Seeing the Unseen

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The Netflix movie Roma is the quiet story of a young housekeeper and nanny living in nineteen seventies Mexico City. In an artistic masterpiece we watch her devoting every day to the service of the wealthy people for whom she works in a world in which she seems almost invisible and voiceless, unable to exert any control over the trajectory of her life. Nonetheless her beauty and strength illuminates the dreariness and uncertainty of the lives of the family that she serves even as she is all too often taken for granted. Roma is a triumph in its ability to portray the harshness of life for those who toil under the yoke of barriers created by the often immutable restrictions of class, but it also demonstrates the immutable importance of seemingly invisible individuals who work on the periphery of society.

The movie touched my heart and my mind in deeply moving ways and caused me to think of how many souls have journeyed through life almost without notice due to their status in the socio-economic pecking order. Their desperation is quiet and even misunderstood, while their dedication is under appreciated, and yet they sometimes demonstrate more character than those for whom they toil. Like all humans they have dreams that all too often go unfulfilled leaving them faceless in a crowd that wrongly defines them. They lose their distinct complexities in favor of generalizations, if they are even noticed at all.

My paternal grandfather somehow escaped even the notice of a census taker until he was well into his forties. The story of his early life is a blank slate making it seem as though he simply appeared from nowhere one day, a kind of cipher left to his own resources due to circumstances beyond his control. My maternal grandfather spent over thirty years traveling to a thankless job of cleaning the blood and entrails from the floor of a meat packing plant. I wonder if anyone ever realized that he was a very bright man who spent a portion of his weekly salary purchasing books that he read each evening after a day of work that left his legs and back aching, or was he simply the guy who picked up the messes that others left behind?

I think of the mother of one of my students who dropped him off at the school each morning wearing her McDonald’s uniform, a detail that embarrassed the son enough that he tried to deny that he was related to her. Then there was the yard man who drove through the carpool line pulling the trailer holding the tools of his trade and the source of income for his family. His son proudly boasted that his father was more than just someone who cut grass. According to the boy his father was an artist and a brilliant businessman. I wonder how many of us teachers with our college educations somehow felt a bit of superiority over these industrious souls. Were we guilty of chiding our students with threats that they might one day be reduced to menial jobs if they did not study? I heard such taunts quite often, comments meant to spur determination that may have unwittingly insulted the efforts of our students’ parents.

I recall the stories from my pupils of mothers and fathers who worked as many as three jobs within a single day. These souls existed on less than six hours of sleep and tortured their bodies with physical labors that left them scarred and broken. They set their pain aside for the sake of their families only to all too often be viewed by society as lazy folk who had done nothing with their lives. I wonder how many of them were thought to be little more than faceless bodies in an uneducated and unworthy mob. Were people suspicious of them, unwilling to see them as the hard workers that they were?

All too often we fail to really see the people who do not seem to be like ourselves. It does not occur to us that something as simple as where one is born may have incredible consequences in determining the course of life. We unwittingly stereotype people without truly knowing who they are. Like the family employing the young servant in Roma we see them in a kind of caricature when the truth is so much deeper. We create invisible, but powerful, barriers between ourselves. The man who mows our lawn or the woman who cleans our home is a provider of a service, not someone to be thought of as an equal, and yet the reality is that we are far more like our caretakers than we choose to accept. We are dependent on each other, and yet we rarely acknowledge the bonds that we share.  Our humanity should unite us, but the artificial structures upon which we build our societies often drive us apart.

Every single person is a unique gift to our world. Perhaps if we were to have a better understanding of that idea many of the problems that we face might be resolved. It is difficult to unravel the complexities of living, but we might begin with one person at a time. If we consciously strive to appreciate and acknowledge everyone with whom we interact we might begin to create more unity and understanding. Who knows where such a process might ultimately lead when we attempt to see the unseen?

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All That Ever Really Matters

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So here we are at the last Friday in 2018, and once again I find myself wondering where the year went. It’s been a good one for me with no devastating floods in my backyard, no horrific surprises. It was mostly quiet as Mike and I worked hard to become healthier after his stroke scare in 2017. We found ourselves feeling thankful for small blessings like waking up in the morning and sharing time with family and friends. The year ended with a bang starting with Mike’s birthday in September, our fiftieth anniversary in October, and my seventieth birthday in November. We hit some milestones that we might never have imagined in our long ago youth.

