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.

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The World Is Thirsting

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Things were slower, less complicated when I was a child. The noises that I heard came mostly from the hum of daily living that wafted through the open windows of my home. There was a kind of routine on my street that rarely varied, even in the summertime when school was out for three full months. The world became relaxed in June, July and August, filled with precious time that I was able to use however I wished.

The cooler mornings always lead me outside to see if anyone else had ideas for new adventures, but by noon the heat often became too much for us to bear and so we retreated back inside our houses where we were sheltered from the burning rays of the sun, if not the humidity and heat. Most homes on my street had massive attic fans that pulled hot air in through the windows, creating a kind of artificial breeze that made our climate only slightly more bearable. Afternoons were a good time for quiet play and so we engaged in marathon card games or set up never ending boardgames like Monopoly.

Without a doubt reading was my favorite pastime when summer rolled around. I positioned myself on my bed in front of an open window and forgot all about the temperature or any of my worries as I escaped into worlds brought vividly to life with words that painted pictures in my mind. It mattered little what volume lay before me. I was willing to explore new authors, new genres. The excitement was in expanding my universe from the confines of my little house, my street, my neighborhood. Through those books I traveled all around the world and learned of people and cultures. I considered new ideas and felt as adventurous as if I had actually embarked on a junket to the far corners of the universe.

I guiltlessly indulged in the stories that expanded my horizons and taught me the beauty of language. Each summer I was mesmerized by the written word and its power to transport and transform me. I read voraciously like a starved soul, and mentally catalogued my favorite authors and titles. I little understood at the time how much more complicated my life and the world would eventually become, but as the years went by and I entered my adulthood, the luxury of spending hours reading for three months out of the year would become little more than a memory. My time became ever more filled with obligations that absconded with the minutes and hours. I found myself rushing from one thing to do to another. I was lucky to find a few minutes here and there to stoke my passion for reading. I had to steal moments from my always filled calendar, and somehow my favorite thing to do became that last thing that I would do, often reading long after everyone else in the house had gone to sleep. In the quiet of the night I escaped from my own complex world to those of others.

The list of books that I have read speaks to the change in my habits. I have enjoyed most of the classics but I am sadly unfamiliar with so many of the modern authors. I simply haven’t found as much time to discover them and yet so often when I do I am enthralled. I suspect that there is a whole new world of wonder just waiting for me if only I can talk myself into slowing down. I raced through my days for so long that even in retirement I don’t seem able or willing to return to the delightfully slow pace of my childhood. I have bought into the idea that I must somehow justify the merit of each day by ticking off my accomplishments. I am still trying to justify spending three or four hours reading everyday when so many other things need to be done.

Perhaps I must teach myself once again to be more like a child, open to letting each day unfold without plans or expectations. I need to release the stresses and guilts that we adults so often carry like baggage. I must accept that giving time to myself is as important as giving to others. I try to remember that it was in the innocence of childhood that I learned so much that made me who I am today, and those hours reading were invaluable in my development.

I’ve heard that people do not read as much today as they once did. Libraries don’t see as much traffic. Bookstores sell fewer volumes. Newspapers are struggling to sell subscriptions. I know folks who blithely admit that they haven’t read a book in years. We spend time that might be better used reading in the pursuit of other activities  like playing computer games or posting on Facebook or tweeting our thoughts. We feel as though we know more about what is happening in the world, but we rarely bother to read up on the facts behind the headlines. Our knowledge is often limited to the soundbites that we accept from our favorite politicians or celebrities. We believe without going into depth on any topic, learning the history and all of the background. We rush around and rely on others to keep us informed. We have incomplete pictures of the world because even with all of the global communication at our fingertips we still operate in tiny bubbles that rarely give us the big picture. We readily believe whatever lines up with our own thinking rather than challenging ourselves by seeking to delve more deeply 

Reading challenged me when I was in my formative years. It taught me about the history of mankind and the variety of personalities that comprise the human race. I learned to think and to see the difference between a fact and an opinion. Those hours spent feeding my mind that seemed so lazy and even a bit selfish were actually some of the most important moments of my life. There is little that I might have done that would have been more valuable and truly I suspect that it is more important than ever for me and the rest of the world to set aside time to learn lessons from the past and ways to move toward the future.

