An Open and Loving Heart

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I have to admit that I am one of those people who is sometimes uncomfortable with my appearance. I’ve had hair dressers and acquaintances make negative comments about my tresses, noting how difficult it is to do anything with them because they are so baby fine. When I complained about having bangs it was noted that my forehead is too high to sweep my locks back away from my face. I’ve been asked if I’ve had a stroke because one of my eyelids is drooping noticeably. I never had much of a chin, and I try to forget that facial flaw until someone asks if I’ve ever thought of surgery. I don’t think that anyone intends to be mean by making such comments. They are probably just passing suggestions meant to give me ideas for self improvement, but sadly they only tend to remind me of my imperfections.

I’m old enough now to just let such comments go, but like any other woman I’d love to be viewed as someone who is physically beautiful. Instead I concentrate of making my heart a lovely place for people find solace. I smile and live with myself just as I am. At this point in time I understand all too well that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the pursuit of vain glorious attractiveness is worth far less than concentrating on the really important aspects of life.

Our society doesn’t help much with its barrage of so called icons of feminine pulchritude. We are continually reminded of what is thought to be pretty and what is not. Hair and makeup are billion dollar industries, and with all of that emphasis on appearance women often feel as though they are judged not just on their character and talents, but also on their physical presentation.

Social media with its constant flow of photographs and selfies makes beauty seem to be even more important than it ever was. With filters and editing so many ladies and young girls are now removing wrinkles and flaws in attempts to perfect themselves. Now there is a real psychological thing called Snapchat dysmorphia. It is an overwhelming desire to look exactly like the perfected images that appear on the pages of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. In fact, psychologists are learning that many females are often fearful of appearing in person lest their friends learn that they are less beautiful than the photos that they have created of themselves. Some are even going as far as visiting plastic surgeons hoping to make the altered versions of themselves become reality.

I’m not against a bit of self improvement. I enjoy perusing the aisles of Ulta as much as anyone. I apply night creams and moisturizers to my face, and correct my dark circles as much as possible. I like to brighten my face with cosmetics, and I get my hair trimmed once a month and highlighted twice a year. I find nothing more relaxing than enjoying a good pedicure. Still, I worry that we are unintentionally adding just one more stress to women’s plates by not so subtly implying that physical beauty is an important aspect of success.

When I was growing up I was typically gangly. I was probably in the eighth grade before I even thought about attempting to make myself more presentable. That’s when I suddenly became aware of the real beauties around me. In fact, my one and only female cousin was one of those people with golden locks that swirled naturally around her lovely face. As the two of us grew into our teenage years she became known among members of the extended family as the pretty one while I was the smart one. Little did I know that while I was longing to be thought of as attractive at least once, she was stewing over the idea that she was not considered to be as bright as I was. No such delineations were ever directed at the males in the family. They were simply whoever they wished to be. While I don’t believe that my family or most people set out to deliberately make young girls and women feel uncomfortable about themselves, we still have a way of sending hidden messages and hurtful comments without intending to do so.

I’m not certain that there is a clear answer to this conundrum other than insisting to our little girls that beauty is a total package that includes character and talents, not just an image. A truly exceptional and caring person becomes attractive in our eyes without makeup or coiffure.

We all know of people who are lovely by dent of personality rather than superficiality. In particular I recall a student that I once taught who had been badly burned over most of her body. Her face was horribly scarred to the point that people often looked away when she passed before them. Over the course of a school year I learned just how remarkable she was, and over time she became transformed in my mind to a one of the most gorgeous people I have ever known.

If I had one bit of advice for young women it would be to just smile and look beyond themselves. The most beautiful woman in the room is always the one who is more concerned with others than with herself. It doesn’t take plastic surgery or filters to be attractive. It only requires an open and loving heart.

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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 Wedding of a Die Hard Democrat and a Die Hard Republican

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One of my cousins recently posted a commentary about his parents that made me smile. He remarked that one of his folks was a die hard Democrat and the other was a die hard Republican. They used to joke that when they went to vote they canceled each other out. Mostly though they were good people who taught their son to be tolerant and to love his country. He served proudly in the military and learned how to be a  good person in his own right by following their example. He wonders, however, what has changed to cause so much derision, division and incivility today. He wants to know why it is increasingly difficult for people with differing philosophies to get along.

