Propagate the Good

domestic-violence-recently spent a glorious weekend with relatives in Dallas. We had three days together and in between dinners, walks, movies, and a big party we talked about today’s problems. My niece commented that while the world sometimes appears to have gone crazy, most people are in fact very good. She suggested that the best way to make society better is for everyone who is decent to propagate the good. In other words, it is not enough just to quietly follow the golden rule, but it is necessary for each of us to spread goodness much like a bumble bee pollinates flowers. She insisted that we must be purposeful in our efforts to demonstrate all that is right and just.

There are many reasons why some people are angry and prone to negative behaviors. Some of them stem from evil, but others are simply the result of giving up on life. Recently a young man attempted to hang himself at the high school which serves the students from my neighborhood. It hit all of us hard to know that someone so very young had felt so hopeless that he was ready to end it all. I still don’t have any idea what exactly may have lead to his dramatic cry for help, but whatever it was must have been horrible in his mind. I can’t help but wonder if this incident might have been prevented if only the people around him had shown enough kindness to propagate the good. Perhaps he might never have reached such a point of desperation.

One of my high school friends posted a message that her granddaughter had written in response to this terrible tragedy. The young girl attends the school where this student had tried to kill himself. She hinted that he may have been a victim of bullying. She urged everyone to be kind, to watch their words, and to notice whenever someone is suffering. She suggested that each of us has a responsibility to speak up when we see cruelty and to assist anyone who appears to be suffering.

We tend to get very busy, so that we often purposely look the other way if we see someone being abused. It’s easier to just shrug and ignore such situations, but we never really know how a victim will react to the pain of being emotionally or physically tortured. Such individuals often need a hero, a person strong enough to stand up for them or at the very least comfort them. When we walk away from such situations the message that we send is that the world is an uncaring place.  Little wonder that so many people feel alone in their trouble and decide that it would be easier to stop the pain with death. How many times might such thoughts be changed by a bit of kindness?

Even as adults it is very difficult to stand up to bullies and the type of toxic individuals who berate and insult others. Those kinds of people are more often than not intimidating, and since so many people are unwilling to confront them doing so requires tremendous courage. When the obnoxious person is an elder or in a position of power it is even more troublesome to even think of standing up to them. They harm their victims with relative impunity and begin to believe that they are untouchable. Meanwhile the person who is the brunt of their bullying begins to feel that there is no means of relief.

Of late we’ve witnessed far too many instances of people unfairly exerting their power over others. In some cases the ugly behaviors are insults and in others they are actually physical attacks. We’ve learned that often such activities were generally known and tolerated by large groups of witnesses out of fear.  In spite of the fact that most of us believe that propagating the good means stepping up to the plate even when it is frightening to do so, we continue to be reluctant to take the initiative.

I heard of a young man who went to see a play that featured acting by some of his friends. His intent had been to demonstrate support for the cast but things took a bad turn. He and a group of classmates sat together at the performance and one of the group began to kibitz and joke about the play’s message. Soon enough they were all laughing inappropriately and angering members of the audience as well as the actors. The young man felt horrible about what was happening but rather than moving, asking his buddies to cease their rude behavior or at least sitting in silence he chose to go along with the antics. His apologies only came after the director expressed his anger. He had allowed himself to become involved in a situation that he felt was wrong, but he simply did not have the courage to do what was right. His was a case of allowing peer pressure to dictate his poor judgement.

Each of us has no doubt been guilty of such cowardly inaction. We really don’t want to get involved in something that might get messy. It’s easier to just ignore acts of ugliness. Few among us are able to honestly say that we have never left an individual to fend for him/herself in a bad situation, even understanding that our intersession might have ended the abuse.

I wonder how many times a suicide might have been stopped had someone been willing to defend a tortured soul, or at least to seek help for him/her. We know how harmful words and actions can be, and yet we are all too often seized with fear when faced with such realities. If such unwillingness to become involved were confined to the very young it might be understandable, but all too often even adults prefer to protect themselves, their relationships or their jobs rather than speaking the truth that might make a world of difference for someone who is being unfairly targeted with hatefulness.

