Our Own Hero’s Journey

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My teen years were a time of awakening. It was as though I had lived in a childish bubble for all of my previous ages and only then began to look at the realities of the world around me. My education in high school was rigorous. I found myself working harder than I ever had. I learned about things that not even my mother knew. Before I had seen myself predominantly as a citizen of Houston, Texas and the United States of America with little interest in other places. I suddenly saw the possibilities of exploring new locales, new ideas, new ways of living.

I had little realization that even my ever expanding horizons were still restricted by the small size of my high school and the fact that my classmates and I were at heart so much alike. Still I somehow sensed that I needed to purposely seek different ways of doing things. Since I did not have the income to attend college out of town I chose a large public university in my city instead of accepting scholarships to the smaller private ones. I wanted to increase the likelihood that I would meet a diversity of people and thinking which is exactly what happened.

I found myself itching to go out on my own to see all of the world. I had briefly lived in both northern and southern California and had found those locales lacking in the kind of southern hospitality of my own city so I was more inclined to look to the east where I imagined myself writing and hobnobbing with the artsy set. I thought that perhaps I might one day be a professor of literature at some well known university, sitting on a stool in front of my students wrapped in a shawl and quoting passages from Shakespeare.

Life has a way of rearranging dreams. I met a young man who was intriguing. He had also grown up in Houston but on the opposite side of downtown from me. His mother had been married more than once which was unique at that time and his stepfather, whom he considered to be his real father, was a handsome Puerto Rican fellow with a slight accent and a perfect mastery of both English and  Spanish. My new beau had studied for a time in New Orleans and he introduced me to the wondrous glories of that city, a kind of Paris only a few hundred miles from where I lived. I found him to be exotic in an exciting way that was different from anyone I had ever before known.

We fell quickly and hopelessly in love and in the tradition of the day were soon married and bearing more responsibilities that we were likely prepared to face. Somehow we muddled through living off of an income that was impossibly small and learned how to fend for ourselves on the fly. He and I dreamed together of both becoming college professors and landing jobs in grand universities. All such fantasies halted when my mother first became ill with her bipolar disorder. It became apparent that we would need to stay close to her so that we might be ready to care for her and for my brothers who were still minors whenever her depression and mania became extreme. It was a blow, but one that was not as bad as we might have imagined.

A succession of challenges awaited us including the birth of our two children and a frightening illness that my husband contracted just as we were beginning to feel comfortable in our edited futures. He spent four days a week in the hospital getting chemotherapy for several months during which he was unable to work. We were not yet thirty but we had adapted to the point of being like forty year olds. Our sense of responsibility for our children led us to a very careful lifestyle that precluded any but highly practical ways of living. It was not as vagabonds roaming across the globe that we grew up, but as people clawing just to stay afloat. Somehow we made it work and we did it together and with the support of our families. It wasn’t as glamorous as we had dreamed but it brought us ever closer together and made us stronger than we might have been.

I often hear people insist that success may only be found in attending prestigious universities and living in new places. There is a tendency these days for young people to extend their youthful activities into their thirties, eschewing the kind of responsibilities that my husband and I had to face when we were still quite young. “To each his own” has always been my mantra but I worry that we are more and more becoming a society in which our relationships are built on false dreams that will not make us as happy as responsibility for others does.

I learned that in caring for others at a young age I matured quickly and learned important skills for my work life. My experiences were as critical in developing me as any formal class has ever been. I became a better person than the one I had pictured in my mind. It did not take moving away or traveling to exotic places for me to understand the nature and glories of people. I studied in the school of hard knocks and rose to the top of the class. My hardships and how I dealt with them were as instructive as a series of theoretical lectures.

When I first began teaching my principal noted that I behaved as though I had been in a classroom for years. She attributed my confidence to the excellent education that I had received at the same university that Elizabeth Warren attended. There was a certain truth in her observation, but more than that was the humility and appreciation for humankind that I had learned from the struggles that I had personally overcome one by one. It was not just learning from books and brilliant professors that brought me success, but also the kind of knowledge that is only found in the responsibilities of maintaining the health and welfare of others.

Wisdom is not a commodity that is easily purchased and there is no one way of achieving it. It often comes serendipitously. It is in the unexpected turns of our lives and how we approach them that we often grow the most. Facing up to our circumstances and making the sacrifices necessary for overcoming problems teaches us our capabilities. It is often in a crisis that our true natures appear. As painful as those moments may be they are indeed the most glorious opportunities for our ultimate development. Like all heroes on a difficult journey we too can become better than we had ever imagined.

