The Humanity

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The National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana is now the third most visited museum in the United States. The attraction has become one of the most popular in the Big Easy and its expansion continues. I’ve been going there since well before hurricane Katrina when the place was still being called the D Day Museum. At that time it was dedicated mostly to the big event when the Allies first reclaimed French territory from the Germans. The site of the museum was chosen because it was a New Orleans manufacturer who had designed the Higgins boats that were used in the assault on Normandy.

I’ve found something new every single time that I have walked through the exhibition halls. On one occasion I concentrated on understanding the geography of the battles. In another I was most interested in the timing of battles and the equipment used by each side. In my most recent visit I found myself mostly thinking of the human aspect of World War II and in truth it was my most moving encounter yet.

Each person who comes to the museum is given a “dog tag” that outlines the personal story of someone who participated in the war. As each guests moves through the displays there are opportunities to scan the dog tag to learn what part their person played in the era. Since there were five of us in our party on this occasion we got a wide spectrum of interesting histories, including the record of James “Jimmy” Stewart, the lovable actor that we all know from some of Hollywood’s greatest hits.

My dog tag belonged to a young American girl who was living in the Philippines when the Japanese overtook the island. Her father was in the military and had been sent elsewhere but her mother was a teacher who felt she must stay at her post. The Japanese sent the young girl and her mom to a kind of concentration camp along with countless others that they deemed untrustworthy. Life in the camp was difficult for a child and the girl remembered how frightened she felt when her mother became ill and was sent to a hospital. She was all alone in dealing with the horrific conditions. She spoke of eating gruel for virtually every meal and being set to work with only a minimal amount of time for education or play.

One of my grandson’s drew the Jimmy Stewart dog tag and we learned that Jimmy had been an actual hero in the war. When he first signed on Louis B. Mayer did everything to keep him from going into battle because Jimmy was one of the biggest draws in Hollywood. Jimmy nonetheless insisted that he wanted to serve the country and soon enough was leading squadrons on air raids that helped to turn the tide of war.

Another dog tag belonged to a Marine who won countless medals for bravery. His feats were almost unbelievable. We expected to learn that he had been killed but in fact he went on to serve with honor and distinction in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars before retiring from the military.

Yet another of our stories was of a man who had been in the OSS, a precursor of the CIA. He did some of the most audacious things imaginable and somehow his luck held out even when he probably should have been captured or killed. He was incredibly brave for sure.

What really caught our attention were the telegrams informing families that one of their loved ones had died. We realized that there were people who saved those horrific notices for all of the years since the war, sometimes along with sympathy cards. It was beyond touching to see how dear those lost in battle had been to people back home. It made me think of my mom’s fiancé who died in the battle for Saipan. It was hard for her to speak of him even years after. Even though she had found love with my father she never completely forgot the man who had first asked her to be his bride.

All of the sacrifices that entire populations across the world endured became so real as we listened to the voices of survivors and gazed at the items and photographs that had been so intimately tied to them. We felt one touching moment after another as we looked at the images of young men who were fighting in the war when they were as young as my grandsons. It had to have been an incredibly difficult and frightening time across the globe. The sheer humanity of learning that the world lost more souls in World War II than in any other conflict in history moved me to tears.

I suppose that the museum is dedicated not just to providing facts about the war but also to helping us to understand the enormity of what was happening and its impact on everyone from the boy next door to a major movie star. So many of those who were alive during that fateful time are slowly leaving this earth. It is important that we remember their stories and their sacrifices. The National World War II Museum is insuring that we will not forget.

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Finding Joy In the Story You Are Living

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Sometimes you have to let go of the picture of what you thought life would be like and learn to find joy in the story you are living.

I saw this quote on Facebook and realized that as trite as it sounds it is actually quite profound. Who among us has not experienced unexpected changes in the trajectory of our lives that seemed to wreck our plans and challenge our optimism? For most of us life is peppered with a series of surprises that usually come at inopportune times and often threaten our sense of security, but sometimes in dealing with them we find strength, friendship and new opportunities that we never considered.

