Learning by Doing

toddler climbing on wall
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The warm weather has been a bit long in coming this year which is just fine with me. I don’t want to live in northern climes where winter lingers until May. Nor do I wish to deal with snow and blizzards, but I do prefer cooler weather that allows me to dress in layers and wear cute boots. My figure is long past the showy stage. The less skin I expose, the better for multiple reasons not the least of which is my tendency to get skin cancers. Too much sun leaves freckles and brown splotches on my face, and my waistline is hardly bikini worthy. Fall and winter fashion serves me best. I can fool the world into thinking that I’m still slender. It’s amazing how many sins a nice long sweater can hide.

Nonetheless  I remember my childhood when I longed for the warmth of the sun, even though my family did not own an air conditioner. How we managed to survive the hot Houston summers with only  open windows and an attic fan is beyond me, but I don’t recall feeling unduly uncomfortable. I suppose that we humans adapt to whatever is customary, and back then summers meant wearing very little clothing and eschewing footwear in favor of bare feet. We’d found comfort under the shade of trees or through strategically created ventilation from open windows. Of course an invitation here and there from a friend whose home was mechanically cooled never went unanswered. Now I don’t think that I would make it through a summer without my thermostatically controlled coolness, and I certainly am no longer willing to reveal the true nature of my physical shape by wearing skimpy outfits.

I wonder what we would do if we were somehow forced to return to those days of ninety degree temperatures inside our homes. To hear some scientists’ claims it could very well happen again. We might once more have to learn how to deal with whatever Mother Nature sends our way. It will take a great deal of cleverness like we used back in the day. For now I’ll just be glad that the continuous state of sweat is but a distant memory, made pleasant by the selective nature of my mind.

I laugh when I think of how my generation grew up. In today’s world our mothers would be reported to CPS for doing things that were just natural back then. We rode in cars without any kind of seatbelts, sometimes even standing on the seats, riding in the front, and hitching rides in the back of pickup trucks like cargo. We had no kneepads or helmets for skating or riding bicycles which we often mounted in our bare feet. We stepped on nails and glass and as long as our tetanus shots were up to date our moms cleaned our wounds, splashed some mercurochrome on them and finished with a bandaid that fell off within minutes of our returning to the streets without benefit of shoes.

We played games in the middle of the road, and Red Rover was one of our favorite neighborhood competitions. We almost always sported scabs on our knees and cuts on our fingers. We’d cool down with water from the hose which also served as our drinking fountain. We roamed the area in little hoards finding adventure down by the bayou or in walks along the railroad tracks. We all knew the sting of hot asphalt on the soles of our feet or sticker burrs between our toes. We’d have make believe battles with the little berries on tallow trees, tossing those makeshift weapons like grenades. I don’t remember anyone losing an eye, but I  suspect that somewhere some poor kid may have been injured in that way.

We were as free as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and just as inclined to mischief. We’d scale mountains of sand meant to be spread on some neighbor’s yard. We’d climb roofs and stand on the peaks like intrepid adventurers who had successfully scaled some high peak. Nothing was out of the bounds of our imaginations and in the process we got tough and learned how to work as teams. We thought out of the box, inventing ways to have fun without many store bought tools.

Summers were great times when we were free as the birds in the sky, little noticing the stifling heat that hung over our childhood games. Now I get weak in the knees and short of wind if I attempt to be too energetic in the hottest times of the year. I’ve grown far too accustomed to the luxury of central air conditioning to submit myself to the tortures of the sun. In some ways it makes me sad to admit that I have lost my toughness. I was once like a young warrior ready for any challenge regardless of the weather. Now I am more like a hot house flower, as I suspect most of us, including many children, have become. So yes, the cooler times of year are now my favorite. That’s when I don’t mind taking a many miles long walk or working all day in my garden. To my utter delight of late there have been more days suited to my taste than usual.

I’m still admittedly proud of the way I grew up. I sometimes think that the “greatest generation” that raised me understood how to treat children far better than we do today. My friends and I have glorious memories of fun that don’t appear to be duplicated by many young folk today. Children have their play dates and formal classes which I suppose are fun, but I worry that they don’t have enough experience in which they make all of the decisions without adult supervision. There’s something quite wonderful about working things out by trial and error. It is a glorious way to gain all sorts of knowledge. The warm weather always reminds me of my outdoor classroom and all of the things that I learned by doing.

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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.   

The Lessons of Summer

kid s plating water on grass field during daytime
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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.

A Wedding, Two Funerals, and A Hurricane

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This summer has left me forever changed in ways more dramatic than I might ever have imagined. It began innocently enough with a visit to New Orleans with grandson Ian. He saw my favorite city with a new set of eyes that were innocent and inquisitive. It was the history of the place that fascinated him more than even the food and entertainment. He was particularly entranced with the World War II Museum which filled him with wonder and so many questions. I suppose that in many ways the day that we spent reliving the drama and importance of that era when was the beginning of a circle of life that left me profoundly different by the end of my journey through the warm lazy days that have heretofore represented fun and frolic to me, but would no longer be so simple to consider.