There are indeed more good people than bad, but when the good people are silent we end up with innocents being loaded into boxcars that carry them to concentration camps. When we refuse to speak we may later find someone battered or even murdered. If the good people shout with a collective voice they will be heard just as surely as the world eventually listened to the words of Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King. Goodness must be shared if it is to have the desired impact on the world. 

Advertisements

No Tongue Can Tell

1328-Ball-3.jpg

Imagine living in an island city filled with beautifully colorful buildings that look almost like doll houses. The streets are filled with smiling happy people who bask in the sunny days and enjoy the ocean breezes. Along the shore on a pier out in the ocean there is a huge ferris wheel that citizens reach on a train that transports them over the water. There is a port that brings goods and money into the area from all over the world. It provides jobs that make the citizens some of the wealthiest in the nation. This is surely a place that must be paradise, a dream come true for all who dwell here.

Now consider that news arrives of a coming storm. Reports differ as to its potential strength. The local meteorologist does not believe that it will be particularly harmful. The signs from the ocean appear to be mild. There is no reason to panic or leave. It’s simply time to batten down the hatches, get together indoors with neighbors and celebrate good fortune. You watch as the ocean asserts its power and the sky grows dark. The streets of your town begin to fill with water, but nobody is particularly worried. They’ve seen this kind of thing before. It will blow over and the sun will return. Maybe the wind will create the need for a few repairs, but nothing more.

By nightfall you become a bit more concerned and invite frightened friends to your more substantial house. Things should be just fine, but as the squalls come ashore something is very different about this hurricane. It is more frightening. Too many things are blowing past the windows. The water is inching rapidly toward the front door. You and those with you climb to the second floor to wait it out. The tension in the group becomes more palatable. Your heart begins to race and you have thoughts that you want to wish away.

Something slams into the side of the house. Suddenly there is an open hole the size of an entire room. The place is breaking apart and everyone becomes hysterical. You see water raging past filled with flotsam and jetsam and people who do not appear to be alive. The floor on which you are standing begins to crumble. You grab at a portion of your once fine home that has suddenly become the foundation of a makeshift raft. You carefully place your children on the flimsy lifeboat and search for your spouse who has suddenly disappeared under the water. You are in a panic, not knowing what to do. Should you dive under the darkness in an attempt to find her, or is it best to look after your children? You pray to God for strength and protection. You want this horrifying night to be done.

You float aimlessly for hours. As far as you can see  there is unspeakable destruction. Little do you know that it is far worse than you imagine. Perhaps it is best that you are ignorant of the true extent of the terror, because you might lose all hope if you know what has really happened. You calm your children and wait for the sun to rise. You want to cry, but know that now is not the time.

When the day dawns the winds have ceased and the waters have begun to recede. The vision before your eyes is unimaginable. You want to shield your children from the truth, but the death that surrounds you is so massive that there is no possible way to keep them from knowing what has happened. Your once majestic city by the sea is gone, never again to be one of the most important places in the country. A later accounting reveals that more than six thousand of your friends and neighbors and fellow citizens have died in the hurricane, a count that will not be equaled even a hundred years later.

The task before you and other survivors is daunting. Some have already decided to just leave, but you want to stay in this place. It has burrowed into your heart, and even with all of the pain that it has created you can’t bear to go somewhere else. You join the building process and silently hope that you will find your relatives and friends who are missing, but you never do.

Your city will become a small town, no longer destined to be as glorious as it once was. You help to build a seawall designed to keep the raging waters at bay. You work to raise the entire island, a modern marvel of engineering. You are proud of those who work to bring things back to a semblance of normalcy. You are a survivor of something so terrible that you will never be able to adequately speak of its horror. You don’t want to talk about what you lost. You try not to think about the orphanage that no longer exists, or the tiny souls from there who were eventually found buried under the sand with their caretakers next to them. Yours is a story for the ages that you will never want to repeat.

This is a true account of the great storm of 1900, a category four hurricane that moved right over Galveston Island in Texas. To this day there has never been another natural disaster in the United States that claimed so many lives. In the course of only a few hours the once thriving city was decimated, and would ultimately be reduced to a sleepy place that mostly attracts tourists and brave souls who find themselves in love with the tropical atmosphere. Many of the homes of 1900 still stand, reminders of a time when some of the most powerful and wealthy individuals in America lived and worked in the once bustling city. On a sunny day it is easy to imagine how wonderful life must have been before the true danger of being there was revealed.