When my father died at the age of eight my world toppled around me and my family. I felt as though our entire existence was doomed as we scaled back on plans to move to an exciting new neighborhood, replaced our luxury car with an ugly stripped down model, and had to learn how to live from one paycheck to the next. I still recall the anxiety that filled my mind and the feelings that life would always be dreary and uncertain for us, but as it turned out we ultimately found peace and perhaps a bit more compassion than we might otherwise have had. Our mother showed us how to grieve and then rebound from the tragedy that befell us. She taught us how to find happiness in the simple aspects of life like a roof over our heads on a rainy night and a warm bed when it was freezing outside. We found fun with our imaginations, books from the library, and Friday nights with our cousins at Grandma’s house.

I had been a bit spoiled before my father died, self absorbed and desirous of impressing people. After his death I found solace in my studies and my friends. I learned about kindness from generous neighbors on our blue collar street. I realized that hard work was a pathway to opportunities. All in all I am certain that I became a better more giving and understanding person than I might have been.

When I was eighteen years old I met the man who would become my husband. We had an instant connection with one another. It seemed to be fate bringing us together. We quickly fell deeply in love which caused me to worry. I had graduated at the top of my high school class. I was doing well in college, but had not yet been able to declare a major. I was filled with confusion about my future. The only thing that seemed certain to me was that I wanted to spend it with this man. He had so instantly become my muse, my confidante, my best friend.

We were caught up in the craziness of the late nineteen sixties when the world seemed almost on the verge of collapse. We felt as though we had to seize happiness in the moment or risk losing it forever, and so we decided to marry six weeks before I turned twenty. Neither of us yet had a college degree and our income was dependent on his teaching assistant salary and my teacher’s aide pittance. With a wing and a prayer we took a great leap of faith much to the chagrin of our elders.

Our earliest days of marriage were difficult mostly due to our finances barely stretching far enough to keep us housed and fed. I knew how to squeeze every dime out of a budget because of my childhood experiences, and so we survived but not without a great deal of tension and concern that perhaps we had been premature in launching our lives together. Then before we had even celebrated our first anniversary my mother had a mental breakdown, and I became the caretaker for her and my brothers. Somehow we managed to use our meager funds to feed two additional mouths and pay a number of Mama’s bills. More importantly, my husband rose to the tragic occasion and became my rock. In all honesty I don’t believe that I would have had what I needed to help my mother through her illness had he not been at my side at every frightening  turn.

Once my mother was well again the doctor told me that she was cured. He did not believe that she would ever again be as sick as she had been, but of course he was wrong. He had misdiagnosed her bipolar disorder as simple depression. Over the next forty years she would have relapse after relapse and my brothers and I would have to learn how to watch over her. Our journey together created an impenetrable bond between us. We became expert at looking for signs of trouble in her behavior and worked as a team to keep her well and safe. We are as close as siblings ever might be.

If did eventually choose a college major and earn a degree, although decidedly later than I had thought I would. I graduated with honors but due to a glut of teachers in the area I was among the many who were unable to find teaching jobs. I ended up at a Catholic school near my home earning a salary that was considerably less than those of the public schools, and teaching mathematics rather than the English classes for which I had prepared. I felt that I was somehow a failure without realizing that I had actually been blessed with the most perfect job that a first year teacher might ever experience. My principal was supportive, my students were eager and well behaved, and I found that I truly enjoyed teaching math. I had six different preparations each day, sponsored a school newspaper, and headed a committee tasked to purchase computers for the students. It was a busy schedule that proved to be gloriously enjoyable in an environment that allowed me to really stretch my wings. It also assured me that I had indeed chosen the right profession.

I could go on and on and on about seemingly disappointing moments that turned out to bring me remarkable adventures that I had never before imagined. I learned over time to go with the flow of life applying my skills and my strengths to pull myself through even the most daunting challenges. Each and every experience forced me to be more than I ever thought I might be, and while they were often painful in the moment they enriched me in the long run. Ultimately I realized the fruitlessness of creating a picture of my life limited by my own world view. In the end there was so much more joy to be found in taking on the challenges and evolving into more than I had ever expected. There has been great joy in the story that I have lived.

