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.

The Happy Place

The road

When summer days get so hot that hardly anyone is stirring outside I often think of the trips that we took to visit my grandparents in Arkansas when I was still a young child. Grandma and Grandpa fulfilled a long held dream by purchasing a little farm in a tiny town called Caddo Gap. My grandmother had spent time growing up not far from there and she still had siblings in the area. Her mother, father, grandmother were buried nearby on land that was once their homestead and is now part of a national forest.  She had fond memories of life in the country and while she never learned to read and write, her head was filled with knowledge of how of nature. She was a master gardener whose thumb was so green that it sparkled brighter than an emerald.

My grandfather spent his boyhood somewhere in a nameless place in view of the hills of Virginia. He too loved the quiet and serenity of being far away from the noise of the city, and so it should have been of little surprise to us that he and his best buddy, my grandmother, one day pulled up stakes from Houston and began an adventure that would bring them some of the happiest days of their lives.

My grandpa was a rambling man without roots or obligations until he met my grandmother when he was in his forties. He had been searching for something that he couldn’t find at the bottom of a bottle of booze or in the countless boarding houses where he lived while following opportunities to work. By his own admission he often felt abandoned. His mother had died when he was born and he was taken to live with his grandmother who passed when he was barely in his teens. The guardian that he chose to tend to his affairs died unexpectedly from typhus not long after Grandpa reached an age at which he became an independent adult. His life was untethered and dreary. Then one day he met a lovely woman, a widow who cooked in a boarding house in Oklahoma where my grandfather had landed while in search of a job. The rest would be one of the world’s great love stories as Grandpa fell head over heels for the tiny lady who would prove to be his savior.

They had two children together and continued to move from place to place until my grandfather grew old and retired from working. At first they settled in a house in the Houston Heights but the city was already growing faster than they wished. They longed for quiet and a rendezvous with nature. It surprised us all when they announced their plan to move away to begin a new kind of life when they were in their late seventies. With great anticipation they packed up all of their belongings and made the journey to their new home.

Theirs was a busy but idyllic life. They awoke before dawn each day to tend to the cow and the chickens. By the time the sun rose they had already completed hours of labor and they would continue their toil until late into the night. They grew a variety of crops using the knowledge that was stored in my grandmother’s head. They carefully tended each plant and when it was time to harvest and preserve their bounty they existed on only a few hours of sleep each night. Their cellar was filled with racks of canned corn, tomatoes, squash, green beans, pickles, peppers and other varieties of fruit and vegetables. Their huge freezer held fish that they had caught, deer meat for which  they had hunted, and even delicacies like squirrel that my grandmother turned into a delightful fricassee. They lived off of the land and became one with it. They were happier than they had ever been. 

We spent our summers visiting them and grew to love their way of life as much as they did. We always felt so much anticipation as we left from our home early in the morning and drove all day long to reach the road that carried us over the Caddo River and wound into the hills toward their house. The path was a narrow gravel affair that only allowed for one car at a time in some spots, so our parents had to honk the horn when they reached a blind spot to warn anyone coming from the other side that we were on our way. When we finally reached our destination we were always greeted by Grandma’s collie, Lady, who barked a greeting while wagging her tail. Soon enough my grandparents would emerge from their screened porch with smiles and open arms ready to hug us until we could hardly breathe.

Our days would be filled with milking the cow, gathering peaches from the big trees that shaded the driveway, exploring the hills behind the farm, visiting with neighbors, and learning new skills from both of the grandparents. Grandma showed us how to make biscuits and pasteurize milk. She demonstrated how to capture lightning bugs and put them in a jar so that they became a home made flashlight. She designed nets from old t-shirts with which we might capture a butterfly when the morning came. Always she cautioned us to free our captives when we were done.

Grandpa taught us how to milk a cow and catch a fish. He let us watch while he repaired things, explaining what he was doing as he worked. He proudly took us with him on his daily journeys into town where he introduced us to his friends and bought us sodas from huge chests filled with ice.

