A Time For Honest Reflection

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Santa Fe High School is practically in my back yard. I see it each time I travel to the beach in Galveston. It is situated along a stretch of road that is dotted with interesting sights, most of which are antique/junk stores, gas stations, fast food places, used car lots, bars, and many dilapidated houses and trailers with trash strewn yards. In the midst of an almost chaotic looking scene is the school, neat and orderly and usually quiet. I have at times found myself wondering who is inside and what is happening there as I quickly drive by eager to seen the sun and surf that is only a few miles away. I almost always quickly forget about my musings, distracted by the fun that I always seem to find along the Texas coast. I don’t think about Santa Fe again until I am once more driving along the highway that passes by a slice of the town. Still I consider the people of Santa Fe to be my neighbors, so it is with an especially heavy heart that I find myself grieving over the violence that took place there last week.

I believe that most of Americans are decent people, and as such we all want to find answers that will finally help to stop the murders that have become far too numerous in our nation’s schools. We want solutions and we need them sooner rather than later. Sadly it appears that we are so divided in our ideas that we may have to endure more deaths until we finally become so weary of the repeated massacres that we get serious enough to make things happen. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the problem is that there are no easy one size fits all fixes. Instead the issues that we must face are complex and laden with many questions. We may make mistakes as we seek to move forward, but surely the time has come to at least begin to try. That requires that we quit yelling and screaming and insulting one another so that we might successfully tackle this issue, or we are doomed to repeat the deadly scenarios again and again. Our efforts will require patience and understanding and a great deal of love.

One of the things that I have noticed is that we are quick to desire almost instant passage of legislation, some of which may or may not actually work. Instead we need to bring together stakeholders at every level including teachers, administrators, students, parents, grandparents, law officers, lawmakers, and, yes, even gun owners as well as those who would eliminate guns. We have to agree to work with trust and flexibility and honesty so that the end results will be effective. If it costs a great deal of sacrifice to make the needed changes, then so be it. All of us should be willing to pay the price of restoring safety and peace of mind to our schools and places of public gathering.

Guns always seem to be at the top of the list for creating a safer world, and they are certainly a topic that must be discussed. There are definite changes to the law that might help, and we need to be willing to consider such ideas and act on them. Nonetheless, the gun is simply the means of violence, and not the only thing causing so many problems. More important is attempting to understand what the driving force for such horrific incidents may be, so that we may get to the root of the evils that are lurking among us. We have a number of disturbing cultural problems that we can no longer ignore, for they are contributing to societal woes that are creating chaos.

We must ask ourselves why young men in particular act out in such murderous ways. Is it something happening or not happening in the home? Are our educators missing the signs of a disturbed mind or just ignoring behaviors that should be addressed? Does our media inadvertently or purposely glorify mass shootings? Are the games that we allow our children to play for hours on end doing something to affect their brains in a very negative way? Are we to blame for fomenting so much divisiveness and anger between ourselves rather than demonstrating ways of getting along? Is there too much or too little religion in our society? Have we lost our way and confused our young in the process? Have our schools become too stressful or do our students need to engage in more hard work? Are we doing enough for mental illness or do we look away when we see someone who is suffering? Are our movies and televisions programs providing destructive examples for our us and our young? What is missing? What do we need?

There is also the subject of building our schools in such a way that they provide safe spaces in the event of any emergency. We may have to invest in upgrades like stronger doors and locks not just at entrances and exits but also for each classroom. Schools need to have guidelines such as keeping doors locked at all times with only faculty and staff members having keys which they must always carry on their persons. Some campuses have already instituted policies that require anyone entering to pass through metal detectors. Students must carry clear backpacks. Staff members need to inspect lockers regularly. All adults must be in the hallways during passing periods. Visitors must enter through a series of locked doors. Student clothing cannot be baggy or capable of hiding weapons. Such measures may sound over the top, but they are doable. and I have been in schools where they have been successful.

What we do not need are armed teachers. Such an idea will only compound the problems. I shutter to even think about such a situation. I can think of hundreds of ways that doing this sort of thing will actually backfire.  

At least for a time we cannot be lax, nor can we just continue to do what we have always done. We must be willing to admit that no one thing will be effective. We also need to begin to model caring attitudes for our children because they ultimately learn from what they see. Unfortunately, they are witnessing far too much rancor, and few of us are innocent in that regard.

