and talked of what to expect from them. She critiqued the manager’s decisions and made predictions that often came to pass. She was not to be disturbed whenever there was a game. During those times she did not answer her phone and only came grudgingly to her front door if there was knock.

She had a collection of baseball cards that she purchased over the years. Most of them were Astros but she also had those of other players that she admired for their prowess. She thought of Nolan Ryan as a kind of baseball god and she boasted that she had actually seen a couple of the famed “Killer Bs” in a restaurant on one occasion. Getting her started on a discussion of baseball was unwise unless there was a great deal of time to hear a long history of what she saw as the greatest game in America.

When I was a teen my mother befriended a woman named Emily whose brother worked with the New York Mets. The lady was as much of a fan as my mom and the two of them often went to games together at the Astrodome. Mama would come home as giddy as a child at Christmas with blow by blow accounts of every inning and every play. Sometimes she even got extra special seating when the Mets came to town compliments of her Emily’s brother. You would have thought that she had won the lottery.

We took our mother to an Astros game at Minute Maid Park one Mother’s Day. She was having trouble walking by then and she became easily exhausted from the hike to the seats. She enjoyed being there in person but somehow knew that she would have to be content with “seeing” them on the radio in the future. When she spent her last spring in my home I often heard the sound of the play by play announcements coming from her room. She would lie on her bed and visualize the ballpark, the guys in shades of orange and blue and white, the hotdogs and peanuts and beer.

My mother never got to see her Astros go all the way to the big championship. She died six years before they won the World Series, but somehow I knew she was watching. She never missed a game, not even on the day that she died. From her bed in the ICU she watched her beloved Astros one last time before she fell peacefully asleep and later breathed her last breaths.

I think of her each spring when the Astros take to the mound. She would have been so happy and proud of their accomplishments, even when they struggled. I suspect that her spirit is always with them each time they take to the field. There was a never a more devoted fan. Spring and summer were her favorite times of the year when her boys took to the field and played the game that filled her head with dreams. 

A Fall Tradition

pumpkin

Fall is filled with a number of traditions for me. I don’t ever see leaves turning glorious colors unless I travel away from my home near Houston. Everything stays green here until the leaves eventually dry into a crispy brown and fall to the ground, so I bring out all of my artificial wreaths and garlands to remind me that somewhere the colors of fall are glorious. I decorate with pumpkins, acorns and pine cones, festooning my home with shades of orange, yellow, red and brown. It’s quite lovely and in many ways I enjoy the decorations of the fall season even more than those of Christmas.

I take an annual fall pilgrimage to The Cheesecake Factory to share a piece of pumpkin cheesecake with husband Mike. The treat is only available for a short time each year so I make careful plans to be certain that I don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy the creamy goodness while I can. I used to purchase an entire pumpkin cheesecake for my birthday but the days when I might eat entire slices without adding inches to my waist are long gone. Sometimes it feels as though simply looking at a slice of pumpkin cheesecake adds a pound or two to my girth. Now I eat sensibly and sparingly, but always include at least one shared slice of my favorite taste of fall.

I rearrange my closet each fall to bring jackets and sweaters within reach in case the weather finally turns cool. I store shorts and sleeveless tops farther to the back. It’s like getting a whole new wardrobe and I always find myself feeling a bit giddy about the way that the clothes hide a multitude of sins in my eternal fight to maintain a healthy weight.

So much about fall makes me incredibly happy save for one tradition that never fails to come around. Ever since I can remember there is a time when my throat begins to feel as though it is going to close up so tightly that I won’t be able to swallow. Almost without warning I am unable to speak in a normal tone of voice. My laryngitis forces me to weakly whisper any communication that I wish to convey. No lemon or honey or medication seems to help until it has run its course. For a few days each and every year I learn what it would be like to be trapped in a state of muteness.

Now that I am retired I am able to simply stay home until my body adjusts to whatever allergic reaction I have had to things floating in the air. When I was still teaching my problem was far more serious. I never felt so bad that I need to retire to bed or stay at home, but attempting to teach a lesson in mathematics with a voice so small that it sounded as though it belonged to a tiny mouse was almost impossible. Sadly each school year of my career I found myself attempting to manage students while keeping them in a learning mode without the aid of my voice that would carry across a room. It was always a challenge.

Amazingly my students always rallied to help me. They immediately sensed my predicament and rather than taking advantage of my inability to actually control the situation they resorted to extreme kindness toward me. No matter how rowdy the group of kids might have been under ordinary circumstances they rose to the occasion and proved themselves to be helpful in my time of need. It was as though their natural tendencies to be good overcame any temptations to use my illness against me. I always let them know how much I appreciated their efforts once my voice finally returned, and they assured me that they would save their shenanigans until it was a fair competition.

I find that all people, not just my students, trend toward kindness. This year when my annual bout of laryngitis came I was scheduled to have my driver’s license renewed. Upon my arrival the workers at the DPS were determined to be as surly as they are known to be until they realized that the squeak in my voice was real. Each person suddenly became incredibly helpful and even smiled at me. They actually seemed to enjoy having an opportunity to be nice. Instead of barking orders they treated me gently and even made suggestions as to how I might treat my illness.