At night we sat on the screened porch and chatted about this and that. Grandpa always spoke of things he had read in The Saturday Evening Post or The Reader’s Digest and Grandma showed us how to embroider and crochet. We laughed and talked about a hundred different things. We had no electronic games or cell phones to distract us, so all of our attention was focused on the grandparents as was theirs on us. Once in a great while we might adjourn to the living room to watch a favorite television program but that was mostly rare.

We went to bed in a house without air conditioning. Instead it was cooled by the breezes that came through the open windows that were designed to keep the air moving with cross currents. It was still in the dark with only the sounds of animals breaking the silence. There might be a moo or a bark or the howl of some kind of wild cat. It was magical.

My grandparents lived on the farm for only about ten years. My grandmother began to lose her energy and realized that something was wrong. A local country doctor diagnosed her with cancer so she and Grandpa decided to move back to Houston for more advanced treatment. By the time they sold their place and found a new home in Texas her situation was dire. There was little more that the doctors could do than keep her comfortable until she died.

We would all remember those halcyon days in the country with the greatest of pleasure. Grandpa would get a dreamy look in his eyes whenever he spoke of them. We would think of them as the highpoint of our childhood, and even many decades later I can still see the road that led us to our happy place. It is as vivid as if I were there once again.

A Piece of My Heart Stays In San Francisco

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It’s easy to understand why Tony Bennet left his heart in San Francisco. It is one of those cities that never grows old for me. I return again and again to find that I am still enchanted with its beauty. I can’t imagine getting tired of looking into the bay or crossing over the Golden Gate Bridge. I am delighted by the undulating hills of the streets that are adorned with the most delightful houses. It is a city comparable to London, Paris or Rome in my mind, and it is only a short plane ride away from my home town of Houston. Periodically I get the itch to return, and luckily I enjoyed the opportunity to be there a week or so ago.

The nice thing about my actual destination of Sacramento is that it is really close to lots of great places most of which I was able to visit in between my grandson’s races. I was actually a bit disappointed to learn that next year’s Junior Olympics will be held in a different locale because Sacramento was just perfect in every possible way.

Our brief sojourn in San Francisco was made even shorter by a massive traffic jam that we encountered on the way to the city. Our two hour drive time was almost doubled by some kind of difficulty that we never actually saw. As far as we knew it occurred just because so many people were traveling to the city by the bay on a beautiful Friday afternoon. Whatever the reason we ultimately reached the outskirts and were directed by Siri to travel in an unusual direction that gave us the opportunity to see the bay from the viewpoint of an industrial port. It was a great reminder of how and why San Francisco developed over time and it also happened to be quite interesting.

Eventually we circled around to a high end area on the Sausalito side of the Golden Gate Bridge. There were lovely homes nestled in the hills and exclusive shops that spoke of a clientele with excellent incomes. The traffic on the bridge was moving freely but fog covered the structure even though it was an almost cloudless day. The usual gorgeous view was obstructed, but there was nonetheless something quite appropriate about seeing it in this different way. I had always heard about San Francisco fog but never seen it in any of my former visits.

We were specifically searching for the Rothy’s shoe store in downtown so that we might purchase a particular pair of pumps for our daughter who has become a big fan of the trendy flats made from recycled plastic water bottles. The style she wanted is only available in the store, so we knew that she would be quite excited to receive them. We got a cook’s tour of the city as we turned here and then there to reach the tiny shop that was jam packed with excited women trying on their favorite colors and styles. I was able to bypass all of the commotion because I knew exactly what I wanted and luckily they had what I needed in stock. The very accommodating sales lady gave me a wonderful canvas bag to carry my purchase and I was soon waving Mike down as he circled the street again and again.

I had heard vicious rumors about San Francisco streets littered with homeless people and human feces. I saw nothing like that as we drove from one end of town to the other. In fact everything was impeccably clean and all of the residents and tourists seemed to be having a great time. There were smiles all around.