As a mother and an educator I learned rather quickly that continually insulting or degrading someone does not result in improved behavior. To the contrary, it generally breeds discontent and urges to get even. Right now we are in the midst of considering anyone with whom we disagree or who appears different from ourselves to be deplorable. In truth we humans are simply unique individuals each of whom wants to be heard and accepted just as we are. The message we are sending our children is that half of the population that does not concur with our beliefs is horrific. With our votes we are encouraging to our elected officials to be inflexible and aggressive in their dealings with one another. We seem to want to indict entire groups for behaviors of a few whom we disapprove. We are so busy fighting with one another that we are hardly noticing the effect it is having on our children. All too often our response is to shun anyone whose ideas do not mesh with our own, rather than getting to know them better so that we might realize that they are actually good people.

We have much work to do. From what I am seeing we don’t yet seem ready to suspend all of our preconceived notions in order to ultimately do the right thing. Until we reach that point I fear that we will continue to see needless deaths. We are in dire need os thoughts and prayers, but they must begin to focus on asking God to guide us to the solutions that we so desperately need. This is a time for honest reflection.

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Share the Love

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A little boy named Austin Perine has captured the hearts of our nation. He’s an adorable tyke who was recently featured on CBS news because he saves his money to purchase food and drink for homeless people. He wears a red cape and a blue tee shirt emblazoned with the words Share Love when he is carrying out his mission of mercy. To say that he is absolutely precious is an understatement. He has brought smiles and hope to countless individuals in Birmingham, Alabama and now Facebook is abuzz with his delightful story.

Austin is a sweet boy who says that he one day wants to be President Austin so that he might help even more people. I suspect that he is well on his way to at the very least becoming a remarkable adult. While he may have been born with a gentle nature, the truth is that his generosity most likely comes from the lessons he has learned from the adults in his life. It is a fact that those of us who are older teach and mold the little ones that we encounter. Barring some kind of mental illness, most children bloom and blossom under the care of good people. Sadly children are also sometimes destroyed by abuse both emotional and physical. Just as Austin will probably one day be a great man because of the loving and positive influences in his life, so too will children living in an environment of hate and hurt often become the next perpetrators of violence and ugly thought.

While nothing is ever certain, a child’s environment at the earliest ages is a powerful force that is very difficult to change once it has become the model. Certainly history and literature are filled with stories of people who found their way out of horrific situations, and most of us know someone who through sheer will has been able to change the direction of his/her life. No human is automatically condemned to following the damaging ways of bad parents, but freeing oneself from such influences is perhaps the most difficult behavior imaginable. Relatives, neighbors, teachers, friends, ministers all have opportunities to help those who are attempting to overcome abuses and corrupted thinking. We never really know when we might be just the spark to foment positive change in someone who wants to be a better person.

I tend to study abusive behaviors and ask myself what may have happened to a person to make them so mean. I recall one of my students who was arrogant, abrasive and seemingly unwilling to conform to societal rules. Conferences with his mother revealed that she and her husband were actually afraid to sleep at night lest he kill them while they slumbered. Still she loved her boy and simply did not know how he became the way that he was.

I subsequently had a long conversation with the young man. As I listened I found a tale of a tortured soul. His mom had been extremely young when he was born and unmarried as well. She had little desire to devote her life to him at the time and so she left him with her own parents and went about growing up. The boy’s days with his grandparents were idyllic. He spoke of living on a farm with them and learning how to care for animals and grow crops alongside his grandfather. His grandmother adored him and taught him to love God and all people. He was incredibly happy and had little desire to live any other way, but fate was not so good to him. First his grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack and as the boy told it, this was the worst day of his life.

He would listen to his grandmother crying at night and he so wanted to console her but didn’t know how. He was as frightened as she was, but somehow the two of them found a way to carry on until his grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. She very quickly fell into a state of weakness that kept her in bed on most days. She died within months, leaving the boy to an uncertain future.

His mom came to care for him. She had matured by then and realized that she loved her child and wanted to make a good life for him. It was quite an adjustment because he had to move from the farm to an apartment in a bad part of a city. At first everything was great between his mother and him, but then she met a man that she thought she loved. He moved in with them and was actually fairly nice at first. but before long he was beating both the boy and his mom. Life became hellish as he cowered in his room fearing that one of them might one day be murdered by the tyrant. For whatever reason his mother failed to protect either him or herself, so he learned how to fight back. He became strong, unwilling to back down when the man became enraged.

By the time the boy’s mother finally found a way for them to escape from the monster with whom they had been living the boy was completely changed. He felt alone and even unwanted. He vowed never again to let anyone hurt him either physically or emotionally. That meant building a wall around his heart, even with his mom.