The ghosts of a magnificent time and place lurk along with those who died so tragically in a single night. There is something indeed special about Galveston that can’t be described until someone has spent time there in the changing seasons. It is easy to fall in love with this town, but those who choose to make this island home must understand that danger is always possible.

After 1900, the improbable happened. A swampy little place called Houston became the titan that Galveston had been. The people there dredged a channel from Galveston Bay inland to create one of the busiest ports in the world. Houston would grow to become the fourth largest city in the United States, and until just this year would not experience anything resembling the tragedy that befell Galveston in 1900. Hurricane Harvey flooded the streets and homes of Houston, but thankfully did not even come close to killing the number of people who died long ago in the place just fifty miles south. Still those of us who have lived in Houston and visited Galveston understand better than ever the need to respect the storms that form in the Atlantic from June to November each year.

Now that hurricane season is over we have some time to relax before considering what we must do to make this area less likely to crumble under the brunt of a killer storm. The potential for disaster will roll around again just as it does each year. It’s important that we try to imagine the possibilities so that we will plan wisely and take precautions when danger becomes imminent. We more than most know what it is like when Mother Nature grows surly, and we understand the we can never be complacent about her power to change our world in an instant. Ours are the kind of stories that no tongue can tell.

Christmas Treasures

e795f991bf75b597d456e5ca6a62b91b

I love decorating my home for the holidays, but it is always a somewhat bittersweet time. I don’t do coordinated colors and high fashion. Instead my Christmas ornaments come from a varied collection that dates back to a time even before my children were born. This year I have three trees in different rooms of the house. Each of them is filled with memories more than loveliness. They include trinkets made by my children and elegant china and crystal pieces. I have things that I purchased on vacations and at least twenty years of Hallmark ornaments that have tickled my fancy. Friends and family members who have gone to heaven gave me a number of the things that hang on the green limbs of my trees and I recall the times that we shared each time that I take the treasures out of the seven boxes that store them for eleven months out of the year. I shed a little tear here and there as I think back over the people and the years that each piece represents. Setting up my trees is a nostalgic time that requires just the right music or Christmas movie running in the background while I work to place each ornament just so.

I laughed this year as I hung the proof of my longtime loyalty to the Houston Astros front and center on the big tree in my great room. I have two ornaments celebrating the team that I purchased so long ago that I can’t recall exactly when or where I came upon them. Other teams are represented as well. Of course I have one from the University of Houston, but I also boast a little sled from Purdue and a bauble from Oklahoma State University that I purchased on the occasion of my brother’s graduation on a bitterly cold December day. Perhaps my most unusual team decoration is a Houston Oiler blue football player made out of yarn emblazoned with the number of the kicker Tony Fritsch. I bought that one at a craft sale long before the Oilers had moved to Tennessee and changed their name. Perhaps it’s time for me to find a J.J. Watt.

My first Hallmark ornament was a replica of Mickey Mouse as Steamboat Willie. It portrays him whistling and steering his ship so contentedly that I smile every single time I see it. To this day it remains my favorite among all of the members of my now extensive collection. I have an obvious preference for all things Mickey or Minnie. Various renditions of them dominate my selections. This year I added a metal lunchbox with Mickey’s image that even includes a tiny thermos inside. That one takes me back to my youth and the warm milk that I drank along with sandwiches that were always a bit stale after sitting in my locker for several hours. I can almost smell the aroma of all of the homemade lunches that my classmates brought and I hear the clink of the lids at they clattered open on the long tables where we sat never dreaming that we would one day grow old.

I also have a thing for Snoopy and Charlie brown. I can’t seem to get enough of those delightful characters. My favorite in the mix shows the whole gang singing in front of a scraggly tree. It makes me think of some of the fresh trees that we had when I was a child. It took a bit of work and a great deal of tinsel to transform them, but when they were finished they were so lovely. I used to lie on the floor gazing above at the lights and the shimmering icicles. Our mother gave us very serious lessons on how to distribute the silver slivers so that they hung just right. I haven’t seen any of those of late and wonder if they are even made anymore. They were almost as messy as the needles that fell from the limbs of the trees, but they were enchanting as they reflected in the glimmer of the colored lights.