On an evening when I was slated to help my grandsons review for a Pre Calculus test I stopped at a Starbuck’s to get some hot tea in the hopes that it might keep my voice going long enough to be of use to the study process. The barista was quite patient as I attempted to squeak out my order. The expression on his face told me that he was feeling my pain. When I was searching for the change I needed to pay my bill he anxiously waved away the few pennies that I was unable to locate and wished me godspeed and a quick recovery.

I suppose that my point is that each fall when my allergies wreak havoc on my system I am reminded that people are truly good. It’s always been that way and I am certain it always will be. It’s easy to focus on the ugliness in the world but it is the exception, not the rule. That’s why we notice it. What we often fail to see are the thousands of moments when we humans take care of one another without even being asked to do so. Being nudged to remember this each fall is just one more reason that I so love this time of year.

The Ticking Clock

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How can it already be September? Wasn’t it only yesterday that we were ringing in the New Year? When did tiny strands of grey appear in my hair. How did my knees come to ache when I walk too far? Wasn’t it only yesterday that I was able to run like a deer and see without the aide of spectacles? When did my long narrow waist become thick? From whence came the wrinkles and folds in my skin. Wasn’t I a young woman looking into the future with boundless dreams only a week or so ago? How does the same time that creeps in its petty pace suddenly race so quickly that I lose track of its passage?

I never thought of growing older. It seemed to be an aspect of life reserved for my elders. Somehow it rarely occurred to me that I might one day be respectfully called “mum” or “mother” as a sign of my advancing age. I look into the mirror and I see my twenty year old self, not the seventy year old woman who has lost two and a half inches of height and whose eyelids droop over her once big brown eyes. My brush accumulates more and more of my thinning hair and I have taken to wearing comfortable shoes rather than stylish pumps. The world and its future is being overtaken by younger women with ideas that sometimes seems as strange to me as mine appear to them. Yet somehow I find myself fighting to maintain my relevance, my purpose on this earth before I am called to one day leave.

My mother embraced her age as have so many women before me. I struggle to stay in the game, to be considered woke. Haven’t there been women my age running for President of the United States? Isn’t Ruth Bader Ginsburg still demonstrating an incredible acuity of mind? Who determines when someone should retire to a state of old age? Why should I simply sit back and watch the rising and setting of the sun without making efforts to squeeze every single second of meaning out of my existence? After all I come from a line of people who live for a very long time. If I make it as much time as two of my aunts I still have at least thirty more years to contribute to society. If I consider my grandfather I can tack on another eight years. People have entire careers in less time than I may still enjoy if I am true to my DNA.

The world is not the place it was. We are often able to keep our minds and our bodies vibrant far longer than once thought possible. Our appearances may change and we may move with less vigor, but our minds are as alive as ever. Coupled with the experiences that we have had we are in many ways the wise men and women of our time. We’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. We’ve endured triumphs and tribulations and learned from each of them. We understand that simple answers are rare, but there are solutions for even the seemingly most hopeless situations. We also understand that there comes a time when we must give the young the freedom that they need to learn how to be stewards of the world when it is time for them assume the leadership roles that we once held.

Hopefully the world that we leave behind will be somehow better for our having been here. I’d like to think that each of us will have a positive impact on some person or problem or advancement. Since there is still so much to be done, we should search for new ways of making a difference now that we are no longer part of the teeming race of workers who report to jobs each day. Ours may now be small almost imperceptible contributions that nonetheless are important. What we accomplish may be as simple as sending an encouraging word to a young person who is struggling to launch. Ours are now the quieter moments that touch individuals more often than creating a buzz in the crowd.

I am indeed older. I see loveliness in the hard work that shows on my hands. Unlike what people may think about someone of my age, I know that I am more open and forgiving than I once was for I have seen my own humanity and weaknesses. I have somehow overcome them with the grace and help of others. It has been in the kindnesses of even people that I did not know that I have been able to survive this long. Now I understand that it is up to me to continue to pay my blessings forward.

I do my best to spend a part of each day outside of myself. I have friends who are far more gifted in such ways than I am and they continually inspire me. I see them spending time at nursing homes and bringing smiles to people who are sick and lonely. I watch them unselfishly donating their talents to causes that make life better. I read their evangelical praises of God and know that they are living breathing angels of example. I am awed by them and do my best to emulate them in tiny ways. They are my peers who are not daunted by the passing of time and the aging of their bodies. They are good people who forget themselves and focus on others.

We live in a world that idolizes the young and the beautiful. That is perhaps as it should be, but those of us who are moving ever closer to the inevitability of closing the circle of life still have so much to offer. We need to spend each day with purpose and resolve. The truly beautiful are those who forget about their images in the mirror and instead devote precious time to benefitting the world just a bit more.

