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.

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All That Ever Really Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reason For The Season

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I’ve got my Christmas trees decorated, some of my gifts purchased and wrapped, a few of my Christmas cards addressed, and lights twinkling in my front yard. It’s really looking like Christmas 2018 is well on its way. As I celebrate this year I pause now and again to think of people that I know and even some who are strangers who are suffering and finding it difficult to find the joy that I feel. I know all too well how Christmas time can be quite difficult for those who have experienced great loss or who are watching a loved one suffer. It can be quite lonely to observe the world seeming to have so much fun when everything around you is falling apart.

As I begin my revelry I think of a family whose father died quite unexpectedly the day after Thanksgiving. They are bereft and struggling to make sense of what has happened to them. I truly understand their pain for long ago when I was only a child of eight my I awoke on a Memorial Day to learn that my beloved father had died in a car accident the evening before. My entire world crashed down around me and my family seemed to be locked in a state of chronic grief. It felt as though nothing would ever feel normal again, and when Christmas came the old rituals felt odd and out of place. It was when friends and family members came to visit that I began to understand that we would eventually be alright. The gift of love brought us through the darkness and suddenly the lights on our Christmas tree shone so brightly.

I know of a man who is so very ill that his doctors have pronounced that he is living his last days. He drifts in and out of a hazy state of mind. He is a good man and his family would love nothing more than for some beautiful miracle that would save his life for a bit longer. Sadly they know that this is unlikely to happen, and so they make their Christmas preparations with heavy hearts. It is difficult to go through the motions that have been so joyful and routine in the past. They plant smiles on their faces even while their hearts are breaking.

A few years back we were wearing their shoes. My mother-in-law lay in a hospital in a coma after suffering a stroke. While the rest of the world was partying and visiting Santa we sat in her room in a watch that would only lead to her death. We rarely left the hospital and when we did it felt so strange to see signs of Christmas all around us. It was hard to imagine the revelry that was taking place as we felt such sorrow.

That was a very strange Christmas for our family. After her death we gathered as usual on Christmas Day for dinner and the exchange of gifts. It felt as though we were in some strange out of body experiment as we so half heartedly carried on. What helped us most were the cards and letters and gifts of flowers and love from friends who demonstrated how much they understood how we felt. We were not forgotten in the rush of the season and it meant so much to us.

I know of a recently widowed woman who is attempting to find her life without the partner with whom she shared so many joys. She is hurting and more than willing to express her sorrow. She is sustained by words of compassion and indications that she has not been forgotten. It will take time for her to heal, but that time will eventually come. Until then she simply needs hugs and love.

I suspect that each of us knows of someone who is having a very hard time this Christmas. As we load our busy calendars with promises of parties and good times, we would do well to take a bit of time to remember those who are suffering. My mother was wonderful at doing that. She spent a few minutes each day just calling people to cheer them. It was a simple gesture that took little time, but when she died all of those whom she had gifted with her compassion remembered those moments and spoke of how much they had meant. I was overwhelmed when I learned just how often she had quietly brought joy for people with the simple gesture of letting them know that they had not been forgotten in the rush of the season.

I am feeling fortunate and happy this year. I plan to enjoy Christmas, but I will also take the time  to remember that it is not a joyful time everywhere. There are people who are hungry, sick, lonely, grieving all around us. As they view the celebrating their sorrow only becomes more intense. They need us to remember them and make them part of our plans.

I hope to go see my aunts who are now in their nineties and living in nursing homes. They used to decorate every corner of their homes and bake goodies for days. Now they are bound to wheelchairs and dependent on the kindness of others. I want to bring them the cheer that they so deserve. I also plan to be sensitive to those who have lost or may be about to lose a loved one as they struggle through the season. Their hearts are heavy and they are in pain. I want to do something special for them.

Christmas is a time for remembering that Jesus Himself came down for the express purpose of saving us all. If we truly celebrate in the most appropriate way we will include those who need us most when we make our plans.

Just Like That

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Colorado, at least in the mountainous areas, is like a picture postcard. On its best days It is a slice of what heaven must surely resemble, but much like life it can also be treacherous and filled with untold problems. Thus it was on my most recent visit to that gloriously beautiful part of the world, a kind of bittersweet journey that challenged me with a cornucopia of emotions.

