A Month of Madness

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As I took my plants back outside after a couple of days of freezing weather I thought of how cyclical life is. I’ve been through seventy one winters now and watched the seasons change in quirky ways, but always somewhat predictably. Life is a series of repetitions during which we grow just a bit older and hopefully a bit wiser. We learn about the way of things and understand that while it’s unusual, it is possible to have a freeze in March in the south. We go with the flow and the routine even as big changes may occur to make things so very different. We understand that we can count on the calendar moving at its”petty pace” but surprises both good and bad may come our way at any moment. The traditions to which we often cling are ways of keeping us anchored even as storms roar around us.

March brings us the Houston Rodeo and Mardi Gras and Lent and the madness of basketball. In this month we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day even if we don’t have an Irish bone in our bodies. We decorate our homes with colorful beads and then replace them with shamrocks and finally bunnies. We take a break from work and school with an eye toward warmer days and fun in the sun, hoping that our plans to visit a beach aren’t spoiled with rain and cold temperatures. We seek a sense of control and continuity with our rituals. They create cohesion and memories that sustain us, but they can also be a source of sorrow when things spiral out of our control as often happens.

I remember a year when my friend Pat secured a beach house for all of us to use during spring break. Our children were teenagers who were not yet driving and doing things on their own although they may have been dying to do so. We happily packed enough food and clothing for what should have been a fun adventure, but things began to fall apart almost immediately beginning with the fact that we had to wear coats because it was so chilly. Nonetheless, by the time we had reached the rented house we had outlined a Plan B that did not include swimming in the still frigid ocean, but would still be filled with tons of fun. We were bound and determined to make the best of our situation.

As soon as we opened the door of the vacation home we somehow knew that even our alternate ideas were doomed. The place reeked of deceased rodents and there was no way that we were going to be able to stay inside. At that point our anger and disappointment reached its limit. We had no choice but to complain to the owner of the place and then return home. After shedding a few tears of frustration we were on our way back to where we had started with only a few lame ideas about how to have a fun time in spite of the frustrating developments.

I don’t remember what we actually did after that. I do know that we eventually found ourselves laughing in a kind of hysteria about how awry things had gone. At the time our misadventure had seemed so significant and horrific but as the seasons came and went and our children grew into independent adults the story of that spring break became more of a treasured memory of our continuing friendship than a terrible experience. Today my friend Pat is gone and I know in my heart that I would even stay in a stinky rat invested house if it meant that we might have a bit more time together. Such is life.

After someone dear to us dies the first few cycles of the the year are exceedingly difficult to endure. Each occasion reminds us of how much we miss them. Over time our wounds heal, toughen up, and turn into scars. We once again find joy in our traditions and the memories of those who once shared them with us. We realize how lucky we were to have them and the pain becomes bearable. Just as the dormant trees bud forth each spring, so too do we find ways to carry on even after we have felt as though we too have died inside.

I love this time of year. It is one of those grandly transitional months when we humans find ways to muddle through the last gasps of winter with the promise of spring just over the horizon. We gather together to celebrate all that has gone before and all that is yet to come. Our hats, parades, ashes, decorations, foods, and gatherings are inventions of the human spirit, attempts to maintain our optimism even when everything around us feels so wrong. How wonderful it is!

March is a hopeful month even as we witness destruction from the last gasps of wintery weather. It’s a month when we never quite know how things will turn out, but we plan them anyway. We may go to the Houston Rodeo in heavy coats with rain falling on our heads, but once we are inside the arena all of our worries seem to evaporate. March is ever a new beginning, a time to set the problems of the past aside and hope that better days are ahead. It’s also a time to prepare ourselves for whatever challenges may come our way by thinking outside of our own worries and needs. I’m now old enough and experienced enough to know that it’s often a month of madness that always seems to end with a feeling of peace.

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A Springtime Ritual

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Winter has returned again after several days that made those of us in Houston feel as though spring had come early. I took advantage of the warmer days by working in my yard and beginning the clean up process that ushers in the best growing season of the year. It felt so good to work out every muscle in my body lifting and bending and filling bags with the refuse of pruned roses and weeded flower beds. I felt so alive and robust and in harmony with nature. As is usual, however, the cooler temperatures and rains came back to chase me indoors just as February always does. Mother Nature may still have some winter blasts up her sleeve before we get those lovely months when our gardens burst forth in all of their glory.

Until the next lovely day I suppose I’ll begin the process of reorganizing my space indoors. So many folks are giving Marie Kondo credit for showing us how to simplify our lives, but my mother taught me the same techniques back when I was still a child. She had a college degree and worked for a time as a teacher, but she always seemed most proud of her home economics skills. She often quoted the high school teachers who had taught her how to cook, sew, and clean. She had an uncanny knowledge of nutrition and often told us about the value of each of the foods that we ate. Whenever spring was on the horizon she organized me and my brothers for a cleansing assault on our house that she somehow managed to turn into a fun activity.