His post got me to thinking about my own parents. In all honesty I don’t really know what political persuasions they had. I only recall my father arguing about a political topic on one occasion and that was with his father. Since I was only privy to the noise of their voices rather than the actual debate I will never really know who advocated what position. It was not any easier to discern what my mother’s thinking might have been. She was an enigma when it came to voting and such. She often told me that she considered Franklin D. Roosevelt to be the greatest of all the American presidents, insisting that he had saved the nation in more ways than one. She broke into tears when remembering how she had once seen him when he visited Houston. She always spoke glowingly of Harry Truman and John Kennedy as well, but on the other hand, she felt almost as much allegiance to Ronald Reagan as to Roosevelt. In all honesty I can’t think of many times that she even spoke of politics or her feelings about them. To her a vote was a sacred and private thing between her and God. She didn’t discuss her leanings nor did she find it necessary to know about those of anyone else. Her only commentary was that it was glorious to have such a right, even if the elections didn’t always go her way.

Mama was from an immigrant family that was not always treated in the most welcoming way. She told us that her father insisted that in spite of a few prejudices here and there the USA was still preferable to the land that he had left. He insisted that his children take full advantage of the opportunities of being citizens and in turn pay forward the favor by demonstrating their pride in being Americans. When my mom and her siblings were taunted as being foreigners, their father urged them to just ignore the slights. He taught them that there are ignorant folk everywhere, and they need not nurse their anger. Instead he wanted them to become educated and fully involved in the culture and ways of the country. All eight of his children were patriotic, and his sons confirmed their love for the USA by enlisting in the Armed Forces and serving during World War II.

I suspect that my mom would be both confused and amused by the craziness on display these days, but she would have also insisted that everyone has a right to voice their opinions if they so choose. She would often tell us how important that cornerstone of democracy was to her father and ultimately to her and her siblings as well. It was something all too often denied in their homeland of Slovakia, so they were quick to welcome all ideas.

What would have most baffled my mother is the way that so many people are now determining friendships based on political beliefs. She would have first noted that it is none of anyone’s business to judge others, especially with regard to their political beliefs. She would have also wondered why we are talking about such things so openly and so much. Mostly she would have been utterly appalled at the idea of friendships and relationships being based on how people feel about particular hot button topics. I suppose that she had the same high level of tolerance as her older brother who was so fittingly described by his son in the Facebook post.

I often muse that the media is too much with us. There was a time when there was a news hour around dinner time. Thirty minutes were devoted to national events, and thirty to local happenings. Most stories merited only two to three minutes of discussion, rather than the twenty four hour blathering on and on that is possible today. Something has to fill those hours and unfortunately there is a great deal of sensationalism used to attract our attention. We have become news junkies and can’t even escape the grasp of the drama when we are away from our televisions. Our phones and computers constantly alert us to the latest breaking story. There is little or no rest and after a time we become so emotionally involved that we can’t seem to turn off the feelings that send us into emotional frenzies. It sometimes appears as though we are puppets being manipulated by some unseen master.

The reality is that we don’t really need to see every single kook who does something outrageous. The truth is that on any given day most people are busy going about their lives. They are not sitting at home plotting ways to make other’s miserable. They are not evil or uncaring or hoping to undermine the government. Most people are just trying to get by and get along. They do their duty as mothers, fathers, friends, employees, and citizens. They appraise the issues and make choices, and unless they do something illegal or hurt us in some way, it really should not matter to us what their political philosophies may be. Instead we should be focusing on what kind of people they are and admitting that if it actually is possible for a die hard Democrat and a die hard Republican to have a beautiful and loving marriage then maybe we also need to try harder to get along. 

Living With Passion

27751901_10214050313705370_7567982830482257335_nI suppose that it is a natural human trait to want to be someone who makes a difference in people’s lives. Sometimes that just means being an exceptional friend, or parent or co-worker. Most of us leave a small but nonetheless meaningful footprint on the earth. Some of us achieve a wider reach. Joann Stringer was a woman who impacted a multitude of lives in an exceptional way.   