Day one was perfection, a picture postcard of memories beginning with an easy stress free flight from Houston to Denver on the day after Thanksgiving. My brother, Pat, and my sister-in-law, Allison picked us up from the airport and we chattered all the way to Estes Park where we enjoy a delicious lunch. There we learned that there would be a parade later that afternoon, and so we decided to stroll through the shops to take advantage of seeing the special event.

It was so cold that not even our layers of undershirts, sweaters, coats, mufflers, hats and gloves were sufficient to keep us warm. We purchased woolen blankets and found places offering coffee and hot chocolate to ease the chill that seemed to go down to the marrow of our bones. In spite of the frigid conditions we talked and laughed and had a glorious time. We were happy to be spending time together and spoke of our plans for the coming days.

The parade was a local affair with floats and decorated cars that spoke of homespun efforts and lots of heart. The high school band played Christmas carols and the Knights of Columbus strutted in full gear. There was a twinkling light bedecked bus that carried waving seniors from the nursing home, and many a float that appeared to have been crafted inside someone’s garage. It was precious and genuine in a way that the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade will never quite understand. It reminded us of the parade in the movie A Christmas Story, a kind of throw back to a simple era when folks just had a good time and didn’t worry too much about perfection. It was a most wonderful way to launch the Christmas season.

We stayed in Pat and Allison’s cabin on Storm Mountain, a home built of logs and lots of love. We munched on popcorn and spoke of all the things that we were going to do together during our visit, but since Mike and I had awakened that morning at four to get to the airport on time we were exhausted fairly early and had to give in to the signals from our bodies that we were done for the day. We knew that the morrow would be the reason for our journey, the wedding of a cousin in a lovely setting in Lyons.

When I awoke the early I found Allison sitting at the dining table looking grim and tired. She had been awake for hours after receiving the kind of phone call that dashes dreams and joy. Her daughter-in-law’s father had suddenly died. He was by all accounts a very good man, beloved by everyone who knew him. He was also quite young, only fifty four, and seemingly in the peak of health. His last day on this earth had been spent with friends and he had prepared for bed no doubt thinking of how wonderful his life was. Nobody would have thought that he would collapse and die so instantly. The shock of what had happened ricocheted through the roster of friends and family members who so loved him.

His daughter had to learn of this tragedy from a celebratory vacation in Thailand. Her world went from joy to grief in a matter of seconds. Allison had spent hours rerouting and rescheduling the journey home for her sweet daughter-in-law and her son. What had been the trip of a lifetime had spun into a nightmare. Pat and Allison would have to leave Colorado immediately and return home to Houston. Mike and I would attend the wedding and finish our trip alone. Just like that everything had changed.

A winter storm was brewing that day. There was promise of snow and ice in the mountains. We rented a car and soon enough learned that it handled the roads well until we tested its mettle on treacherous trails filled with ice and snow. It could even not make it up the driveway at the cabin and the worst weather was yet to come. Thus we settled for a hotel room in Loveland and said our goodbyes to Pat and Allison with heavy hearts. They would battle the elements on their long journey home, an added reminder of how quickly things can change.

We made it to the wedding feeling a bit other worldly. Our minds were on the people who were dealing with the end of a beautiful life while we were focusing on the new beginning of two people very much in love. It was a vivid reminder of the cycle of our lives and the need to always be mindful of our blessings. Being at the wedding was the perfect panacea for the dreariness that had invaded what we had intended to be a great celebration. It was impossible not to smile when witnessing the unadulterated joy of the bride and groom. Our disappointment and concerns melted away even as the wind outside whipped at the windows and reminded us that another young couple was far away making the arduous trip home to bury a father.

By the following day the storm had passed. The sun came out and shone gloriously as if to encourage us to maintain our optimism even in the face of tragedy. We attended church surrounded by strangers who nonetheless embraced us. A friend suggested on Facebook that we thank God all day long rather than petitioning for favors. As I noted the wonders of our day I realized that my world was indeed crowded with beauty and kindness and ways of feeling happy in spite of the trials that come our way.

The remainder of our trip was quiet and comforting. We seemed to have acquired the Midas touch because each day was somehow golden. We thought of Allison and her daughter-in-law’s family often and hoped that they somehow felt the vibrations of our love and concern for them. We relished our own moments perhaps a bit more acutely as we had been reminded how fragile and precious life actually is. Just like that the sweet may turn bitter and the bitter may become sweet. It is the way of the world. It is the circle of life even for the very good.