Strong Enough

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I awake early each morning and follow a routine that rarely varies. I prepare a light breakfast, brew some tea and wander to my sitting room, a place that was meant to be a study. I open the blinds so that I might see the first rays of the sun embracing the earth for one more day of possibilities, and settle in my easy chair with my laptop. I check several newsfeeds to see what has happened during my sleep and then I go to Facebook to find out how my friends and family are doing. It has become a way of communicating with one another that has kept me appraised of the welfare of even those who live very far away. Once I have an idea of the general condition of the world and those that I love I sit quietly in prayer and meditation, admittedly not as faithful and trusting as some of the more spiritual people that I know. Mostly it’s a conversation with God that varies depending on the circumstances of the moment.

On some days my entreaties to the Lord must sound like those of a whining child. I am often overwhelmed by the pain and suffering that I see. I want to be able to help those in need in more tangible ways and I feel a loss of control as though I am plummeting through the air in free fall, terrified by the uncertainty of what will eventually happen to me. I feel weak and vulnerable, two conditions that terrify me and that I mostly eschew at all cost. Sometimes though there is no escape and as I pray I am overcome with the calm that comes from the faith and trust that I am not alone. In those moments of clarity I realize that I have a parachute that will open at the very time that I need it. I realized that instead of fighting I need to relax and float through the air enjoying the view.

It’s difficult even in the best of circumstances for me to be so dependent on anyone or anything beyond myself, and yet I have seen days when my only choice was to plummet to earth in a state of panic or take the hands of God and the people around me to find the help that I so desperately needed. Like every human I have enjoyed blessings both great and small and endured pain and suffering that I thought might break me.

Each of us finds ourselves in situations that threaten to defeat us. Sometimes the hardest place to be is in the role of an observant to someone’s sorrow. It is deeply painful to watch a loved one or acquaintance bearing a weight that seems almost unbearable, especially when they can’t seem to get a break from circumstances that are beyond anyone’s control. Seeing them trying so hard to be strong and watching their efforts be compounded by disappointments and horrors is enough to make us question everything that we believe. It is in those rock bottom times that we have to surrender ourselves and suspend our need to be in charge, a most difficult state of affairs for control freaks like me.

I am all too aware these days of family members who are dealing with the burden of caring for multiple members who are either very ill or disabled. They are overcome by responsibilities that are demanding more of their energy than they ever dreamed they had. I am monitoring the progress of friends who are fighting like warriors to beat dreadful diseases. I am hearing the plaintiff cries of individuals who have lost children, a state that feels unfair and out of sync with the way things are supposed to be. I am observing young people who are confused and consumed with deep sadness. I know of others who have been betrayed by spouses or friends and now feel alone and hurt. I see the pain and suffering that attacks as serendipitously as a hurricane, leaving overwhelming destruction in its path.

A few morning ago I began my normal routine and saw two posts that struck me to the very center of my being. One was from a high school  acquaintance whose daughter died during the summer. She has been mostly stoic about her feelings but on this particular day she allowed those of us who know her to see the depth of her feelings and the hurt that is still so raw for her. She is a beautiful soul as was her daughter and the bond between them is as strong as ever and always will be. While her wounded heart is still far from mending I sense that it is on its way because she had the courage to admit how devastated she is. Being unafraid to admit our pain is so often the first step in healing.

Only a few posts down was another from a work colleague whose baby boy died in her arms eight years ago. She poignantly recounted the day on which her little angel left this earth only a short time after he was born. She spoke of her weariness at that time and how she was listening to Strong Enough on the radio as she traveled to the hospital not knowing that only a few hours later her son would be gone.

I wept eight years ago when I learned that my friend’s baby did not make it and I wept again when I read her story of the moment of his death eight years later. Then I listened to the song that had played on her journey to the unthinkable and pondered it’s message. I understood how the series of events that befell her were linked together in one glorious, mysterious way that brought her the peace and comfort that she needed. Like my other friend she will never understand why she had to face something so unthinkable, but she feels the presence of both God and her beloved child supporting her in ways that can’t be explained by logic but rather by the heart.

Sometimes words fail me and I find someone else’s to fill the void. So herewith are the lyrics for Strong Enough by Matthew West. Perhaps they may help someone much like they did my friend. I know that they spoke to me.