We finally found enough courage to travel again. A trip to Arkansas with dear friends Franz and Monica was glorious. We laughed and talked and saw so much beauty. No doubt we ate a bit too much and gained some pounds that we will have to carve away in the coming year. Mostly we created some new and beautiful memories with people who mean so much to us.

In November we headed to Colorado for some winter time adventure and a wedding. It was a bitter sweet time as we watched a beautiful young couple begin their own life together, and learned of the death of a dear friend of my brother and sister-in-law who had to abruptly leave us to return home for the funeral. Nonetheless we finished our mini-vacation in the quiet splendor of the mountains and the little towns that surround them. I suppose that we savored the moments more than we might have because of the reminder of how fragile life is.

December took us to Austin to watch over two wonderful young men whose parents went on a business trip. They were so polite and well behaved that we actually had very little to do other than make certain that they arrived on time to the practices that they needed to attend. We went to see one of the latest of the gazillion Rocky movies with them, and I thought of how different life is with boys rather than girls. All in all we felt honored to be entrusted with their care.

Most recently Mike and I became Eucharistic Ministers at our church. The first time that we held chalices with the blood of Christ and offered the sacred wine to our fellow parishioners was moving beyond anything I had ever imagined. I was filled with a sense of awe for God’s goodness in our lives and for the blessedness of our humanity.

As the new year beckons there is trouble on the horizon that worries us. A very good friend, who also happens to be our daughter’s father-in-law, is very sick and reaching the end of his days. He is a bright light who will be sorely missed by all who know him. An aunt is struggling with major health problems and we are quite concerned about her. She is one of the truly good people on this earth and we hope and pray that she will be granted more time with us. Another long time friend suffered a terrible fall and was hospitalized before Christmas. Now she faces a long journey in physical therapy. They are all vivid reminders to us that life is filled with surprises that affect us when we least expect them. We must take care of ourselves and enjoy each moment while we can.

It doesn’t take as much to make me happy as it once did. I need little and treasure the blessings that I have. I’m not much into resolutions anymore, because I have learned all too well that changes often come suddenly. I’d like to think that Mike and I will get to make that trip to London that we have planned, and I intend to keep doing whatever I can to stay as healthy and fit as my seventy year old body will allow. I’ll take one day at a time and do my best to make the most of whatever happens. Mostly I want to spend more and more time with friends and family because it is never a good idea to take anyone for granted.

As I approach my seventy first year of living on this planet I know that I have seen both wondrous and horrific things. Life is a mix of ups and downs, good times and bad, life and death. There is a kind of inevitability of the seasons of our lives. The one thing over which we have control is how we respond to each phase. I hope and pray that no matter what happens I will have learned from the remarkable people who have passed my way by bearing both my joys and my burdens with dignity and optimism. So far the sun has never failed to rise on each of my days regardless of what I had to face with the new dawn. The days and the weeks and the months have led me to celebrations and moments of sorrow just as they have done for all the generations throughout history. The routines of living come and go, testing our mettle and sometimes bringing us the fruition of dreams.

So as the new year beckons I expect both little and much. There are certainties about the future and great possibilities in the unknown. That is the stuff of life that makes us who we are. Still, if I were to be granted one single wish it would be that in the year of 2019 we might become a kinder, more just, more understanding and peaceful world. I suspect that all across the globe people have grown weary of the anger and hatred that seems to be festering in dark corners. May the new year be one filled with tangible signs that we are turning a corner and doing a better job of loving unconditionally. That seems to me to be all that ever really matters.

A Different Drumbeat

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It may surprise some of the folks who only know me in one narrow aspect of my life that I tend to be someone who marches to my own drumbeat. If, however, you consider the totality of my life it becomes a bit more apparent that I’ve mostly done things my way. At school and work I was always the “good girl,” that person who was loyal and dependable. I tended not to make waves, but when things became just too uncomfortable for my way of seeing the world, I usually left in search of a place that allowed me to be the person that I felt I needed to be. A few times I pushed the envelope a bit too much before departing, but I am proud to say that I stood up for the ideals that make me who I am.

I’m known as a very forgiving person, but I prefer to think that I have a knack for seeing and understanding differing points of view. We humans are a diverse lot, and it would be ridiculous to believe that there is actually a one size way of thinking that fits everyone. Only in certain extreme cases is it true that there is an identifiable wrong or right, such as with murder or hate. Most actions or statements that bother us are in reality simply different ways of interpreting or reacting to life. These are the gray areas that create tensions and rifts between people, and are the causes of our feelings of anger and even betrayal. It is in such instances that I have a knack for realizing that there are indeed many different ways of tackling problems, some of which seem contrary to one another.