For several years now I have purchased the annual Swarovski crystal ornament, a tradition that I began in 2005 after visiting the factory in Austria. Each year is celebrated with a different snowflake crafted in beautiful glass and marked with a tiny silver date plate. They hang so delicately and catch the light in their gorgeous facets. I have made it a yearly ritual to purchase the newest one around the time of my November birthday. I suspect that the lovely creations will one day become heirlooms along with the china gingerbread men that I collected for many years.

When I was still working I signed up to purchase a set of Victorian houses that came to my house once a month for at least two years. They are quite delightful to me and represent the kind of home that I often dreamed of owning, but was never quite able to do. They remind me of the structures in the Houston Heights, a neighborhood where my grandparents lived when I was very young, and where my father-in-law now resides. They literally speak of Christmas to me and the gatherings that we shared each year when my daughters were growing up. We always drove to my in-law’s house so excitedly in anticipation of a great feast and lots of love and laughter. My mother-in-law eventually passed the holiday tradition down to me when she found the efforts needed to cook for so many to be too taxing. Even though I have done my best to create a new tradition, I suspect that everyone who once went to her home misses the feel of that old house and her special touch as much as I do.

I’ve got Harry Potter and Cinderella, golden aspen leaves and glittering pine cones, marshmallow men and gnomes, angels and nativity scenes. The story of my Christmas life fills the trees, telling of fun and friendships and memories. Tying all of it together is Santa Claus who laughs and smiles and glitters with glee. I’m a sucker for anything prtraying the jolly old man. I so vividly recall the magic of his visits when I was young. I can still feel the excitement of trying to sleep on Christmas Eve so that his sleigh might land on our roof to deliver toys for me and my brothers. I never quite understood how Santa did all of the wondrous things that he did each year, but I believed with all of my heart, and I still do. Christmas is truly a time for family and friendships and love and maybe even a miracle or two.

It’s been a tough year for so many in Texas, Florida, California and Puerto Rico. Many of us  have lost loved ones and worried over those who are very sick. I suspect that we need Christmas a bit more than ever. It seems as though we are rushing it here in Houston, but I understand why. Our trauma has been great and we are still reeling and recovering from the floods. Things appear to be back to normal, but there are many who are not yet back in their homes. They may be spending Christmas in a hotel, an apartment or in a room in someone else’s house. Many of their own Christmas treasures washed away in the waters. I thought of them even as I gazed at my own collection that made it through unharmed. My tears of joy and nostalgia were tinged with a touch of sadness for all that has been lost. Still, the real message of Christmas is one of hope. The reason for the season is still about a baby born in a humble manger who came to provide us with the promise that we are never alone. Perhaps this year it is more important than ever to remember what our celebrations should be all about. It doesn’t really matter what our religious beliefs may be, but that Christmas is all about love.

Changing Lives

Poverty-In-America

Again and again I am reminded by experts that my brothers and I are not supposed to be doing as well as we are. On a recent offering on NPR I learned that the odds of making it out of the cycle of poverty while growing up in a single family household are daunting, and yet my siblings and I not only managed to break a cycle that had haunted our ancestors for generations, but we also managed to be emotionally healthy as well. At the end of a glorious Thanksgiving Day that we shared together the three of us sat back and attempted to analyze the factors that had been important in bringing us to our current state of happiness and success.

We all agreed that it would have been impossible for any of us to make it as adults had it not been for our mother. She was at the center of our upbringing, a task that she took perhaps even more seriously than most. She understood that from day to day she played the role of both mom and dad. Every major obligation was placed squarely on her shoulders, and her start after my father’s death could not have been more difficult. We had no car, no home of our own, no money in the bank, no life insurance pay out, and she had no job. Things were so financially grim that I caught on to the direness of our situation even though I was only eight years old. I had enough sense to rightly interpret the whispered concerns that I heard my aunts and uncles voicing as they worried about what would become of us. Somehow my dear mother would manage time and again through thrift and intellect to weave gold out of straw, and keep us afloat as a family without ever burdening us with her troubles, but she never would have been able to manage all alone.