Strong Enough

You must

You must think I’m strong

To give me what I’m going through

Well, forgive me

Forgive me if I’m wrong

But this looks like more than I can do

On my own

I know I’m not strong enough to be

Everything that I’m supposed to be

I give up

I’m not strong enough

Hands of mercy won’t you cover me

Lord right now I’m asking you to be

Strong enough

Strong enough

For the both of us

Yeah

Well, maybe

Maybe that’s the point

To reach the point of giving up

‘Cause when I’m finally

Finally at rock bottom

Well, that’s when I start looking up

And reaching out

I know I’m not strong enough to be

Everything that I’m supposed to be

I give up

I’m not strong enough

Hands of mercy won’t you cover me

Lord right now I’m asking you to be

Strong enough

Strong enough

‘Cause I’m broken

Down to nothing

But I’m still holding on to the one thing

You are God and

You are strong when

I am weak

I can do all things

Through Christ who gives me strength

And I don’t have to be

I don’t have to be strong enough

Strong enough

I can do all things

Through Christ who gives me strength

And I don’t have to be

Strong enough

Strong enough

Oh, yeah

I know I’m not strong enough to be

Everything that I’m supposed to be

I give up

I’m not strong enough

Hands of mercy won’t you cover me

Lord right now I’m asking you to be

Strong enough

Strong enough

Strong enough

Source: LyricFind

Songwriters: Matthew West

Strong Enough lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc

Look for the Helpers

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I suppose that I am showing my age by admitting that much about the world today feels unfamiliar and uncomfortable to me. I hear a constant refrain of complaining about virtually every aspect of society. Gratitude for what we actually have is rarely mentioned. Instead grumbling about every little thing is the mode. I find the whining to be contrary to my nature and unlikely to bring answers to the real problems that we face.

I have no doubt that we are always in need of improvements, but I think we would get a great deal more accomplished if we would stop all the trash talk that is hurled back and forth and just get down to observing what is right about the world and using that information to correct the difficulties that need improvement. Instead we can’t even seem to get through a natural disaster or tragedy without folks ramping up our divisions instead of highlighting our goodness. The true test of our mettle is not to be found in the mistakes that we humans are bound to make, but in the positive contributions that we offer over and over again.

These days we allow the media and people with an ax to grind to create a number of self fulfilling prophecies of doom. When horrific events occur we spend far too much time highlighting “might have beens,” angry mobs, unintended slips of the tongue, and other such mistakes rather than looking for the helpers, finding the light. The truth is that from the beginning of humankind’s adventures on this planet there has been a kind of duel between those who would hurt us and those who would sacrifice for our welfare. In truth the later far outnumber the former but we tend to give more attention to the ugly side of life, especially of late.

When I was in a classroom I found that each group of students that I encountered was a microcosm of reality. The vast majority of children were well behaved and willing to learn. Invariably I encountered a kid who was filled with venom and determined to run the show with his/her unacceptable behavior. When I was somewhat inexperienced with such things I tended to engage in battles of wills that rarely ended well. It took me quite a while to learn that focusing on the goodness of the youngsters in my classroom was a far wiser thing to do. I took away the very attention that the trouble makers desired and instead heaped it upon the students who always tried to do the right thing with only minor lapses now and again.

I did not totally ignore the young people with major problems whose cries for help were masked in aggressiveness. I understood that their ugly behaviors were indicative of needs that had to be somehow met, but I also did not engage in public combat with them. I refused to turn my classroom into an unending debate over what was wrong. Instead I continually highlighted what was right and good. I looked for the goodness and embraced it publicly while working on the troubles quietly.

I suppose that we almost naturally pay more attention to outliers than to the average. A story of a single doctor who hurts patients trumps one about the thousands of miracles taking place every single day with the help of dedicated physicians. We see the flaws more quickly than the overall appearance of a situation. When a disaster strikes somewhere the big story is what the victims did not get rather than the overflow of kindness from countless strangers wanting to help. We make the mistake of lumping entire groups of people into baskets of “deplorables”  when a single gunman shoots up a venue. Like the first year teacher we yell at the entire class and punish them for bad behavior even as we know that most of them are not guilty of anything at all.

I am still haunted by memories of hurricane Harvey that hit my city of Houston with a vengeance. I was terrified during those days of unremitting rain. I watched images of the city filling with water as though some heavenly presence had forgotten to turn off a giant faucet. What I loved most about the local news coverage is that every single story focused on the helpers. We saw everyday heroes rescuing people that they did not know. There was a joint effort both during and in the aftermath of the disaster to reach out to anyone in need. While there might have been mistakes made it was not the time to belabor points about what should have or could have been done differently Instead we were treated to a vision of the very best of people and it helped us to weather the storm. By looking for the helpers we realized that we would ultimately be okay.