After our sojourn in New Orleans we travelled to Cancun for the wedding of two of our favorite friends, Tim and Dickie. We learned just how powerful love can be and that how it cannot be narrowly defined. We also went on a journey back in history to study the Mayan people and their glorious civilization that had been quite advanced in its time. It humbled us to learn of the ingenuity of mankind, but also to understand that the upheavals of life and how we humans react to them have the power to take down or raise up even nations.

We had scheduled so many more amazing travels for July and August when our world was shaken to its very foundation. My husband Mike had a stroke on July 3, and it was as though the earth itself had stood still. Nothing really mattered to me other than Mike’s health and I was thankful that he was still alive and that I would have more time to convey my feelings for him. I suppose that from that exact moment forward I quit taking anything for granted. I became more attuned to the colors and sounds and people all around me. I rejoiced each day when both Mike and I arose. I reveled in even the smallest bits of joy that came our way. Somehow I found myself caring little for things and greatly appreciative of relationships and love.

Mike and I shared a viewing of a partial eclipse of the sun rather than than the total one that we had planned to witness. I suppose that I should have been disappointed that we were not able to travel to Wyoming for the event, but having the pleasure of sitting with Mike in a park watching the little piece of wonder that we were given was more than ample for me. I felt that our day together was truly glorious just because we had the gift of being together. Whenever I thought of what might have been, I felt frightened but mostly grateful for my blessings. Each new day was glorious, but I had little idea that an even greater test of my endurance lay ahead.

As the summer drew to a close my two eldest grandsons readied to go off to college. We celebrated at our favorite Cuban restaurant, El Meson, in the Village area of Houston near Rice University and the Medical Center. It was a beautiful night in which we enjoyed knowing what fine young men our Andrew and Jack had become. It was yet another reason to be thankful and our hearts were filled with joy.

Later we had the privilege of having our twin grandsons Ben and Eli at our home while their parents helped their older brother to check into his dorm at Texas A&M. I was charged with helping the two boys to complete a project for their English class and we worked quite hard for an entire Saturday. I woke them up early on Sunday so that we might finish and still have time for some fun before their parents returned. Just as I had hoped we found ourselves with enough free hours that we were able to go bowling at the Main Event. Later that evening we played a rousing game of Scrabble with no holds barred, and Eli literally blew us all away with a remarkable score. We laughed and felt so good that I once again found myself silently saying prayers of thanks for such precious moments.

Then came the threat of hurricane Harvey. It seemed that because the eye of the storm would be so far away we would be in little danger. There were predictions of massive rainfall but somehow that didn’t seem to be much of a problem, and so we decided to stay in our home. On the first day after the hurricane made landfall we spoke of the hysteria of the forecasters because their promises of floods appeared to have been premature. We were much more saddened by images of the devastation in Rockport, Texas, one of our all time favorite camping spots. It was not until the evening that the rains began and kept going and going and going for three solid days leaving forty three inches in our neighborhood alone.

We began to hear dire reports of friends and family members whose homes were taking on water. The television stations showed us live pictures of familiar places that looked like ocean front property. More and more people that we knew were evacuating, sometimes in the middle of the night. Suddenly I became fearful because it was apparent that if my husband had another stroke there would be little that we might do to get the help that he would need. Those three days became a kind of terror for me. I watched the rain and the street in front and the yard in the back, ever vigilant and unable to sleep lest I might need to get Mike to a medical facility. I cared not about any of the things in my home, but only about my husband and his safety. I realized that I was going to do whatever it took to get him through.

When the rain finally stopped and moved away from our city after dumping fifty one inches across a one hundred mile wide area I was emotionally drained and filled with conflicting emotions. I cried for all of the souls whose worlds had been turned upside down. I sobbed for those who had lost their lives and their homes. I felt lucky that Mike had made it through the days and nights in good condition. I laughed that we had stayed home from camping trips and the eclipse lest he be in a situation in which he might not be able to receive immediate medical care, and ironically for three days we had essentially been trapped on a kind of island with so much happening all around us that we were actually quite alone. I had to praise God for caring for us and for giving me the strength and the calm that I had needed to weather the storm.

Last week our city began to attempt a return to normalcy in earnest. Children returned to school. Adults went back to work. There were actually days that felt so much like the glorious beginning of fall that has always made Houston a kind of Chamber of Commerce postcard. Only rides around town reminded us of the horror of what had happened. Still we had to be happy that we were able to meet with great friends for a brunch on Sunday. We were grateful that we got to visit Mike’s father on Monday and see that he was doing well. Then our week was punctuated with the sorrow and celebration of the lives of two incredible women who had died. I think that perhaps more than any other event their funerals impacted me with a realization of what is truly most important as we live out our days.