Of course a brief look at real estate prices showed me that few people can actually afford to live in San Francisco. The only home that I found that would cost the same as my house was a six hundred fifty square foot studio. It’s difficult to imagine how much someone must make to afford the luxury of living in that grand city.

We continued our drive down memory lane by traveling over the bridge into Oakland and finally into Berkeley. I saw something there that was both dismaying and at the same time rather nice. A kind of homeless tent city had been set up near a park. There was a sign indicating that a concerned group was managing the care of the people who lived inside the cloth structures that were neatly lighted up in rows. Someone had installed solar panels to create electricity and there was a Porta-potty for the use of the homeless souls.

A few of the people were sitting at a table playing dominoes and all in all it appeared to be a safer and cleaner alternative to the homeless encampments that I have seen across America. Since few of those who are homeless like the idea of being confined in shelters with lots of rules this solution was a rather ingenious one, something that we might immolate everywhere. Because so many of the people in these conditions are either suffering from some kind of addiction or a severe mental illness they need to be actively monitored while at the same time granting them the dignity of freedom. I mentally applauded the group that had taken the initiative to help in small but powerful ways.

We ended our excursion with a visit to Rudy’s Can’t Fail Cafe in Emmeryville where we enjoyed burgers and onion rings. We were happy to see Pixar flourishing across the street and marveled at all of the improvements in the once downtrodden area. What had at one time been an almost abandoned industrial disaster is now looking modern and upbeat.

I was quite happy to be able to visit San Francisco before returning to Houston. I hope that I will be able to see it again and again. There is something magical about it that soothes my soul. A piece of my heart always stays there even if I will never call it home.

The Old West

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I grew up watching westerns with my Uncle Jack. I loved all of those shows about the old west but perhaps my favorite was Bonanza with its stories about the Cartwright family. Hoss and Adam and Little Joe were heroes to me and I loved the tales of their adventures. On many an episode they wandered into Virginia City to take care of business or meet up with friends. I was fascinated by the lifestyle of those long ago towns where folks endured hardship in search of gold or silver or some better way of life. Imagine my delight when our recent travels took us to the real historic Virginia City in Nevada just outside of that state’s capitol, Carson City.

This was once the site of a booming gold rush town. The decaying remnants of the old mines still litter the hillsides in a haunting way. They serve as a reminder of the ebb and flow of booms and busts in the story of mankind. Once they were alive with frantic activity designed to pull riches out of the earth. Now there is little more left than worthless mine trailings and rusty tin walls.

The road into Virginia City climbs through the hills along a paved highway that was no doubt a muddy dirt trail that people from across the globe traveled in the latter half of the nineteenth century in search of opportunity. Most of the buildings in the town date back to the glory days after the 1849 discovery of gold. An old school house tells of the families that came and a saloon is evidence of a different way to create wealth through a more insidious form of entertainment. The buildings are alive with history and seem to be whispering that if one only tarry for a time the secrets that are buried there might be revealed.

As we drove along the main street of Virginia City I found myself feeling the spirit of its settlers of old, people hoping against all hope of finding the mother lode or earning enough to survive by providing services of one kind or another. “Who were the folks who traveled here?” I wondered. What motivated them to leave everything they had ever known to travel to this desert like place where there were no guarantees that their efforts might be rewarded? What dangers lurked? How many if them left broke or forever changed?

We like to romanticize the old west but it was truly a harsh existence. There were many dangers not the least of which was being broken by the challenges. Somehow the folks who came here never thought that perhaps the land they were invading might already belong to Native Americans whose roots were hundreds of years old. They somehow assumed that they had a right to make claims of ownership without compensating those that they displaced. I truly wonder how they could not have known that there was something a bit wrong with their thinking, but then I wasn’t there. Humankind’s journey has been fraught with battles between opposing groups claiming ownership of land since the beginning of time.