Thus it has been for me my whole life which has given me the reputation of being a soft hearted person. The truth is that I am able to take a deep breath when I disagree with some person or situation and then very rationally analyze our differences without becoming emotionally entangled. My mother realized that I had this talent and often suggested that I should have gone into law and become a judge. She marveled at what she saw as my fairness, but to me this “talent” is just the way I am.

I suppose that my ability served me well as a teacher and later a school administrator because I was never too quick to rush to judgement of a student or parent or teacher. Instead I wanted to assess each situation not so much from my own set of standards but from the realities facing each individual. I often realized that a parent who was cussing me out was simply frustrated  and at a point of extreme confusion and hopelessness. By validating the anger and and really listening to concerns I diffused many horrific scenes and reached a mutual solutions to problems. In other words, I was able to see the driving forces behind behaviors that were far deeper than just rudeness or refusal to follow protocols.

Sometimes the unfairness of life has little to do with rules and everything to do with feelings. While we may not be able to understand someone’s anger, we can listen for the unspoken words that lead to their hearts. How each of us feels is so complex that actions and words alone may not truly reveal the truth of the matter. For that reason we need not be so quick to react. Sadly, it has become the way of society to tap out a few keystrokes to demonstrate either our approval or disapproval of anything and everything that we observe. Sometimes we do such things with complete strangers whom we cannot possibly know. It is a terrible habit that sometimes leads to violence from those with unsettled minds. We must be careful and a bit more kind lest our words or reactions fuel flames that are already burning. It is possible to change the course of history if we are cognizant of the power of our commentaries.

President Barack Obama was often criticized for noting that many individuals who turn to illegal activities are lost souls unable to find any direction or sense of hope in their lives. He suggested that helping our young in particular to find positive pathways might prevent acts of terrorism or violence. As an educator I believe that he is absolutely correct. I have watched young men and women change under the guidance and concern of someone who chose to help them rather than to grind them down. People seek acceptance and when they find it from the good, then they themselves often become good. When it only comes from those who are hateful trouble looms for all of us.

Notwithstanding those whose minds are so evil that no amount of kindness or understanding will help them, we each have the power to reach others simply by having a willingness to understand why they believe and act the way they do. It is not up to us to be judge and jury of their behaviors, but instead to demonstrate our care and concern. I know from forty years of working with people that such methods actually create miracles. Self-righteous behaviors are off putting for everyone. They presume correctness when there may not be a clear cut standard. Punishing, judging, ignoring are mechanisms that rarely have as much effectiveness as listening, teaching, understanding. 

A recent example from my own experience may explain the point I am attempting to make. It is a somewhat silly example that escalated into some very unfortunate commentaries on social media. It centers around an incident on The Voice, a singing competition on NBC. Over the course of a season the number of singers competing for the top spot are slowly but surely whittled down by the coaches and the viewers until there are four finalists who vie for the championship.

This season a most unfortunate dilemma occurred when one of the contestants became ill and unable to participate on the live show. The situation became even more complex when she was one of the three persons with the least number of votes from the previous evening. In such cases the performers sing a quick song and there is a so-called Instant Save by way of Twitter.  The young lady, who happens to be fourteen years old, could not sing, but the producers chose to allow the viewers to vote for her anyway based on past performances. In an ironic twist her coach, Adam Levine, had two members of his team in the bottom three and one of them actually sang that night. In a rather bumbled moment he praised the present team member for his performance, but noted that he could not just ignore how wonderful the young girl was and urged the viewers to consider voting for her as well. Surprisingly she ended us winning a spot in the semi-finals and at the same time became an object of rage along with Adam Levine.

I saw things a bit differently from those who were insisting that Adam Levine be fired and the young singer be disqualified. I suspect that Adam meant no harm in his crudely crafted plea. Instead I think that he felt terrible that such a talented young girl might lose her opportunity because fate had dealt her a blow at such an inopportune time. He tried to demonstrate his support for both of his team members, but it was all in all a terrible place for anyone to have to be. I suppose that no matter what he may have said or what ultimately happened he would have been criticized, but the level of anger was far beyond what it should have been.