I did not know Joann Stringer personally other than through contacts at parent/teacher meeting, and yet I loved her and even modeled my own teaching style after hers. She was a biology teacher at South Houston High School for twenty six years and both of my daughters as well as scores of my former students spent time in her classroom. She had a gift for making what might have been a difficult subject not only understandable, but also fun and exciting. Both of my girls came home from school filled with gleeful stories about the topics that she had introduced to them. They felt that she had opened a whole new and interesting world that had hitherto been unknown to them. Best of all she did so in a gentle and loving way that took into account the needs of each of her students. They never felt stressed or unworthy in Ms. Stringer’s care. There was no time in which they believed that she had been unfair or had not tried hard enough to teach difficult concepts. As a parent I appreciated their anecdotes about a truly caring and passionate teacher. As an educator I quietly filed alway those stories to use in my own classroom, knowing that I was learning from a giant in the profession. 

Even after my own children had left Ms. Stringer’s classroom I continued to hear about her magical abilities. Former students would tell me of how her inspiration had literally changed the courses of their lives. So many of her pupils realized possibilities that they might otherwise have never considered with her encouragement. They became doctors, nurses, researchers and even teachers. They fondly told and retold stories about this incredible woman who had so influenced the trajectories of their lives. I understood what they were telling me because one of my daughters who is presently launching a career as a science teacher often mentions how much she hopes that she will be able to teach as effectively as Ms. Stringer.

Joann Stringer truly dedicated her life to the thousands of students who came to her as freshmen, uncertain about what high school life would be. She reassured them and helped them to find their best selves. She made Biology seem almost easy with her artful explanations and exciting activities. They remember skinning rats, dissecting cats and even being reminded of how to be more mannerly. Ms. Stringer took them on field trips and mentored them as they followed pathways to careers in science. She kept in touch with them, attending their weddings and congratulating them as they reached so many adult milestones. She was in every way an exemplary teacher, the kind that we wish for all of our young people.

Joann Stringer retired in 2011. She pushed herself to keep going long after she might have taken the opportunity to rest. I suspect that she was so devoted to her calling that she was reluctant to leave even as she grew more weary. She suffered from a number of illnesses in her final years but still managed to reach out to her students via Facebook. She always seemed ready and willing to continue to assist them. Last week she died, leaving so many bereft, but also grateful for the imprint that she had made on their lives.

I watched as my Facebook feed filled with one tribute after another for this incredible woman. She indeed lived her life so fully that we would all do well to emulate the best of her qualities. I doubt that she grew rich in a material way, but her spiritual and emotional rewards were surely beyond our ability to count. As we walk through this life each of us has a vocation, a reason to be. Joann Stringer found hers and ran with it like a champion.

I suppose that Joann Stringer is still teaching those of us who knew of her in her own unique way. Her life is a lesson in itself. She showed us that our goal should always be to discover whatever we were meant to do, and then execute our talents unselfishly and with passion. Each of us has something to share, and Ms. Stringer taught us how to do that well. Perhaps it was her ability to help mold young people into happy and productive adults that was after all her greatest contribution to this world. Thousands of her students are paying forward the gifts that she helped them to develop. Her work was of the greatest importance for the future of our society and her impact will be felt for years to come.

I truly hope that Joann Stringer knew how loved and appreciated she was. I will always remember meeting her as a parent and feeling so reassured by her gentle words and her sincere smile. Now she will rest with the angels and we will hopefully carry on her work wherever we may happen to be.

It’s Ten O’Clock

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It’s ten o’clock. Do you know where your children are?” If you grew up or were a parent in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s you heard this question every night before the late newscast came on. It was a public service announcement that made sense then, but may be a bit confusing in today’s world. Back in those decades most children were what we now call “free range kids.” They played outside for hours at a time, often with little or no supervision other than a quick glance outside a window from a parent. They wandered away from home to visit with neighborhood friends, not always bothering to check in with parents before doing so. It wasn’t unusual at all for children to return outdoors after dinner to play in the dark under a street light or on someone’s front porch. It was a time of innocence when parents and kids both rarely worried about being harmed. Everyone knew everyone else and watched over one another. Perhaps the freedom that little ones enjoyed back then was fueled by naivety, but it was highly unusual for someone to be lost or harmed, there was little reason to worry.