My heart is still heavy for the family of that good man. I understand all too well that shockingly terrible feeling that comes from losing a loved one without warning. Nothing can adequately describe the sense of unfairness and loss. I can only assure all who loved him that this wonderful man will be remembered for the joy that he so generously showered on family and friends. In time the overwhelming sadness will be replaced with beautiful memories and his spirit will enable all of them to go on to embrace both the bitter and sweet of life. Just like that winter will pass and spring will come again.

Get the Ball Rolling

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My two greatest fears are drowning and burning in a fire. I have had nightmares about both scenarios since I was a young child. I suppose that my fear of fires began when a man on our street died in his bed as his house became a blazing inferno. I vividly recall seeing the damage to his home and watching him being wheeled out with a sheet over his body. I was probably no more than four or five years old when it happened. I stood by my mother as I witnessed this tragedy, but never spoke to her of the horror that I felt. I only internalized the terror that it wrought in me, and worried about what I might do if my own home one day went up in flames.

I have smoke alarms and a ladder upstairs under a bed that can be used as a way of getting out through a window if the exit routes are blocked. I am very conscious of sounds and smells in the night and I used to drill my daughters when they were still children so that they would know what to do in the event of a fire. While the thought of losing my home to fire is one of my worries, I still feel as though the odds of it happening are unimaginable. I suppose that nonetheless my phobia has led me to closely follow the stories of wildfires in other parts of the country and to wonder if any such event might ever happen to me.

I have been both horrified and saddened by the most recent fires in California. The videos of individuals fleeing in their cars past walls of flames, burned out vehicles and structures reduced to ash is incredibly frightening. I find myself thinking about those images and the unfortunate souls trapped in a kind of hell on earth as they attempt to save their lives. The fact that so many did not make it, is sobering. One minute these folks lived in a delightful town that was truly a kind of paradise and the next all hell broke lose with little or no warning. They have returned to a landscape that not even a war might duplicate. There is literally nothing left of their material lives other than the clothes on their backs.

While still being alive is dear compensation given so many who have died and are missing, it is little comfort to think of having to start over from the ground up. So many questions and fears must be overtaking their minds. They have literally lost the sense of security that usually comes with having a home filled with all of the memories of a lifetime. How will they ever again sleep peacefully at night? Where will they go? Will they be able to stay and still feel safe? How will the world ever feel the same again?

I have no idea what we all might do to help these souls, but I suspect that if each and everyone of us became committed to sending them hope and supplies and funds for rebuilding their lives the goodness might help to assuage some of the that sadness must be overwhelming them at this moment. I know that those in Houston who lost their homes to the floods of Hurricane Harvey were bolstered by the kindness of both friends and strangers. While they still flinch when it rains and relive the moments when they had to flee their homes, they all tell of the ways in which people gathered like a village to ease their pain and suffering. It was in such human compassion that they found the courage to begin their lives anew.

I’d like to think that we will suspend our negative commentaries about what they might have done more to prevent those fires in the first place, or suggestions that they had somehow chosen places to live that were not meant to be inhabited. When water or fire is consuming your home it is not the time to hear lectures on what should have been. Instead voices of understanding and love are what is needed. Luckily there always seem to be caring souls among us, but in such extreme cases we need even more of them. It is up to us not to just have feelings but to help in constructive ways.

Here in the Christmas season many people search for families and individuals whom they might help in tangible ways. I’d like to suggest that the people in California who have lost so much represent a most noble cause. We might set aside a certain amount of money each day in December to be sent to organizations that will be helping in the rebuilding process. We may want to purchase a single household item each day to send to some family or group. How wonderful would it be to buy a book each day to ship to schools and libraries? One person doing this might not make a dent in the needs, but if our whole nation worked together like so many did in the aftermath of hurricane Harvey, just think of how much more quickly the affected people might return to at least a semblance of normalcy. Such programs might be organized through schools or churches for maximum effect. Whole families may want to forego a present or two in order to instead purchase necessities for the people affected by the fires. Those with building skills might offer their services. College students could urge their fraternities, sororities and clubs to make the burned out families their special projects.

It’s up to us now not to criticize, but rather to find constructive ways to help. There will be plenty of time later to determine what changes must happen and how to insure that they take place. In times like this fault finding means little. Compassion and empathy and meaningful help are the things these unfortunate souls need. Let’s get the process started.