Never Let Go

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So much has been said about the examples of heroism and unconditional love that were exhibited in Houston, Texas both during and in the aftermath of hurricane Harvey. Suddenly the entire world is beginning to understand what it is that we love about this place that is as flat as a pancake, a perfect breeding ground for mosquitos, and has very little in the way of scenic views other than a downtown skyline that is quite beautiful on an autumn day. For years I have tried to explain our town to those who have never been here, and I suppose that I never truly made my point that this city is all about people. The view of who we are has suddenly changed as Houston has become the symbol of what is right with the human spirit.

Sure we have some basic problems with flood control and such, but what the attraction to Houston comes down to, is to be found in the generosity and determination of its citizens. As I travel from place to place I see so many wondrous sights and I find that the people that I encounter are generally welcoming, but nowhere do I feel as accepted for who I am than right here where I live. I always find myself feeling a sense of relief whenever I reenter the city limits. The outpouring of courage and unity and pure love that we have witnessed in the past few weeks has proven my lifetime contention that there are many great places to visit, but Houston is one of the best places to live.

I’d like to think that if any real good comes from this disaster that has so horrifically impacted so many in Houston, it will be the reminder that when all is said and done we are all brothers and sisters aiming for the same comfort and security in life. In the middle of the night during a storm when floodwaters forced a family onto the roof of their house the background of the savior who drove up in a boat to retrieve them from danger mattered not a wit. The reactions that we have when we don’t have time to think are often the purest and most perfect. The reality is that nobody who endured the terrifying days when fifty one inches of rain filled our streets even thought to consider differences. We were all just human beings lashed together in an horrific situation. Our only goal was to survive and to help others to make it to safety with us.

I suppose that politics raged on as usual during those days, but we weren’t even aware of the day or the time much less who was arguing with whom. My neighborhood received a bit more than forty three inches of rain. My only worry was whether or not the drainage system for my street would continue to operate. I silently prayed that my husband would not have another stroke because I suspected that we would not be able to reach the hospital that is only five minutes away if he did. I constantly checked to be certain that my neighbors, family members and friends were okay. When I heard of people who had flood waters entering their homes I was not able to rest until I knew that they had reached a safe and secure refuge. Mine was a scene that was taking place a million times over throughout the area, and we were all hoping for the best for one another. 

I’m not known as a fan of Donald Trump, but I was happy when he came to survey the damage and worked to speed the funding for the recovery of our city. He seemed sincere in his concern, and somehow my animosity toward him didn’t feel appropriate given the situation in which we found ourselves. I am thankful that he seems to understand our plight and that he is willing to do something about it. I have no criticism of his willingness to help.

I have been moved to tears by the outpouring of love from all parts of the country and the world. Our brothers and sisters in Louisiana were some of the first to render aide. The people of New York City understood our pain. Again and again I have heard of volunteers from Israel, Saudi Arabia and countries that may not have heretofore even thought of Houston, Texas. It has been simply amazing to me how wonderful we humans truly are and my faith in mankind has been bolstered.

I watched the Hand in Hand telethon earlier this week and when I saw the genuine concern of the arts community hoping to help us in some way I found myself shedding tears once again. There was Oprah Winfrey manning a telephone line. Tom Hanks and George Clooney and Leo DiCaprio  were there to help the people of my city. Usher and Blake Shelton sang so beautifully. Matthew McConaughey spoke eloquently of the road forward for the citizens of our city. Dennis Quaid wore his Bellaire High School shirt. George Strait led some of the best country artists in a beautiful rendition of Texas. I don’t think that I will ever again see any of the many people who gathered together for this cause without wanting to hug them in thanksgiving. They became as one with my city and they earned the key to my heart.

Beyonce, a native Houstonian, said it best when she noted that we have seen far too much violence and hatred of late. Houston has shown the world that love still exists. Houston has demonstrated that race and politics and social standing don’t matter as much as a willingness to stand toe to toe with one another in an hour of need. In our darkest and most frightening days it was the best of humanity that rose to the occasion. Let us pray that we will not let go of that ideal now that it has come to the fore. We need to join hands all across the world and never again let go.

  

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Honesty

deep-sorrowI do my best to maintain an optimistic outlook on life, particularly in public. I often write about how to enjoy the simple aspects of existence and speak of the positive effect that my faith has on me. Recently my husband had a stroke that has profoundly changed our lives. He has a seventy percent blockage in his brain that is not treatable, so the possibility of his having another stroke is strong. In his first foray he was lucky enough to be in the company of our entire family and was near a great hospital. There were no residual effects of the attack, so now he is driving again and performing most of the tasks that he did before the incident. Still, his doctor has warned us that the possibility of a second stroke in the ninety days after the first one is very high. All in all this news has left both of us floundering, but determined to do whatever it takes to keep him healthy.

With the support and love of friends and family we are attempting to carry on and enjoy each moment of each day with a new appreciation. I am not one to surrender to challenges and so the fighter in me has come to the fore. So many people have mentioned how wonderful and inspiring I appear to be. This worries me just a bit because I imagine that other folks who are also struggling with horrific situations may misunderstand my strength and wonder why they don’t seem to be able to muster the courage and hopefulness that I demonstrate. I suspect that in my quest to never surrender to the dark feelings that creep into my mind, I may have inadvertently presented a picture of myself that is not complete. Because I strive to be honest and to help those who are really hurting I think that it is important for me to unveil some of the angst and horror that has stalked me since the day that I saw my husband lying helplessly on the floor.