The closest thing to a dangerous experience that I recall came when my youngest brother was playing a game of football in his bare feet in an overgrown field of grass. Hidden in the tall weeds was a broken bottle with its ragged edge pointing upward. When he stepped back to catch a pass he placed his unprotected foot on the shard of glass which immediately severed his achilles tendon. He bled profusely, but my mom and I miraculously got him to the doctor’s office in time to get it stitched back in place. I remember my mother instructing me in how to apply pressure to the wound to keep the bleeding to a minimum while she drove the car. I was quite frightened but didn’t let my mom see my fears. Of course at that time none of us were wearing a seatbelt and my mother did not carry health insurance either. The former was not yet invented and the latter was too expensive. The doctor did all of the surgery in his office proclaiming again and again that it was a miracle that my sibling didn’t bleed to death on the way over. I suspect that our final bill was little more than around twenty dollars and that even included pain medication that the doc threw in for good measure.

Needless to say times have changed so very much. Parents who allow their children to roam freely today run the risk of being reported to CPS. Few doctors would meet a patient at the office and take care of such a serious situation, especially if the family was uninsured. The world often feels far more dangerous than it ever did back then. Most of the time there are very few children playing outside for hours, and never all alone. They are busy with more carefully planned activities. Play dates have become the norm rather than random knocks at the door from friends seeking adventure. Children spend hours involved with computer games and surfing online. The real dangers lie in encounters with child predators masquerading in anonymity. Bullying either online or with texts has become epidemic. It’s no longer a matter of wondering where your kids are, but of whom they may be encountering on the worldwide web. The simplicity and innocence that marked my childhood and that of my own children seems to be a relic of the past. Parents have to be more careful than ever, even as they hover nervously.

I’m  not certain when everything began to change. Perhaps my experiences come from living in a city that had fewer than a million people when I was young and then somehow became a behemoth of over four million in a short period of time. Being in a place that large certainly makes a huge difference in how willing parents are to allow their children the freedom to interact without their watchful eyes. The dangers seem to grow exponentially in a major urban area. Still it just seems that over the years we have become more worried as a whole society. Maybe our twenty four hour news cycle has made us more aware of what might happen if we ride a bicycle without a helmet or drink from a water hose. I still wonder nonetheless why we no longer see children roller skating down the sidewalk or climbing the tree in the front yard even when their parents are around to guard them. Where are the street basketball games? When did our kids stop playing hop scotch on the driveway? Are they missing something wonderful, or is their world actually just an improved version of ours?

Children today certainly appear to be happy enough. I’ve always known youngsters to be quite adaptable. They tend to accept whatever reality is theirs. They don’t feel that they are missing something that they have never experienced. The child who lives in a high rise building in New York City learns to play in different ways from a counterpart growing up on a farm in Iowa. Both of them will tend to be perfectly happy as long as they are nurtured and loved. Perhaps the nostalgia that old folks like me have is thought to be quaint or even strange by the children of today. They would think it unwise, perhaps even crazy to ride down a highway in the bed of a pickup truck. They might easily bore of lying on their backs staring up at clouds searching for shapes of animals.

Sometimes it’s difficult to tell if things are getting better or if we have lost something special that we once had. I suppose that the reality is that we will always move ever forward, and while it may feel pleasant to lose ourselves in memories we are better served by joining in the forward progress. We have surely learned a great deal about how to be healthier and safer than ever before. We understand what smoking will do to our overall health. We realize that wearing seat belts and engineering safer cars has truly saved lives. We have used our common sense and our inventiveness to prevent harm and injuries to our most vulnerable. I suppose that it is a very good thing that we no longer have to ask where are children are when the clock strikes ten.