I suspect that had our mother been virtually on her own the enormity of her task might have broken her far sooner than it ultimately did, but she was surrounded by people who continually supported her and me and my brothers. I found great comfort in the knowledge that we had guardian angels who always showed up when we most needed help. Their efforts on our behalf began on the day of my father’s death when our house filled to the bursting with members of our extended family, long time friends, and people from our temporary neighborhood and church. That trend would continue for all of our days as children and it would provide reassurances to us that someone would be there to catch us if we suddenly began to fall.

I still remember my Uncle Jack taking us to purchase a car after Daddy’s wreck with the funds that Mama had received from the car insurance policy. Even though the automobile that he was driving at the time of the crash had been virtually brand new and fully loaded with all the bells and whistles of the day, the check barely paid the balance of what was owed on the car that had been destroyed, and left only a pittance for a down payment on a new vehicle. Uncle Jack, who was a worldly wise and frugal man, counseled my mother to purchase a replacement that was within her means. He found a stripped down Ford with a standard transmission, rubber floor mats and a color that nobody would have chosen on purpose, that was advertised for an amazingly low price. He brokered a deal with the salesman by appealing to his sense of decency. Still my mother gazed at the ugly car and insisted that it was hardly the kind of model that my father would have chosen. It was Uncle Jack who insisted that she was going to have to learn how to make do with what she had. We drove away and used that “Charlie Brown” car for the rest of my childhood. It took us wherever we wanted or needed to go, but mostly it represented possibilities and the strength of individuals like my uncle who would take care of all of us for years to come.

It was the same Uncle Jack who guided us to the home where all three of us would grow into adults. It was a far more modest place than the ones that we had been viewing with my father. Most importantly, though, was the fact that the neighborhood where it stood was filled with incredibly good people who would become the steadying force that my brothers and I needed. Over the years we shed all of our fears and came to feel infinitely secure because of our neighbors who always seemed to be teaching us things and helping our mother with household repairs. It was a wholesome and safe environment that was made even better when Mama was wise enough to center our world on the nearby church and the school where we would make lifelong friends and build the happiest of memories. Everyone knew of our tenuous situation, and while they never openly discussed their sympathy for our plight, they quietly made extra efforts for us. There was a generous spirit that followed us and kept us from harm. We mostly took all of the people for granted as children are wont to do, but deep in our hearts we understood how important they were in helping to shape us into confident adults. We learned from everyone that with a bit of hard work and imagination we would ultimately be just fine.

We were admittedly more fortunate than most children who struggle with poverty. We had a huge village of adults who took us into their hearts and never let go. With our mom encouraging us to use our natural gifts and talents wisely, and a great deal of motivation from teachers and mentors we were able to break the chains of economic hardship. Today few would ever imagine that our life stories might have made us just a few more statistics had it not been for the love and wisdom that surrounded us when we most needed those things. We know that it is never impossible to rise above even the most challenging circumstances which is why I suspect that we have in turn spent much of our lives attempting to help others just as we were so magnanimously assisted. Our altruism was born in the knowledge that each of us has an opportunity to help our fellow human beings and to touch hearts in ways that alter the trajectory of lives.

It saddens me to know that we still have so many young children who are feeling broken, alone, afraid and powerless, but I regularly see the same kind of good people as those who helped my family by stepping up to make a difference. In this season that is often defined by plenty and excess each of us has the power of reshaping destiny. Even the very smallest of attempts that we make to share the wealth of our good fortune, talents and love with those who have less may create the very spark that sets a soul on fire. I was the recipient of all that I needed to redefine my life, and my gratitude for the many souls who made my rise possible will be eternally boundless. Go forth and seek out the suffering. Listen to their cries. Embrace them and you will change the world.