The Happy Place

The road

When summer days get so hot that hardly anyone is stirring outside I often think of the trips that we took to visit my grandparents in Arkansas when I was still a young child. Grandma and Grandpa fulfilled a long held dream by purchasing a little farm in a tiny town called Caddo Gap. My grandmother had spent time growing up not far from there and she still had siblings in the area. Her mother, father, grandmother were buried nearby on land that was once their homestead and is now part of a national forest.  She had fond memories of life in the country and while she never learned to read and write, her head was filled with knowledge of how of nature. She was a master gardener whose thumb was so green that it sparkled brighter than an emerald.

My grandfather spent his boyhood somewhere in a nameless place in view of the hills of Virginia. He too loved the quiet and serenity of being far away from the noise of the city, and so it should have been of little surprise to us that he and his best buddy, my grandmother, one day pulled up stakes from Houston and began an adventure that would bring them some of the happiest days of their lives.

My grandpa was a rambling man without roots or obligations until he met my grandmother when he was in his forties. He had been searching for something that he couldn’t find at the bottom of a bottle of booze or in the countless boarding houses where he lived while following opportunities to work. By his own admission he often felt abandoned. His mother had died when he was born and he was taken to live with his grandmother who passed when he was barely in his teens. The guardian that he chose to tend to his affairs died unexpectedly from typhus not long after Grandpa reached an age at which he became an independent adult. His life was untethered and dreary. Then one day he met a lovely woman, a widow who cooked in a boarding house in Oklahoma where my grandfather had landed while in search of a job. The rest would be one of the world’s great love stories as Grandpa fell head over heels for the tiny lady who would prove to be his savior.

They had two children together and continued to move from place to place until my grandfather grew old and retired from working. At first they settled in a house in the Houston Heights but the city was already growing faster than they wished. They longed for quiet and a rendezvous with nature. It surprised us all when they announced their plan to move away to begin a new kind of life when they were in their late seventies. With great anticipation they packed up all of their belongings and made the journey to their new home.

Theirs was a busy but idyllic life. They awoke before dawn each day to tend to the cow and the chickens. By the time the sun rose they had already completed hours of labor and they would continue their toil until late into the night. They grew a variety of crops using the knowledge that was stored in my grandmother’s head. They carefully tended each plant and when it was time to harvest and preserve their bounty they existed on only a few hours of sleep each night. Their cellar was filled with racks of canned corn, tomatoes, squash, green beans, pickles, peppers and other varieties of fruit and vegetables. Their huge freezer held fish that they had caught, deer meat for which  they had hunted, and even delicacies like squirrel that my grandmother turned into a delightful fricassee. They lived off of the land and became one with it. They were happier than they had ever been. 

We spent our summers visiting them and grew to love their way of life as much as they did. We always felt so much anticipation as we left from our home early in the morning and drove all day long to reach the road that carried us over the Caddo River and wound into the hills toward their house. The path was a narrow gravel affair that only allowed for one car at a time in some spots, so our parents had to honk the horn when they reached a blind spot to warn anyone coming from the other side that we were on our way. When we finally reached our destination we were always greeted by Grandma’s collie, Lady, who barked a greeting while wagging her tail. Soon enough my grandparents would emerge from their screened porch with smiles and open arms ready to hug us until we could hardly breathe.

Our days would be filled with milking the cow, gathering peaches from the big trees that shaded the driveway, exploring the hills behind the farm, visiting with neighbors, and learning new skills from both of the grandparents. Grandma showed us how to make biscuits and pasteurize milk. She demonstrated how to capture lightning bugs and put them in a jar so that they became a home made flashlight. She designed nets from old t-shirts with which we might capture a butterfly when the morning came. Always she cautioned us to free our captives when we were done.

Grandpa taught us how to milk a cow and catch a fish. He let us watch while he repaired things, explaining what he was doing as he worked. He proudly took us with him on his daily journeys into town where he introduced us to his friends and bought us sodas from huge chests filled with ice.

At night we sat on the screened porch and chatted about this and that. Grandpa always spoke of things he had read in The Saturday Evening Post or The Reader’s Digest and Grandma showed us how to embroider and crochet. We laughed and talked about a hundred different things. We had no electronic games or cell phones to distract us, so all of our attention was focused on the grandparents as was theirs on us. Once in a great while we might adjourn to the living room to watch a favorite television program but that was mostly rare.

We went to bed in a house without air conditioning. Instead it was cooled by the breezes that came through the open windows that were designed to keep the air moving with cross currents. It was still in the dark with only the sounds of animals breaking the silence. There might be a moo or a bark or the howl of some kind of wild cat. It was magical.

My grandparents lived on the farm for only about ten years. My grandmother began to lose her energy and realized that something was wrong. A local country doctor diagnosed her with cancer so she and Grandpa decided to move back to Houston for more advanced treatment. By the time they sold their place and found a new home in Texas her situation was dire. There was little more that the doctors could do than keep her comfortable until she died.

We would all remember those halcyon days in the country with the greatest of pleasure. Grandpa would get a dreamy look in his eyes whenever he spoke of them. We would think of them as the highpoint of our childhood, and even many decades later I can still see the road that led us to our happy place. It is as vivid as if I were there once again.