After a time his mother found a very nice man to love. She hoped that things would change for the better, but the boy had lost his willingness to trust anyone. He was still angry that God had taken his grandparents. He was angry that his mother had once given him away. He was angry that his mom had waited so long to defend him from the harm of the man she had brought into their lives. Even though the new “father” was always kind and loving, the boy believed that one day it would all fall apart, and so he would not allow his anger to subside.

Because I listened and because I understood, the boy began to do well in my class, but he literally gave hell to other teachers. Before long his actions had become so egregious that he was expelled. He came to may classroom to say goodbye. He was crying, his wall completely gone. All he really wanted was to be able to believe once again that someone loved him. I told him that I did and that I furthermore believed that his mother did as well. I urged him to make peace with her and his stepdad who was genuinely concerned. I promised him that I would pray for him and never ever forget him. I have kept my word, but I worry about him and wonder what ultimately became of him. I hope that he remembered just enough from his grandparents to feel good about people once again. I wanted so much to be the spark that may have helped him, but I also understood that he had so much baggage that might never be undone.

There are very good souls in our midst like Austin Perine. He is sharing the love that he himself has known. Follow his example and share yours.

Kindness Hope and Love

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The little priest walked slowly down the aisle of the church pushing his walker. He appeared to be so frail and yet there he was saying the prayers of the Sunday mass. When it came time for the homily I wasn’t expecting much. I supposed that he was long past his prime, a minister put out to pasture so to speak. It was wrong of me to judge, but he walked like Carol Burnett did whenever she was imitating really old people in one of her hilariously funny skits. I listened politely as he began to preach, and by the end I was in tears.

He told us that he was going to paint a beautiful picture with his words. He began by explaining how he had come to our town. An old friend had invited him to retire in the warmth of the south. The two thought that it would be wonderful idea for everyone, and besides they would have so much time to be reunited, telling their old stories and having a few laughs. He had decided to be adventurous even though the only thing that he knew about Texas was the stuff of legends and folklore. He really didn’t have any idea what to expect when he arrived in August, but his buddy had assured him that he would love every minute of his stay.

By the end of that month the rains began to fall from the effects of hurricane Harvey, a new experience for him for certain. The heavens opened up and refused to stop for days and days. By the time the sun finally came out more than fifty one inches of rain had fallen on the area. He had watched the rescues and the heartbreaking stories in horror, but then he realized that something utterly stunning was happening. He saw the love, hope and kindness of humanity unfolding in front of the eyes of the world.

Over thirty percent of the homes located near the church where he was staying had flooded. The parishioners swung into action turning the halls and the classrooms into a haven for those who had lost everything. They brought food, water, blankets, clothes, money, anything that the victims might need. They worked tirelessly day after day as the lines of people seeking help wrapped around the property. It was in that moment that he saw the utter beauty of humankind being revealed so magnificently. He realized that this was exactly the way God wanted his followers to be. It was as though all the best qualities of the human race were present for him and the world to observe It was a lesson in how we all should behave, not just in an hour of need, but for all of our days. He knew that he had come to a place that he would call home.

He told us to close our eyes and imagine the goodness, feel the hope, and luxuriate in the love. He reminded us that it is all around us, and that it is God’s way of assuring us that we are never alone. There will always be someone who will take our hands and guide us to a place of safety. We need only look around and we too will see the lovely image that we as people have painted.

I suppose that it is sometimes difficult to noticed just how wonderful humans really are when our media focuses so much on the horrors of our society. We have entertainers saying very ugly things about people in the name of humor. Our leaders have jumped the shark with their obnoxiousness. We see violence seemingly in every corner of the world. People shoot the bird and scream in anger at the smallest provocations. We align ourselves with groups and political ideologies. We argue and stuff our ears with our fingers lest we hear something that differs from our own points of view. We seem unwilling to compromise or get along, and so when a terrible disaster or tragedy occurs we are somewhat shocked to see kind hearts and heroes emerge. In reality the people who rise to the occasion have been around us all along. We were just so busy believing the naysayers that we failed to notice that most of us are truly and exceptionally good.

The priest said that God was smiling as He saw His ultimate creations demonstrate the kind of behavior that He had hoped for them. It filled Him with parental pride to watch his children performing acts of generosity without any consideration other than doing the right thing. Humans had made something horrible become beautiful and everyone took note. The priest got phone calls from all over the world from individuals that he had known. They were checking on his welfare, but also expressing their astonishment at the scenes of courage and warmth that they had witnessed. It had changed their perspective and reminded them of what makes humans truly exceptional. They too wanted to help, and so they did, just as thousands of others whose hearts had been touched.