When I suggested on social media that we all needed to put the situation into perspective and calm down just a bit I was pilloried as though I had defended the actions of Adolf Hitler. I was called some vile names and even told to just “shut up.” I ended up congratulating all of the talented singers and wishing them the best in the future as well as noting that the variety of opinions being expressed was part of life. Nonetheless there were those who were intent on vindictiveness. Ironically I understand and accept them as well, but worry that our society has become so filled with anger that we become unhinged over a television program. There is so little willingness to forgive in today’s world and that is a tragedy.

I suppose that we will one day grow weary of the ugliness and things will ultimately change. I already see signs that give me hope.

Taming the Beast

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Worry is common to all humans. We think about things that concern us, sometimes mulling over solutions in our heads. Worry can a positive motivator that helps us to do things well, but it can also become so unleashed that we find ourselves in a state of anxiety that interferes with our ability to perform even routine tasks. Those who suffer from anxiety disorders often become unduly depressed. Life becomes so stressful that it actually physically hurts.

I have felt those pains of anxiety at different times in my life. I generally assumed that there was something defective in me whenever I reached the point at which events piled up on me with such a vengeance that I felt as though an enormous elephant was sitting on my chest. I’ve experienced such attacks during the times when my mother was in the throes of her bipolar disorder, or whenever my schedule became so filled that I was rushing from one task to another. I was especially prone to such feelings back when I was a student juggling family and work with my studies. I had to learn how to “tame the beast” that threatened to leave me drained of my energy because I knew that I had responsibilities to shoulder. Mine was a long journey to understanding just how much I might push myself so that I would not break like my mother had done.

I began to realize that keeping myself healthy was my top priority in spite of my tendencies to want to be a servant to others. I likened my situation to being on a plane when the oxygen masks come down in an emergency.  I had to secure my source of air first and then help those around me. That meant being able to read the signs in my mind and body that told me that I was heading for a fall. It also required a kind of restructuring of my daily rituals. I had to set limits for myself with an understanding of exactly how far to push. 

Long after I had graduated from high school one of my former teachers admitted that the faculty had experimented with my class. They had attempted to determine just how far they might drive us before we fell apart. He confessed that they went too far in some cases and did a far better job of challenging students without breaking them in subsequent classes. It was a revelation that stunned me because I had literally thought that there was something wrong with me because it had been so difficult to stay on top of all of the work that we were required to do. He insisted that I had passed with flying colors at the same time that some of my classmates were crashing and burning. What he didn’t realize is that I sometimes studied far into the night, feeling exhausted beyond measure and worried that I was intellectually deficient. Nonetheless, I learned how to balance my week day marathons with inestimable amounts of sleep on weekends.

When I went to college I first attempted to carry eighteen hours of coursework but learned that it was too much. I scaled back to fifteen hours and carefully selected a variety of difficult and easy courses. I immediately created calendars outlining my daily duties for studying as soon as I received my syllabi. I literally parsed out every hour of every day and stuck with my plan religiously. Doing this helped me to manage my worries because I even allowed for unforeseen emergencies and still met every deadline with ease. I almost never found myself cramming at the eleventh hour, and I came to realize that the crazy demands of my high school had been largely responsible for helping me to craft a plan that worked for me.

I have carefully and meticulously followed this kind of regimen throughout my lifetime. It has carried me through times that threatened to undo me and my family. Still some events are so horrific that not even a steadfast plan will work. In those moments the old familiar symptoms of insomnia and weight on my chest often returned. That’s when I would glance at my calendar and create a “mental health” day. I knew when to sneak in such a luxury and did so without guilt. It might end up being a day in bed catching up on much needed sleep or I might spend it enjoying pleasures like watching a movie marathon or enjoying a day at the beach. Such pleasures always seemed to be enough to clear my head and help me to focus on whatever I needed to do rather than on my concerns about what might go wrong.

I hide my worries well. I find that there is a time and place for them during which I revel in them and allow them to wash over me. Then I walk through my “magic door,” an entry way to the tasks at hand. I have learned to work hard and then play hard. I am able to compartmentalize each of the segments of my life. It is a survival skill that I suspect I first discovered when my father died and I felt as though I would never again be the same. I realized then that work was actually a kind of panacea for all of my worries both real and imagined. If I concentrated on doing other things my anxiety was held at bay at least temporarily.

I do indeed feel for anyone who is paralyzed by fears and worries. I have deeply felt their pain and know how debilitating it can be. I understand that they do not wish to be held captive by emotions that steal their energy and enthusiasm. Sometimes not even the best of intentions or efforts can still the voices that take away their joy. In those moments they must reach out for help beginning with the people who love them most. Other times the most courageous thing that they may do is to seek medical guidance as well.