She’d assign tasks to each of us, turn on some rousing music, and then give us pointers on how to achieve the best results. No nook or cranny was left untouched as we washed down all of the walls from the floor to the ceiling, and cleaned the venetian blinds by hanging them from the clothesline and blasting them with the hose. We polished furniture, and waxed the floors. We scrubbed the grout in the tile with cleanser and a toothbrush. We emptied every cabinet and pantry, getting rid of items that were outdated or never used and cleaning the walls and the crevices. By the end of a week or two every single part of our home gleamed as though the place was brand new.

To this day I get a kick out of spring cleaning. Life is unpredictable in so many ways, but deep cleaning is something over which I have total control. It has a way of redirecting my worries and anxieties into something quite practical. Removing the grime and reducing the overstock of things, has the power of making me feel accomplished and more in tune with my universe. I know that there are other grander purposes in life, but sometimes the simple act of taking care of what I already have is a freeing experience.

There is so much waste in our world today. I see people who literally move because they feel that their homes have become too crowded or outdated. They begin anew rather than attempting to first redo and repair what they already have. I learned from my mother how to repurpose everything from food to clothing. She’d take old t-shirts and turn them into rags for cleaning or dusting. She used leftovers to create grand new dishes. There was little for which she did not find some use, and she knew how to organize and recycle with the best of the those who do such things.

As my mother grew older her energy waned. There came a time when she no longer engaged in her springtime tradition of making things gleam. Her home became dusty and broken. We’d try to help her get it back in order again, but she had let so many things go that the task was exceedingly difficult. Even then, however, we got that same feeling of accomplishment whenever we managed to restore her house to a semblance of order.

I’ll be starting on my own springtime ritual very soon. We put things in perfect order last year when we had to virtually start over after our hot water heater damaged so many areas. In the rush of vacations and holidays we’ve accumulated a few messy areas again that scream for our attention. Improving them one day at a time will be a fun way to pass the hours until the long warm days pull us outdoors again. We will no doubt fill bags with trash as well as offerings for Goodwill. We’ll set our home in order, and feel a bit more healthy mentally as well. It’s nice to know where everything is rather than having to hold scavenger hunts just to find particular items.

There are some things with which I still refuse to part. I love my books and have many that date all the way back to my childhood. I fondly read or use them again and again. I have my high school grammar books, and many a time I have referred to them when my grandchildren have questions about usage or punctuation. I reread classics like To Kill A Mockingbird and find new joy and meaning in the words.

I also have keepsakes from family and friends that have deep meaning for me. I have no desire to exchange them for trendier artifacts. The old things bring me joy. There’s a painting over my sofa that hung in my mother’s house. I can’t remember a time when she did not have it. She often spoke of how she and my father chose it together. I have built an entire room around it’s colors and essence. I gaze at it each day when I write my blogs and somehow derive inspiration from the very sight of it.

In the same room is a vase that once belonged to my great grandmother. My grandmother Minnie Bell gave it to me long before I truly appreciated it. Now it is one of my prize possessions. I would no doubt rush to grab it before leaving a burning house. I think of how it must have graced some table or dresser in my great grandmother’s humble home. I think of my own grandmother presenting it to me with so much grandeur regarding its importance. It is a link to my history.

So on these rainy days I’ll commence the spring cleaning and renew that age old feeling that I have enjoyed for seven decades. Whether its Marie Kondoing or just following my mother’s lead I know that it will bring me a sense of peace.

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.

A Fevered Illness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magical

downloadI’ve been retired from a four decades career in education for almost six years and I still can’t seem to avoid following the academic calendar. Perhaps it’s because a school bus stops in front of my home each morning to pick up the neighborhood children and I am daily reminded that the process of educating our youth has endures with or without me. Maybe it’s because I still tutor students twice a week at two different schools and in the evenings. I suspect that it’s mostly because I followed the August to June routine for so long that it has become embedded in the heart and soul of who I am. So it is that I continue to immerse myself in spring break rituals each year even though that special week for students and teachers shouldn’t make much difference to me now that I am free to do whatever I wish whenever I wish.

I made no plans for the annual March respite this year and yet the serendipity of my activities made it one of the most memorable and relaxing weeks that I have experienced in all of my years of partaking of the annual spring fling. It began with an evening track meet in which grandson Eli broke the district record for the 1600 meter run. Watching him plying his craft is akin to viewing a gazelle. His form is a breathtaking sight of beauty. Even better is his determination to continually compete with himself to be his personal best. I am in awe of him and watching him on that night was magical just as the rest of my spring break adventure would prove to be.

Husband Mike and I traveled to bluebonnet country the following day, enjoying the lovely blue carpets of the state flower that are so glorious each spring. We had bonafide Texas barbecue and sampled fruit kolaches that warmed the Slovakian half of my heart. We walked among the rows and rows of flowers at the Rose Emporium and brought home two more gorgeous bushes to join the collection that we already have. It was one of those absolutely perfect days that reminded me just how much I truly love the people and the sights of the place I call home.