Virginia City is a place where time seems to have stopped. It is a tangible piece of history that tells us a story of folks desperate to make something more of their lives. Fortunes were made and lost there. Lives were treated to elation and great disappointment. We have romanticized those tales and made them part of the tradition of the hero’s journey when perhaps they were little more than ordinary efforts to survive. Maybe back then it took great courage just to eke out a living from one day to the next, but there was probably very little glamor in any corner of places like Virginia City.

My paternal ancestors never ventured very far from the land east of the Mississippi River. It was my maternal grandparents eventually found their way to Houston, Texas from Austria Hungary. They had heard stories of a new kind of black gold, oil. While they never engaged in the search for the goo that gushed from the earth they understood that other kinds of services might be needed and they were willing to work long hours cleaning other people’s messes to provide a decent living for themselves. I suspect that their story is mirrored in the lives of those who set out to tackle the old west. Many never became rich but they found ways to work and enjoy a better lifestyle than they might otherwise have had. I suppose this is what people everywhere have always done.

We now debate whether or not this decision or that choice of our ancestors was right and just without ever knowing what peoples’ real motivations were. It is in reality a kind of self righteous judgement on our parts for we will never be able to truly understand what life was like or how the thinking of the past influenced people. Until we are able to walk in a person’s shoes we are only conjecturing as to their thinking and there is something rather presumptuous about that.

I am fascinated by the old west and all of history. Our human imperfections are in full view in the chronicles of the human story. The people who came before us made mistakes just as each of us does even now no matter how well intentioned we might be. We can never judge the actions of others without demonstrating some of our own imperfections. Perhaps it is best just to learn from them and to change our own ways rather than judging whether are not they were worthy of our respect. What happened happened in a world far different from our own. For now it’s just fun to visit the places where people once did their best to make life just a bit better for themselves and their families. It’s really cool to see vestiges of how they lived and to realize the scope of human efforts through the evolution of time.

God’s Artistry

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I have heard about Lake Tahoe for most of my life, but honestly knew little about the place. I’d heard that it was the location of some of the filming of the old Bonanza television program and one of my old neighbors visits her brother there regularly. My own brother frequently took trips there as well and often took my mother along on his family vacations. My mom enthusiastically related that it was one of the most beautiful places that she had ever seen. Beyond that I was only able to imagine what Lake Tahoe is really like. Recently I found an opportunity to see the place for myself.

My husband and I traveled to Sacramento to watch our grandson, Eli, run in the USA Track and Field Junior Olympics. Since he was only competing in a couple of events there were whole days when we had time to do some exploring. A quick Google search alerted me to the fact that we were only a couple of hours away from Lake Tahoe, so I quickly planned a day trip to visit the wonder that I had never before seen. I had little idea what I might find at the end of my journey but so many had spoken of the splendor of the area that I actually worried that I might be a bit disappointed. Expectations often exceed reality and I braced myself for the possibility of being underwhelmed.

Our drive began through farm country where we saw a variety of crops being grown in a landscape that was so dry that it seemed incongruous that fields were green. The towns through which we passed appeared to be struggling to remain meaningful with obvious closures of businesses that no doubt once brought great hope to the citizens. It was a pleasant journey nonetheless that became even more enchanting once we took the cutoff for the highway to Lake Tahoe. Our car climbed to higher elevations through forests of pine that sweetened the aroma of the air. It was so pleasant that I would have been satisfied with little more, but to my great pleasure I soon saw the outline of a vast lake looming on the far horizon.

Once we were in view of Lake Tahoe I understood why so many had expressed their awe of the place. The waters of the deep lake were brilliant hues of blue, green, aqua and emerald. Boats dotted the surface like images on a picture post card. It was a lovely sight indeed and I must have used the phrase, “This is so beautiful!” hundreds of times as we drove along the circumference of the water stopping occasionally to snap a picture for posterity. 