I Believe

maxresdefault

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.—-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Long ago I was teaching some rather rough and tough characters. Many of my students belonged to gangs and had parents who were in prison. It would be an understatement to say that their lives were difficult. There was one young man who had a checkered history both academically and behaviorally, but for some reason he and I hit it off. I had a sense that there was way more to him than met the eye or was capable of being recorded on paper. Before long the two of us were often conversing and I learned that he was a naturally gifted artist. He often spoke of his dreams for the future and I did everything possible to encourage him. He did well in my mathematics class, but failed so many of his other courses that he had to repeat the entire grade. It seemed a bit unfair that he was not allowed to take the next level of mathematics because he had made a strong “B”  from me and I knew that he understood all of the concepts quite well. The only positive aspect of his retention was that he was placed in my class once again because his reputation as a trouble maker made the other teachers leery of  having to deal with him.

I began the new school year by making him a tutor for the other students, telling them that he was a bright fellow who would be able to help them whenever they became confused. He enjoyed his role and took it very seriously. I decided to do something special for him, and so I purchased a portfolio for his artwork from an art supply store. He had never seen such a thing, and got super excited when I explained that it was designed to store his best pieces safely. Before long he was filling it with impressive works that excited both of us.

One day I learned that one of my female students had been sexually abused by her uncle. He had been living with her family but when her parents learned that he had impregnated her they went to the police. The uncle was furious and sent word that he was going to kill the young lady even if he had to stalk her to get an opportunity to do so. The principal of the school instructed me to be observant and immediately let him know if the uncle showed up at my classroom. Together we agreed on a code word that would alert him when I pushed the panic button. It made me sad and quite nervous because I wanted to be certain that the child would be protected from further harm.

I decided to rearrange the seating in my classroom so that the girl would always be close to me and as far from the doorway as possible. While I was in the process of attempting to design a safe place for her the young man whom I had made my assistant walked in and asked me what I was doing. Of course I was not at liberty to tell him what was happening. I simply mentioned that it was time for a change, and so he began helping me move the furniture and place stickers on the tables to let the students know where I had decided they would be sitting. Somehow he almost seemed to figure out what was really happening because as soon as I placed the label for the young lady he suggested that he should sit at the same table, and he even sat down in one of the chairs as though he was determining whether or not he had a clear line of sight for the door. He pushed the furniture around until it was just right, and then looked knowingly at me as if to reassure me that he was taking responsibility for the girl’s safety.

It would not have been too difficult for this young man to know what was going on even though I had said nothing. He was the leader of a powerful gang in the neighborhood, and very little information got past him. I don’t know how much talking the girl was doing, but her growing belly made it clear that she was pregnant, and the fear in her eyes gave away her state of mind. She literally looked like the very image of a madonna on a Christmas card, so lovely and pure, but she was also anxious and filled with a kind of pain.

Nothing ever happened to the sweet young mother. Her uncle eventually fled to Mexico and never came back, but before the coast was clear my young man watched over her easing all of our fears.

Eventually they both moved on to eighth grade and then high school. I never saw either of them again and hoped with all of my heart that they were happy and doing well, but my good thoughts were not to be. I one day learned that the young man was an inmate at Huntsville prison. He had been found guilty of armed robbery and would be in jail for a very long time. Learning of his fate was one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life for I knew all too well that in spite of what he had done and what his future fate would be, he was a truly good person inside. It pained me that he had made choices that so damaged all of the possibilities that most certainly might have been his. My heart hurt for him and for his family. I was angry that he had succumbed to the evil temptations of his lifestyle rather than finding a way out as so many of his friends had managed to do. At the same time I still loved him, and so I still often think of him and wonder how he is doing.

Perhaps if his behavior improved he may have been released from prison by now. I hope that maybe he continued his education and worked toward a positive goal. I know that he has the heart for such things but I worry that he may not have had the will. His story is one of those that haunts me, because it is not all that unusual. There were few who were surprised by his fate. He had not impressed many of my colleagues with his talents and his sweetness, because he had rarely shown them to anyone. He seemed to have become victim to a self fulfilling prophecy rather than realizing how much greatness there was inside his soul.

I’d like to think that maybe he matured and somehow found himself. It comforts me to believe so. Not to believe that he was ever able to rise above his circumstances is too depressing to bear, so I allow myself to have a glimmer of hope whenever I think of him. If my thoughts were somehow able to travel through time and space and reach his mind he would understand that I believe in him and pray that he has been able to believe in himself.