I still think of those four days of inundation. I remember the fear that I felt as I saw the images of people being carried from their homes in boats. I believed that our city would never be able to recover from the devastation, but I had underestimated the spirit of humans. I had bought into the negativity that is swirling around us in abundance. I had been so very wrong.

We struggle and waver and even have moments of hopelessness, but the reality of who we are is so much better than the doomsday predictions. Our innate goodness rises up again and again to repair the wounds of our fellow beings. We get up after we have been knocked to the ground and check to see if anyone else needs our assistance. Life is far more wonderful than we may have thought it was, and people in all of their variety are ultimately the sparks that light the fires of optimism and love.

The good father painted a beautiful picture indeed. It is an image that I will cary in my heart to bring to mind when times get tough. It is a canvas painted with the colors of  kindness, hope and love.

The Dwellings In Our Minds

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I know for sure that what we dwell on is who we become —- Oprah Winfrey

Have you ever noticed that some people who have very little manage to be quite happy while others who seem to have it all are miserable? How we view life has everything to do with how much joy we experience. The evidence that we are in charge of our feelings abounds.

I have a dear friend who has experienced more tragedies and setbacks than most of us. She has lived with a chronic illness for decades that has required frequent blood transfusions and limitations on her activities. She and her husband of many years divorced just when she was battling her disease, leaving her to survive on her own. She ultimately remarried and things appeared to be taking a turn for the better when her new husband had a series of strokes that left him bedridden. She has become his caretaker and as such is mostly isolated inside her home which is far away from family and friends. Most people would complain about the unfairness of such a situation, but she instead remains optimistic and grateful for the smallest of pleasures that enter her life. People like my friend refuse to be ground down by challenges no matter how difficult they may be. They serve as shining examples to those of us who know them or hear about their inspiring behaviors. 

As I was driving around last Saturday doing some errands I listened to a story on the radio about a young man whose hockey team was involved in an horrific bus crash. Several members of the team were killed in the accident. He survived, but broke his back and was left paralyzed from the neck down. His whole life was centered around being active and at least for now he will be confined to a wheelchair. With the loss of both his friends and his ability to play the game that he so loves it would be only natural for him to become deeply depressed. Many of us would descend into a pit of despair given the circumstances, but he is determined to beat this setback, just as he always managed to come out a winner in sports. He is grieving for his teammates who died, but also eager to begin the hard work to regain his strength and athletic abilities. He does not intend to be defeated, and my guess is that somehow he will find a way to accomplish his goals. It is evident that he is never going to give up and simply languish in self pity.

The champions of this world are people who manage to make the most of whatever hand life deals. They have the ability to pick up the broken pieces of their lives and turn them into beautiful mosaics. Des Linden is one of those people. You might know her name if you are a running enthusiast because she just won the Boston Marathon, the first American woman to do so since the nineteen eighties. Her Twitter feed features her mantra, “Some days it just flows and I feel like I’m born to do this, other days it feels like I’m trudging through hell. Everyday I make the choice to show up and see what I’ve got, and to try to do better.” Des understands that from moment to moment there will be ups and downs, but the main thing is to stay in the race. What was most remarkable about her victory is that she even halted her run to assist a fellow participant who needed to make a pit stop. Des not only has learned the importance of just showing up to each day, but also realizes that ultimately the true measure of each of us is in how we treat the people around us. Her philosophies have made her not just a champion but a happy person as well.

There is no job, no kind of existence that is perfect and without troubles. Every single person experiences difficulties, failures, temptations and tragedies. Those who show up, keep trying, and focus on relationships rather than transitory values are the happiest among us. Winning is not about accumulating laurels or riches. It is all about finding the real secret of life which is to carry on with a sense of purpose and gratitude that there are thousands of second chances to get things right. Grit is the factor that keeps people moving forward through even the most horrific times.

I have often wondered what in the human spirit keeps people hopeful when they endure the most terrible aspects of inhumanity. How did enslaved people find even a modicum of joy? What did Holocaust victims do to keep from going insane or giving in to a deep dark desperation? How were they able to live and work after they were saved given what they had seen and experienced? What keeps refugees from war torn countries optimistic when they have lost everything that they ever owned and have become nomads in countries where they are often unwelcome? How do people manage to smile again when all that they have known is taken from them?

Somehow the true survivors among us find a way to make the best of the things that they cannot change. They smile and just keep reminding themselves that as long as they are still breathing there is hope for better days. They refuse to give up, and like the young man whose family home was inundated with mud from a collapsing mountain top they just keep repeating, “I am alive. I am alive. I am alive.” Then they clean up the mess and manage to smile at their good fortune.