The weather took one of those unexpected dips in temperature a day or so later just as it always seems to do this time of year. It was a perfect moment for making paprika stew for my grandson Andrew who had arrived for a sojourn from his studies at Purdue University. We had one of those old fashioned Sunday night dinners with him and his family. We caught up on all of his news and lingered at the dining table with stories and lots of laughs, ending our meal with pies that we had purchased at a bakery in a small town known for its sausages, baked goods and ice cream. It felt good to fill the house with our children and grandchildren. It had been quite some time since they had been able to steal a few hours from their busy school time schedules. Not wanting to end the joyful feeling of the evening we all agreed meet up again the following day for a musical light show at the Burke Baker Planetarium followed by dinner in Rice Village.

Just when it appeared that I would return to a somewhat uneventful week my granddaughter Abby who lives in San Antonio called me to request my presence at her home for the next few days. Mike had things to do, like taxes (ugh), so I hit the open road on my own. The drive has become second nature to me since my daughter moved there a little over ten years ago. I break down the distance into discrete parts that tell me that I am moving ever closer to the other half of my ever growing family. The weather was spectacular much as it generally is in March. The bluebonnets were even more profuse than they had been only days before and now they had been joined by the red Indian paintbrushes that shouted out, “This is Texas at its very best!”

My daughter is about to move to a new home so she was busy sorting and packing belongings while I was there. She reluctantly took a small slice of time to join us for gourmet burgers and milkshakes at Hopdoddy as well as a round of bowling at a rather unique emporium. Afterward we played board games and watched old Star Wars movies until late into the night. It felt so much like the kind of activities that we used to enjoy back when we my daughters were just girls and we spent our spring break time chilling out and enjoying life in slow motion.

While my daughter returned to her duties the children and I continued our adventures with a visit to a small hill country town called Boerne where we found treasures in the many different antique shops, including a slightly damaged kachina doll that grandson William named Footless Fred. We laughed with delight as we scored a tiny house fit for the gnome garden that the kids are designing, an old Stars Wars book, a poncho, and a set of quilted placemats. We ended our day with a side trip to Guadelupe River State Park where we skipped rocks and told one silly joke after another.

It was with a certain level of reluctance that I headed back home toward the end of the week, but the kids had things to do that they had been putting off while I was in there. I too needed to get back to reality, but not until I enjoyed what may well have been the most magical day of my spring break.

Mike and I began the final Saturday of my mini vacation by meeting Andrew once again for a farewell lunch. He looked so happy, rested and ready to tackle the next six weeks at Purdue. Like me had had been energized by the people and places that he most loves. He had an optimistic and determined twinkle in his eyes and I felt quite comfortable sending him off to joust with his challenging  engineering and mathematics classes. He will be halfway through his collegiate journey by May. He sees the light at the end of the tunnel and it is a beautiful experience to listen to him voice very adult and wise pronouncements about the future and life in general.

From our sojourn with Andrew we traveled to the home of one of my former students, a young man named Bieu. We have known each other for well over twenty years now and he faithfully maintains a constant connection with me just as he promised he would when he was just a boy in my math class. On this day he was hosting a crawfish boil, another March tradition in the Houston area. He had great pots of the lobster like creatures turning a bright delicious red as the water bubbled around them. He cooked potatoes and corn as friends and family enjoyed the cool afternoon in his backyard.

I continue to marvel at what a fine person Bieu has become. I am as proud of him as if he had been my own son. I laugh that he was the one who most closely followed in my father’s footsteps by earning a degree in mechanical engineering from Texas A&M University. I feel quite certain that my dad would have loved Bieu and his family as much as I do had he been around to meet them.

I ended my glorious week that evening at the seventieth birthday party of Josefina Carrillo. She once worked for Mike at a bank in southeast Houston and he insists that she was his best employee ever. I also had the privilege of teaching her daughter Josie at South Houston Intermediate. Because southeast Houston has always been a small and very friendly kind of world the connections to Josefina go even deeper. Her son married the sister of one of my daughter’s best friends from our old neighborhood, so it was like old home week at the gala.

We feasted on fajitas and sipped on margaritas while a mariachi band played “otra mas” tune after another. There was dancing and enough smiles to light up a city. We learned that many of the people who had come to honor Josefina had lived in our old neighborhood and been involved in the same circles that had defined our lives for years. The kinship centered on the birthday girl bonded us all together and we had an incredibly lovely time remembering how many joys and blessings we had all experienced.

As I think back on my week of simple pleasures I realize how lucky I have always been. I not only have happy, healthy children and grandchildren but a host of friends who have brought sunshine into my life over and over again. I thought of how so much of my good fortune came to be because of the time that I have spent in what must surely be the most inviting city anywhere, Houston and its surrounding areas. Where else would I eat New York style pizza, crawfish and Tex Mex all in one day? Where else would I be so welcomed by Vietnamese and Hispanic families within the space of only a few hours. Where else would the people be so hospitable? Where else would I have enjoyed such a magical spring break? Where else would I rather be?