I don’t mean to paint an unrealistic picture of the world that does not include evil for it is most certainly present. What I do know is that horrific people and horrific acts are an aberration. Most immigrants are good, Most teachers are dedicated to their students. Most police officers are working to keep us safe while risking their own lives. Most teenagers want to become outstanding adults. Most humans try to be the best possible versions of themselves. While we have many imperfections they are not the whole story of who we are and yet they are the ones that we see in every headline and newsflash. They bring notoriety to the few who are bad while ignoring the good. Maybe when we see them our first inclination should be to avert our gaze and look for the helpers. It is in the goodness of people that we will find the answers to the problems that we hope to solve.     

Dancing With Reckless Abandon

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My empathy meter has been in overdrive of late. It has been a rough few months and weeks for so many that I know and for others whom I have never met, but for whom I have great sympathy. I have felt incredibly frustrated because I have not been able to actually give tangible help to any of the people about whom I have worried. The best that I have had to offer is a kind word, a listening ear, a hug and some prayers. The list of people for whom I am sending entries to God has steadily grown to the point that I just say, “you know who needs your help” whenever I implore the Lord to give them comfort and maybe even a miracle. Still, my efforts feels so feeble because I tend to be a control freak and the world is crowding out my ability to take charge. For that reason I reached a low point recently and felt that I needed to find a way to lift my own spirits. That’s when something rather extraordinary happened.

I was idly perusing the posts on my Facebook wall when I saw a photo from my friend Serena. It was a picture of her and her daughter at the beginning of the school year. My relationship with Serena goes back decades when she and I were both teaching mathematics at South Houston Intermediate. Our principal had chosen both of us to attend a conference and so we shared a hotel room where we got to really know each other. Serena was literally young enough to be my daughter. In fact, she was around the same age as my two girls.

I suppose that I appeared to be a middle aged motherly figure to her but that all changed when she set her alarm to play music to wake us up one morning. The radio clicked on at the appointed time and played a song by Depeche Mode. Serena quickly apologized for not thinking that songs from such a group might be a bit too strange for me. When I laughed and admitted that Depeche Mode was one of my all time favorite bands our friendship was sealed. We talked about which of their songs we liked best and what other groups we enjoyed. That broke down the wall that our differing ages had created and from that point forward Serena and I regularly got together for long and very deep conversations. It was only when she decided to return to her home state in the midwest that we lost touch.

Eventually Serena and I found each other again on Facebook and I happily learned that she was married, had a daughter and was still teaching math. I have taken great joy in viewing her happiness over the years and I’ve even considered making a trip up north one day to visit with her once again.

That takes me back to seeing a photo of Serena at the time when I was feeling rather dreary over all of the pain and suffering that is going on around me. It made me smile to think of how wonderful Serena’s life has been, but it also reminded me of a time when I was a forty something woman at the peak of health, joy and accomplishment. In those years I regularly listened to Depeche Mode at full volume and danced around my house with reckless  abandon. It was an unbelievably freeing experience that unleashed the person that I truly am. The photo of Serena triggered those feelings of elation that I used to feel and I thought what elation dancing has always provided me. I suddenly decided to ask Alexa to play some Depeche Mode and when I heard  those familiar sounds I pranced around my great room like I was at a party . I didn’t feel at all silly since my husband was off helping his father with a computer problem. I was energetic and free and chasing away all of my negative thoughts.

One thing led to another as I took a kind of walk down memory lane and felt a genuine sense of happiness in thinking of friendships that I have cherished with people like Serena. I also harked back to my teaching days and how I had felt such a sense of purpose in helping so many students to master the fundamentals of mathematical concepts. The faces of my students literally passed through my mind. That’s when I realized how to channel my worry for those about whom I care into something meaningful.

I am presently working with a student who is feeling rather anxious about his high school math class. Helping him will be so constructive, and it is something that uses one of my talents in a positive fashion. I also now homeschool seven other students in math. It takes little of my time, but makes me feel as though I am still contributing to the good of the future. Somehow I have always found a modicum of comfort in the act of learning during the most difficult times of my life. Focusing on something that engages my brain helps me to stop the cycle of anxiety that builds up when things are going awry. I’ve found shelter for my fears in academic pursuits from the time that my father died and all through the years when I was caring for my mother. I highly recommend learning of any kind as an antidote to sadness.

I also realized as I was dancing around that any effort that I make to ease the pain of someone else is a good thing regardless of how small it may be. I know that I whenever someone has sent me a card or thought to call or invite me to something that might take my mind from my woes, I have always felt better. They could not change the situation that concerned me but just knowing that someone cared was enough to get me through the worst times of my life.

It’s funny how that little photo of Serena lifted my spirits and helped me to think more deeply about how to tame my sadness. Friendships are like that. They reach across the miles and and through the years to remind us of the blessings that we have. My heart is lighter now and I know that there will be brighter days ahead. They always come and I foresee lots of dancing my future.    