Those who are anxious are often the most caring and responsible individuals among us. Their feelings are so deep that they can become paralyzed when the world is too much with them. We can all help, but the worst possible response to their pain would be to provide them with platitudes about getting a grip on themselves. What they are experiencing is so very real and painful. Their journey to healing begins with love. Only then can they begin to “tame the beast.”

Quiet Dignity

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I suppose that many of us long for an ideal society in which we all get along and work together side by side for the common good. We’ve had very few moments in history that worked out so well. There have been some events that have drawn us together, but for the most part there is no place on earth where people are continually in general agreement with one another. It’s a sad fact that those who attempt to be kind and understanding are often misunderstood and thought to be weak and wimpy. So it was with George H.W. Bush, a man so recently revered for his sterling character who was in many ways reviled as someone who did not have the backbone to be a leader when he was in office. The same was true of Jimmy Carter. Sadly both men were one term presidents because the voters saw them as ineffective when the truth was, and still is, that it sometimes takes far more courage to stand for honor and conviction than to wield power like a bully.

I was struck by the Bush family’s ability to bring disparate sides together in the hour of their sorrow. It was apparent that every great leader was ultimately in awe of George H.W. Bush’s character, charm and humility. He understood the need for our leaders to support one another and to put petty grievances aside for the good of the country. He was a man who always did what he believed to be best for all of us rather than for himself. That is a somewhat rare trait in today’s super charged political atmosphere where political grudges run deep.

I loved that the Bush family was so willing to take former President Clinton into their fold, treating him like a member of the family. It made me smile to see George W. teasing Michelle Obama even in his hour of deep sorrow. I was deeply moved that former President Carter and his wife came to honor a man who had once been his competitor. Even President Trump managed to maintain his dignity for the occasion, and the Obamas set aside their differences to show him respect. This was as it should be, not just at the end of someone’s life, but in all instances.

We seem to have lost our way, but occasions like the funeral of a great man reminds us of who we are as people and how we should behave. It was the hope of our founding fathers that we would find ways to compromise and get along for the sake of the nation. We have struggled with that concept again and again, even going so far as to split into a civil war. If not for the determination of another good man, Abraham Lincoln, we might not be such a prosperous country today. We might never have become a haven for people searching for better lives like my grandparents.

While I saw a glimmer of hope in the unity on display at the Bush funeral, I also witnessed the cracks that still need to be filled. I was disappointed that Hillary Clinton was unable to find it in her heart to be somewhat civil to President Trump. It would have been a triumphant move for her to demonstrate that she was the better person, but instead she refused to even acknowledge him. I was also disturbed by commentaries that took place almost before Bush was even buried that continued the rabid fighting between our two political parties. I realized that there is still so much rancor in our country that it will take some rare individual or event to pull us back together. Perhaps somewhere in our midst is a George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt type figure who will one day bring us the kind of leadership that we so desperately need. I shudder to think that it will require a tragedy or a war to bring us back together.

I believe that most of us desire a quiet, kind and gentle way of doing business. We have instead allowed fringes on the left and right to call the shots. They are the loudest because the rest of us don’t operate their way. They are encouraged by pundits and journalists hoping to make names for themselves rather than finding the courage to be fair and honest. We have been emotionally manipulated for some time now, and I suspect that most of the people of this nation have grown weary of the tactics, but don’t know how to make them stop.

It is sad that we sometimes have to be faced with tragedy before we are able to see truths that are right before our eyes. We are not better off with extremes. It was never the intent of those who created this country to accept incivility and unwillingness to compromise as the way of doing things. We have to take a deep breath and think about how we really want to be.

It was said that George H.W. Bush was a great manager, but not quite as good as a politician. In truth this is exactly what a president is supposed to be, the person who helps to run the many systems of the country. We have far too many executive orders and ways around the intended processes these days. Our Congress should be making the laws, not a single individual. We desperately need to be reminded that the running of our country should not be the domain of a one person, no matter how charismatic or strong willed he or she may be. The president should be striving to be reasonable with all sides of an argument, not just the ideas of a political party. Always decisions should be made with a wide scope of opinions in mind.

I can only pray that we will one day remember who we are as a nation, admit to our mistakes, and move toward a more all embracing way of doing things. The fighting and snubbing and name calling will ultimately do us no good. Dignity must become our goal again. George H.W. Bush and his family have shown us the way. Perhaps it is time to follow.