In the Blink of An Eye

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As I write this post the cold has returned to Houston again. In fact it blew in with a vengeance during the afternoon. I had spent the morning tidying up the yard in my shirtsleeves, but by one o’clock strong winds and a cold rain had overtaken the area. Such is the nature of winter in my part of the country. There are no guarantees that a given day will maintain the same kind of temperatures over a twenty four hour period in my neck of the woods. In fact we have to be ready for pretty much anything until at least mid March. Just when that little groundhog up north predicts an early spring and we get excited about outdoor baseball games and track meets old man winter shows up again and we have to skitter around the house looking for the jackets that we finally hid away.

I actually like the cold so I’m not really complaining, but my knees tend to prefer a nice non humid day that lingers in the seventies. My hair agrees as well, so about the time that I was grumbling because my trip to a doctor’s appointment was marred by a chilly rain I saw a sight that both humbled and saddened me.

Underneath the cover of a bus stop shelter sat an elderly woman all hunched over as though she was grabbing a quick nap. She was wrapped in a big coat and wore a scarf on her head that only allowed a bit of her stone gray hair to peek through. Her feet were shod in flimsy slippers and she wore white socks that drew attention to her noticeably swollen feet and ankles. I might have thought that she was simply resting while on her way to or from a visit to her own doctor but for the telltale clues that told me that her story was far more complicated. On one side she had a pile of blankets and assorted sleeping supplies. On the other was a large bag neatly filled with clothing, food and other items. It was apparent that this unfortunate soul should was either a runaway or homeless.

Our vehicle was pushed forward by the moving traffic all too quickly. We were in the wrong lane to stop to ask if the lady needed some help. She became a passing vision that buried itself in my mind. I could not help but wonder what her brought her to such a tragic state. I worried about her safety and worried about what she might do when the even colder nighttime arrived. Mostly I tried to understand how her life had spiraled so out of control that she ended up alone on the streets.

There are populations of the homeless virtually everywhere. Many of them are addicted to drugs or alcohol. It is estimated that at least thirty percent of them suffer from mental illness. There are old and young, singles and families who for one reason or another find themselves with no place to go even on a day when the rest of us are scurrying to our offices and homes to keep warm. These people are someone’s sons and daughters, maybe even mothers and fathers. They did not always live this way but something in their lives went terribly wrong.

When I see someone like this old woman my stomach churns and my heart weeps. I find myself thinking about them and worrying about them. I want to know their stories and what tragedy led them to such an horrific fate. I wonder if there are family members somewhere grieving their loss or if they are all alone in the world with nobody to love them or care about them.

I have known truly good people who work with the homeless. They tell me of the joys and the frustrations associated with their jobs. There are places dedicated to providing  shelter and food, but so often the diseases of the mind that stalk the homeless drive them away from any kind of restrictions including walls. They run from structure and prefer the freedom of the streets, at least until the weather turns foul. Then the temporary housing fills to the brim and sometimes there is literally no room at such inns.

Admittedly homeless folk frighten most of us. They are dirty and often bear faraway looks on their faces. We don’t know if they are kind hearted or filled with criminal intent. We worry that if we give them money they will use it for drugs or alcohol rather than food or a place to stay. Surely they need more than stacks of blankets which they all appear to have in abundance. We just don’t know what to do.

Underneath the freeways along the southern corridor of Interstate 45 tent cities have popped up here and there. They are like little communities of urban campers. They huddle closely together and probably provide a small measure of safety to the occupants. I don’t know how they found the means to purchase their makeshift homes or why they are not stolen during the day when the occupants appear to be out and about. I’ve heard that there is a kind of code of ethics that homeless groups follow and that sometimes they even develop their own secret language. They mostly take care of one another and respect the meager possessions of their fellow street folk, at least until some disagreement ensues.

I still worry about them and wonder if being a vagabond is a choice for them or simply a circumstance. I think about that old woman who somehow doesn’t seem to fit into their world even though she appears to have the necessary instincts to survive. There is something remarkable about her even as I grieve for her. She should be in a nice warm home surrounded by children and grandchildren who love her. Has she been forgotten?