It’s not easy to become a person who sees opportunities in the impossible. It takes a bit of work to dwell on the things that bring us happiness rather than focusing on our sorrows. We just have to show up each day with a determination to change our thinking from sorrow to joy. Sometimes that means finding a tiny shred of hope to pull us from the negativity that stalks us. Just as we can retrain our bodies to become strong, so too may we redesign our thinking to become the happy people that we want to be.

Filling the Cracks With Gold

gold-ingots-golden-treasure-47047.jpegIn Japan a broken object is often repaired with gold. The flaw is viewed as a unique piece of the object’s history which makes it more beautiful. Unknown Author

I am admittedly a control freak, so when things break or go awry I tend to freak out. I prefer routine, everything in its place. I suppose that my obsessive compulsive tendencies are derived from my father’s death when I was a very young child, a time when I felt my world spinning out of control so much so that I worried that my future would forever be horrific. Of course that did not happen, but I have had my share of unwelcome and difficult events, so much so that I prefer stability over excitement.

That being said, there is always seems to be something beautiful and unexpected that comes from even the most devastating tragedies. After my father died my brothers and I became more intensely close, and our mother made certain that we would feel safe by moving to a wonderfully wholesome neighborhood. I lived in this almost idyllic place until I was an adult. The friendships that I enjoyed there as a child are still rock solid strong. The beautiful memories that I made at a time when I had worried that my life was surely over have been the gold that repaired my broken heart.

I find that this occurs again and again just when I begin to waver and worry too much. It happened when our hot water heater overflowed and flooded part of the house. Even though I was happy that we were home and able to limit the damage, I began to fret over all of the dire possibilities of the things that might take place. Since all aspects of the repairs have taken far more time than I had thought that they would. I literally began having anxiety attacks at night because I was certain that mold was growing in the walls of my home and that it would become a toxic waste dump. I imagined all sorts of scenarios while we waited for insurance adjusters and repairmen.

Of course, as it turned out things began to fall back into place bit by bit. We have a nice new hot water heater and we have chosen new carpet that will be installed once the walls and the door frames and other things that were damaged are once again as good as new. While the experts take care of all of that, I have been moving things out of closets and packing them away in the garage so that the rooms will be ready for the carpet. In the process I encountered a box of photos and papers that I had stashed away long ago. The items had sat unnoticed for quite some time, so I decided to cull through them to decide what I wanted to keep. In the process I found the names of my grandfather’s parents. It was like discovering gold on my property because I had grown up knowing very little about him. He had died before I was born and my mother had no information about her own grandparents because her father was an immigrant from Austria Hungary in the area now known as Czechoslovakia and so was her mom.

I was so excited by my discovery that I posted something about it on Facebook and a few minutes later a cousin called to verify that my information was correct and that she had even more. I am now able to trace my ancestry back to my great great grandparents, all because I was forced to moved things so that workers might set things aright in my home. Had it not been for the accidental leaking of the hot water heater there is no telling how long that box that contained the key to my ancestry might have languished. Once again the broken object ended up being a golden moment, a beautiful light on my past.

I have friends who are far more faith filled than I am. They don’t worry as much because they just know that there is a vast eternal plan that is working as it was meant to be. I suppose that they have fewer middle of the night panic attacks than I do, or conversations with God that sound more like that between a parent and a recalcitrant child. My experience has proven that I am never alone, and yet I out doubt Thomas over and over again. I suppose that it is just my nature, but I must surely drive those who have to put up with me a bit crazy at times.

Luckily I always seem to find my way back, and realize that I have never really had it so bad. My life is probably about average compared to most. I lost people that I love, but so has everyone else, and in some cases their tragedies have been so much worse. I happened to get a hint about my all time favorite uncle when I was putting in the new names of my great grandparents on my ancestry.com family tree. The document that Ancestry found was his death certificate and its details made my heart weep for my aunt and for my uncle’s parents. He was only thirty one years old, and an only child. The sarcoma that began in his leg had metastasized to his lungs and other major organs. He left behind an infant daughter. I thought of how bereft everyone must have been. I was only five at the time and I felt as though my heart had been shattered. My father was never quite the same after his best friend had died. Somehow all of my trials and tribulations put together did not seem as harsh as this, and I chided my self for temporarily rolling in self pity.

The broken parts of my life have always healed and made me strong and resilient. I see the cracks and the scars, but they make me more beautiful, for surely they make me more compassionate. I truly understand what it is to hurt and to be afraid, but I also know that the human spirit is far more courageous than we think. The gold that always seems to come after the worst times is real and it is lovely.