I See You

I See You

I went to a fairly small high school in which we tended to know of everyone of our classmates, but often did not really know details about all of them. Some of my friends from that stage of my life are still very much part of my world, and what I have learned over the decades is that each of us have had to deal with difficulties both when we were young, and when we were adults. None of us have gone untouched by daunting challenges that sometimes took all of our reserves to overcome.

As I have aged I have had opportunities to get to really know some of the people who went to school with me who were once little more than acquaintances or names and faces in a yearbook. Even those that I thought had a golden touch have endured painful experiences, and many of them occurred even as they sauntered through the hallways of our school with smiles on their faces hiding the hurt and fear that was stalking them.

We are in a strange kind of era in which we almost appear to be vying to determine which people among us have been the victims of the most unjust tragedies. Certainly some among us have always had more resources for dealing with difficulties, but none of us have ever been entirely free of troubles. My brothers and I had a heavy dose of sorrow, poverty and exposure to mental illness but we also had more than a generous share of emotional support from our mother, our extended family, our neighbors, the people at our church, our teachers and our friends. We may have been thrown into the maelstrom more than we might have wished, and wondered at times if we would survive, but time and again we learned the very important lesson that we were never alone. That realization was more valuable than money or possessions or influence or privilege. In fact, we were quite young when we knew beyond a doubt that there is always is source of kindness and that often it comes from the most unexpected places.

The one thing that most people desire is to be seen and heard. I recently read a book that my grandson chose for his summer reading that reminded me of our human need to be noticed and honored for being exactly who we are. A Monster Calls is the story of a young man plagued by nightmares in the midst of his beloved mother’s battle with cancer. It is a gorgeous flight of fancy that speaks to our desire to be understood. There is no race or class that does not share the desire to be fully and totally accepted.

Just as the boy in A Monster Calls was filled with anger because he believed that nobody fully understood him, so too are many people in society today filled with rage because they feel misunderstood. They are mad about this or that and don’t want to take it anymore. They seem to be unaware of the fact that we all have been burdened with challenges beyond our control that have made our lives more difficult than we want them to be. They carry on because they want someone to empathize with their plights, some of which appear to be more deserving of our concern than others. In truth it is impossible to discern the difference between rotten apples and moldy oranges. Problems are problems and we all have them. When they pile up and become unbearable, which they tend to do in spite of our efforts, we simply want some compassion and for those around us to acknowledge our sorrows.

When humans feel abandoned they are more likely to lose hope. They lash out or devolve into depression. There is no telling where their thoughts of desperation will lead them. Sometimes they become ugly and violent versions of themselves. I always ponder when I encounter such a person what brought them to such a terrible place. I find myself wondering if someone along the pathway of their lives might have helped them to find positive ways of dealing with tribulations. I contemplate the possibility that they became so invisible that they broke.

I  have been greatly saddened by a tragedy that occurred near where my grandsons live. On a summer afternoon just before the start of school two boys the same age as my grandsons met in a park. One of them shot and killed the other. They were sixteen and my grandsons knew both of them from their high school. The shooter was in the same advisory period as theirs. The victim’s mother was an acquaintance of their mom’s. It hit all of us hard just as it did the teachers at the school. Everyone wondered what might have prevented such an horrific moment. Was there something that might have been said or done? What was the defining event when things began to go so terribly wrong?

We tend to operate as though laws and rules and allegiances are more important than individual lives, and yet there are stories after stories both in literature and history of people who were saved because someone witnessed their pain and did something meaningful to help them. Kindness often does wonders. I know for a fact that it made an enormous difference for me and my brothers when we were growing into adults. Just having someone see us and offer a hand taught us to be optimistic even in the darkest hours. Little acknowledgements were enough to sustain us.

I was reading about Latinas going to college and feeling different and a bit frightened when checking into their dormitories. It reminded me of my own college days. I was unable to live on campus. I went to the university in my city and commuted to and from school each day. I did not have a car but I had two dear friends who offered to get me there and take me back home. They went out of their way to help me.

I would have liked to have been part of college life with a dorm room and all of the activities associated with that experience, but I barely had enough money to cover my tuition which I paid from summer jobs and little bits of work here and there. I instead got something even better, a lifetime relationship with the two wonderful souls who made sure that I got to my classes. They saw me and they listened to me then and all the way into the present. I don’t know what I might have done without them, but I’ll never have to wonder because they were there.

Perhaps instead of growing irritated by those who are shouting about their pain and sorrow, we simply need to let them know that we do see them and we will listen to them. That is the first step in helping someone to find the way to a better life. I had angels who gave me that gift, I pray that other frightened souls will find someone willing to provide for them.