We constantly carry on about things that seem to be so unimportant compared to the fate of the homeless who live among us. We hardly pay decent salaries to the blessed individuals who choose to work to help them. Programs and doctors and counselors for those with addictions or mental illnesses are scarce. We barely skim the surface of doing our best to insure that little old ladies like the one I saw will be safe and secure. We look away, or drive past quickly only to forget them in the blink of an eye. Surely we can do better.

A Rough Draft

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I have a brilliant and inspiring friend who has begun 2019 by writing a blog about her personal journey with a life changing illness that almost killed her on three separate occasions. She is a phenomenal educator and was devoted to helping to change the lives of young men and women through guidance and learning. She was a ball of energy, a whirlwind of ideas that she set forth as the founder of a remarkable high school in northeast Houston. She often left me breathless with her wisdom and her dedication, but I did my best to contribute an exceedingly tiny bit to her cause. I suppose that I felt a kind of mystic kinship with her goals and my admiration for her told me that I should support her because what she was doing was so important.

Without warning she was struck down with one medical emergency after another that left her unable to continue her important work or even to live alone. She returned to the loving arms of her family and slowly began the rehabilitation of her life. She is a new kind of person as a result of the changes that her body has wrought on her. She still dreams of being the dynamic woman with seemingly endless energy that she once was but reluctantly admits that this is unlikely. Now she simply wants to find her new purpose and role within the limitations that have been placed on her. She is a woman in process, or as she so brilliantly noted her efforts are just one more rough draft toward becoming.

I am enchanted with that thought. I suppose that we are all in a chronic state of becoming. Life deals us both blessings and blows that challenge us mentally and physically. We are forced to come to grips with the challenges that force changes that feel uncomfortable. We look at our rough drafts and want to tear them into tiny pieces because the genius that we know is in our souls is somehow not showing forth in what we are being asked to endure.

We may lose an important loved one and wonder how we might possibly continue. We may find ourselves betrayed by someone in whom we placed our total trust. We may learn of a frightening medical diagnosis for ourselves or someone who is very close. Our homes may be damaged, our cars wrecked. We may attempt to improve our lives only to hopelessly fail. It can sometimes seem as though we are wandering aimlessly in a nightmare from which we cannot awake ourselves. We may pray to God and wonder why we can’t seem to hear an answer.

The truth is that our humanness makes us both fragile and strong. We forget that changes are inevitable and that sometimes they are glorious and other times they are devastating. The most wondrous aspect of living is that each of us has the power to reinvent ourselves time and time again. Becoming is a never ending marathon that will stress and strain us and make us very tired. The important thing to remember is that each iteration of who we are is still a rough draft which we can correct and change and make better. Our personal stories are adventures in which we encounter many struggles, but we get to be the masters of how we choose to react to them. If we don’t do so well at first, there will be copious opportunities to try and try again.

Life is so much about redemption. Nobody’s biography is set in stone. We each go from day to day with our imperfections of body and mind. One of the most important skills that we should learn is how to forgive ourselves when we have been less than we wanted to be in a particular situation. It may be difficult to face our weaknesses but once we stare them in the face and then scratch them off of the page of our biographical manuscripts we are free to create new versions of our stories that may indeed be more beautiful than the ones that we had thought to be the end product.

I recently took my niece to see the new Mary Poppins movie. It was a delightful film that I viewed from a very adult point of view. It’s message was one of hopefulness. Mary Poppins demonstrated to her charges that they had the power to overcome whatever adversities they encountered. It was all a matter of how they chose to see the world around them.

I thought of my daughter’s recently deceased father-in-law who always maintained the optimism and joy of a child. He loved stories like Peter Pan and Mary Poppins and the Swiss Family Robinson. He understood that life is about survival but even dealing with great problems can be fun. Like Mary Poppins he saw healing in the act of flying a kite or enjoying a bit of ice cream. The important thing was to love and live and start over again each day.

I appreciate that my friend is sharing both the darkness and light of her story. She will always be an educator in whatever her body allows her to be. I’m thankful that she mentioned that each iteration of our lives is just one more rough draft. We are never truly finished, which is actually quite grand. It means that each day brings us an opportunity to make ourselves even better than we have ever been before.

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.