The sky was a brilliant blue on that day as though it was competing with the lake for notice. Tall pines encircled the shoreline caressing the water with its deep green branches and filling the air with a fresh and invigorating scent.

Our journey led us through hamlets where fortunate souls owned homes overlooking the glorious scene. Given that Lake Tahoe is known as much for its winter sports as the summertime activities that were in full force I understood why it would be a rather grand place to either live or visit whenever the urge arose. I was utterly delighted with all that I saw.

By the afternoon we were quite hungry so we stopped for lunch and a restaurant called Jakes and enjoyed dining with a spectacular view. The food was as delicious as the scenery and I found myself just wanting to linger at our table on the deck for the remainder of the day. Sadly we had to continue forward so that we might get Eli back to Sacramento in time to rest up for his 1500 meter race the following day.

Our course sent us into the Nevada section of Lake Tahoe and even more spectacular views. There were long walking trails filled with people enjoying the serenity of the scenery along with us. Eventually we found the casinos and amusements of the main area where visitors play and stay. It was like a more inviting mini-Las Vegas and we might have taken a spin or two around one of the clubs but for our underage companion.

Before long we had completed the circuit of our drive much more enchanted than before. I found myself thinking that I needed to one day return to this glorious place so that I might spend more time exploring and enjoying its beauty. I would love to see it in the winter when the snow covers the ground and coats the branches of the trees. Sitting by a warm fire just gazing at the blue waters is an inviting picture in my mind.

Once again I realized the extent of the natural wonders that California encompasses. From the shores of San Diego to the mountain retreats and magnificent lakes it is indeed one of the most beautiful places in our country. Little wonder that people endure droughts, earthquakes, fires and a high cost of living just to be near all of the beauty that it has to offer. God’s artistry is apparent in every direction.

I feel fortunate to be able to travel to places like Lake Tahoe. It was even more awesome because it really was a surprise to learn that people’s estimates of the place were not exaggerated at all. Perhaps I will return again one day to linger longer. In the distance were mountains where the hardy enjoy winter sports when the snows come. 

Our journey led us through hamlets where fortunate souls owned homes overlooking the glorious scene. Given that Lake Tahoe is known as much for its skiing as the summertime activities that were in full force I understood why it would be a rather grand place to either live or visit whenever the urge arose. I was utterly delighted with all that I saw.

By the afternoon we were quite hungry so we stopped for lunch at a restaurant called Jakes and enjoyed dining with a spectacular view. The food was as delicious as the scenery and I found myself just wanting to linger at our table on the deck for the remainder of the day. Sadly we had to continue forward so that we might get Eli back to Sacramento in time to rest up for his 1500 meter race the following day.

Our course sent us into the Nevada section of Lake Tahoe and even more spectacular views. There were long walking trails filled with people enjoying the serenity of the scenery along with us. Eventually we found the casinos and amusements of the main area where visitors play and stay. It was like a more inviting mini-Las Vegas and we might have taken a spin or two around one of the hotels to play the slot machines but for our underage companion.

Before long we had completed the circuit of our drive much more enchanted than before. I found myself thinking that I needed to one day return to this glorious place so that I might spend more time exploring and enjoying its beauty. I would love to see it in the winter when the snow covers the ground and coats the branches of the trees. Sitting by a warm fire just gazing at the blue waters is an inviting picture in my mind.

Once again I realized the extent of the natural wonders that California encompasses. From the shores of San Diego to the mountain retreats and magnificent lakes it is indeed one of the most beautiful places in our country. Little wonder that people endure droughts, earthquakes, fires and a high cost of living just to be near all of the beauty that it has to offer. God’s artistry is apparent in every direction.

I feel fortunate to be able to travel to places like Lake Tahoe. It was even more awesome because it really was a surprise to learn that people’s estimates of the place were not exaggerated at all. Perhaps I will return again one day to stay longer.