In spite of the nonstop flurry of headlines and commentaries our world is thirsting for knowledge and information. We are falling victim to propagandizing that is everywhere. Reading is the antidote for our malaise. Just as with exercise, the more we read the better our minds will be, particularly when we don’t limit ourselves to one point of view. I’m ready to begin a journey into the world of books once again. I have a fine list of suggested titles from a friend. I can’t wait to start reading.   

Happy Birthday!

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My mother loved birthdays with the enthusiasm of a child. She was the youngest in a family of eight, growing up during the Great Depression. There wasn’t enough extra income for gifts or even special meals or desserts, so she and her siblings always received a nickel from their father on the occasion of becoming one year older. Mama always said that she like to take her new found wealth to a bakery nearby where she was able to purchase a big bag of broken cookie pieces that she swore were just as good as the ones that remained intact. As the years passed by she and her brothers and sisters would faithfully send a birthday card to one another that always contained a nickel taped inside. I sometimes sensed that she enjoyed that tradition even more than the more expensive gifts that she received.

Today would have been Mama’s ninety second birthday. She often bragged that she and Queen Elizabeth were born in the same year, and somehow that fact made her feel a kind of kinship with the monarch of England. She noted that they shared a kind of resemblance as well, along with the fact of having their first born children in the same year as well. My mother always alerted us to the Queen’s birthday as a kind of hint that hers was on the way.

She was a stickler for celebrating her natal day at the time of its actual place on the calendar. She didn’t like the idea of waiting until the weekend, so even if we planned a party for her when everyone would be able to attend, my brothers and I still had to make a big deal on the correct date. I suppose that’s why I still think about her on June 27, even though it has now been seven years since she died. I think it would please her to know that we have not forgotten how special this day always was for her. In fact, we decided after she was gone that we would gather at her favorite restaurant each year to raise a toast in her honor. As it happens the place we chose is the Cracker Barrel in League City where she spent many a happy time enjoying the homey atmosphere and the kind of cooking that she might have prepared herself.

In an effort to look after our mother while she was still alive my brothers and I agreed to visit her at least once a week on different days. She usually wanted to go out to eat when we arrived, and sometimes she was even waiting eagerly on a bench that stood on her front porch whenever we drove up. That’s how excited she was about getting out of the house, but that was not the case on her birthday. On that day she wanted all of us to come to see her at one time so that it was like a party. She put me in charge of providing the cake, ice cream and candles. She preferred German chocolate or devils food cake, but she was always okay with a change of flavor. God forbid, however, that I would forget to bring the ice cream or the candles. Those things had to be done just right.

She was exceptional at providing us with festive birthdays even when her income was sorely stretched. She made a habit of shopping all year long and setting aside things that she had found on sale. Her gifts were always quite practical and long lasting, but most of all thoughtful. She was sure to come knocking at the door bearing all of the trappings of a big to do, even as we grew older. I never knew how she managed to be so generous, but I always understood that for her a birthday was supposed to be special no matter the circumstances.

When Mama turned eighty we decide to give her a surprise party. We had little idea at the time that she would die less than five years later. We only knew that we wanted to make her day bigger and better than ever. We sent out invitations to everyone in her stable of friends and family, and they all came. My home was crowded with people who loved her and were excited by the idea of letting her know how they felt about her. They had written letters to her that we placed in an album. We huddled anxiously as she walked up to the door and shouted with delight upon her entrance. She cried tears of unmitigated joy and bore the expression of a delighted child as she opened each gift and read each card.

We all miss my mom. She was the heart of the family and a continual source of fun and laughter. She suffered more than most with the loss of her husband at the age of thirty. Her loneliness, lack of income, and mental illness pushed hard to defeat her spirit, but she battled long and courageously to avoid defeat. Somehow no matter what else was happening in her life, she always rallied on her birthday. It was as though that occasion gave her new energy, new joy, a new beginning again and again.

We’ll be going to Cracker Barrel tonight. Not everyone comes each year, but I do my best to keep my calendar clear so that I will be able to make it. I know that the eldest of her grandchildren will be there along with some of their own kids. The people at Cracker Barrel seem to get a bit flustered when we arrive with such a large group. They don’t seem to understand the importance of the occasion, but we believe that Mama is smiling down on us from heaven. The party is for her after all and we intend to celebrate just the way she would want us to do.

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.

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.