Both of these beautiful souls had lived through those harrowing events of World War II that we had studied in New Orleans with Ian. One of them had resided in England. She met her soulmate during that conflict, an American GI. The two of them fell in love and he took her back to his home in Texas where they had seven children that they raised in a home filled with love and goodness and faith in God. The other woman had been born in Italy but eventually immigrated to New Orleans where she too met the love of her life. They also wound up in Houston in the same neighborhood where I grew up. They had four children who would become dear friends of mine. Both women were devoted to their families and required very little in the way of possessions or wealth to be happy. They sacrificed for family and felt honored to do so. In the end they were in turn loved and adored by their children and their friends.

When I attended the two funerals I was accompanied by people that I had known since I was quite young. We had each accumulated a lifetime of stories and memories, but somehow we knew that those women had demonstrated to us how to truly get the most out of life. I felt a sense of peace and a feeling of understanding that has all too often eluded me as I have fought to accomplish rather than to relate. I saw that these women had always realized that titles and bank accounts and possessions were not the things that define a life well lived, but rather the moments when we touch hearts. Somehow I understood that in spite of the topsy turvy nature of this summer, it had been magnificent because it had opened my eyes to how I need to embrace each moment that I have. Somehow I am all the better for what I have learned from that wedding, the hurricane and those two funerals.

What Did You Do This Summer?

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“What did you did this summer?” It’s a question that will no doubt be repeated many times in the coming weeks as schools open and students return to classrooms once again. I’ve answered that query countless times, but only once has my answer held as much transformative impact as it does for this particular summer.

The last time that I felt as changed by events was when I entered the fourth grade after my father died. I wasn’t doing very well then. I was still quite afraid of what the future might hold for my family.. Everything was so uncertain and my faith that all would eventually get better was severely shaken. Our family would prove to be up to the task of moving forward with only one parent, and I would learn how truly strong we actually were, but it would take a great deal of time for me to realize that. This year’s ringing of the school bells marks another moment when I have been severely tested, but this time I have enough confidence and wisdom from experience to understand not only that I will be alright, but also that I have found a newfound contentment that comes from the certainty of knowing what is most important.

I am the first to admit that I am a planner and control freak. I’ve already placed appointments on my calendar for December. I like to have routines and keep things flowing smoothly. Deciding how I was going to spend my summer was no exception. I wanted to take my grandson to New Orleans in June because he had never been there. Our trip was indeed quite successful, but it was only the beginning of all the wondrous things that I was prepared to do, including experiencing a grand adventure traveling to Cancun and attending the wedding of a very dear friend. That particular journey was so incredibly exciting and made even better by the pleasant emotions that I shared with others who attended the ceremony who also happen to be quite important to me. I returned from my trip filled with joy and so many stories. After such a remarkable excursion I might have been content to spend the rest of my summer at home, but I had planned for so much more to come.

After spending the Fourth of July holiday with all of my children and grandchildren I was slated to relax for a week in a lovely Texas state park with friends Monica and Franz. Then I was traveling to Colorado to meet up with my brother and his family so that we might drive together to Wyoming to observe the total eclipse of the sun. I already had purchased the special glasses that I would need for the viewing, and I was beyond excited about that once in a lifetime event. I had no idea just how radically everything that I had scheduled would change, but it all did.

On July 3, my husband had a stroke as many of you who regularly read my blog already know. The thing is that as soon as I saw him lying on the floor unable to get up, with his mouth and eye drooping, nothing else mattered to me but the fact that he was still alive. If I had been required to give up every single material item that I own to keep him with me, I would surely have agreed to do so. As it was his symptoms disappeared within minutes and he is doing well these days even though he is not yet out of the woods. We’ve been mostly tied down to the house and our days have been rather quiet and uneventful. Because there is an increased chance that he will have another stroke within the first ninety days after the one that occurred in July we have cancelled all of our out of town plans, and it doesn’t bother me at all.

What I did this summer is change. I don’t want anything other than to enjoy the moment that I happen to be experiencing. I am finding happiness in the most ordinary activities, and I am so filled with love that my heart is fairly bursting. I have had the time to take stock of my blessings and they are many. I feel like a newlywed with my husband. After almost forty nine years of marriage I admit that I had been taking him for granted, but now I treasure every second that we are together. I like to hear the sound of his voice, and things that sometimes irritated me before now seem quite adorable.

I have also learned to appreciate the challenges and struggles that my friends endure. I find myself thinking about the shut-ins and the widows, those fighting illnesses and those who are afraid and uncertain. I am no longer as ignorant of their feelings, nor as cavalier about how brave they are. I have a new found respect for those who are wounded are marginalized. I have realized in a very spiritual way that nothing on the face of this earth is ever more important that its people.

I have enjoyed my interactions with friends and family as never before, and in the process I have remembered and appreciated those who helped me to become who I am today. I have had many thoughts of my departed mother and mother-in-law, and my only regret is that I never truly thanked them enough for the love that they showered on me. Now I understand how important it is to let people know exactly how much I care about them, not tomorrow but today.

I am like a whole new person, and it feels so very good to be me. I have found a contentment that is peaceful and fulfilling. I know that God is with me and that I have never been alone nor ever will be. I may be tested again, and my worst fears may come to pass, but I will be okay. This is what I learned this summer, and what a glorious time I have had reaching this destination!