I’m not nearly as brave as I sometimes appear to be. I’m about as human as they come and as such I have been shaken to the very depths of my soul. There have been moments when I had never ending conversations with God in which I was generally begging Him to lift the burdens from my shoulders. Eventually those prayers became less and less demanding and finally led me to ask for the strength to do whatever I need to do. First, however, I had to rage at the heavens. Thankfully I believe that God is quite understanding about our weaknesses. Before I was able to hand myself back over to Him I went through a very dark period of doubt and fear. It is what most of us do. It is part of our makeup to question and falter. He waits patiently for us to trust Him once again.

I have spent quite a bit of time inside my closet feeling very sorry for myself as I wailed in grief for all that I thought that I had lost. My confidence was shaken. My plans were dashed. I was afraid and angry and confused. I felt as though I would not be able to take another breath. I also felt guilty for being so selfish at a time when my husband needed me so. I chided myself for even considering my own feelings. It took me quite a long time to sort things out in my mind and compose myself once again.

I have always been a control freak. I abhor situations that are uncertain. The specter of a future that I cannot plan is unnerving and for a time it paralyzed me. I thought of my life as being over in a sense. I felt that the joy that I had shared with my husband in our travels would be a thing of the past. I imagined us living in a chronic state of panic. I was intensely jealous of family and friends who had the luxury of continuing their lives as though nothing had happened. I felt very alone and vulnerable.

I knew that it would be impossible to continue along such a path of despair. I slowly began to use my talents and resources to regain a semblance of control over our lives. I know that I can’t repair the occlusion in my husband’s brain, but I am able to create a diet that will help him to lose weight and keep his blood pressure low. I have the power to support him as he takes his medications and to keep our home as happy as possible. I have had to remind myself of my own belief that the best moments in life are actually the simple pleasures that come our way. I have begun to rejoice over dinners in our backyard, times with family, pleasant moments with friends. I try to find something upbeat about each day and mostly I have learned to express the loving feelings that I have for people as soon as I experience them.

One thing I know for sure is how very much I love my husband. I feel almost as though we are dating again. I like holding his hand and smiling at him. I find that spending time with him is what is most important  right now, no matter where we go or what we do. It’s funny how just sharing a joke or walking together makes both of us incredibly happy. A trip to Walmart can be as much fun as an extravagant trip.

I count my blessings literally every second now. I try not to let the inevitable irritations that come my way bother me, but now and again I lose my cool. I still find myself worrying more than I should but I’ve learned to be kind to myself. I am far more conscious of other people and my empathy for their suffering has increased a hundredfold. I spend my time controlling what I can and letting go of the rest. For now I need so little. All of the things that I dreamed of one day owning seem rather inconsequential. On some days I feel as though I am floating aimlessly in shark infested waters, and I try not to be fearful. A bit of bad news here and there has the power of sending me back to my closet to cry, but I know now that I will somehow somewhere find the strength to come back out and face the demons that stalk me.

I am no better nor any stronger than anyone else. I make the same mistakes and have the same questions that have plagued humans for eternity. I try to think less of myself and more about others. I rein in my tendencies to overthink the future. Right now I am fragile but I am also strong. Thus is the irony of the human spirit.

I appreciate the compliments that my friends shower upon me. They really do help me to keep going. The people who truly care about me have been indispensable. They have encouraged me and helped me to understand that we are never as alone as we might imagine. There is much goodness in the world if only we ask. Sometimes we need that helping hand and most people are only too willing to extend it. We just have to be willing to admit that none of us are capable of being perennial towers of strength.

I am fine for now, but I am quite certain that something will come along to shake my resolve once again,. I will try to remember that it is okay to lose one’s way from time to time. The important thing is to face the emotions that work to bring us down. In admitting our weaknesses we actually become stronger, and we learn how to overcome the feelings that are holding us back from being our best selves. As for me, I am choosing to find the beauty in my new situation and to grab whatever joy I might find. Time slips by far too quickly to spend it in a state of dread or pessimism, but we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves when we temporarily fall victim to an horrific case of the blues. So long as we do our best to cope with whatever situation we are facing, we will make it again and again.

Life Is Always Now

240_F_46669875_qRWK0dnz12vE8MCZGcrMX1I1GR6UCF3tI often wonder how people find the links to interesting articles and blogs that pop up on Facebook now and again. If there is something intriguing about the title I am prone to take the bait and actually read some of them. Not long ago one of my cousins who thinks very much like me posted an entry from a woman named Maria Stenvinkel who discussed ten things that she would do differently if she had the opportunity to relive her life. One of her ideas was that “life is always now, not tomorrow or next week.”

That particularly struck me because like most people I often put things off until it is too late. I suppose that it is a bit of a family trait. I had a grandmother who hoarded her Christmas presents. Instead of using the lovely gifts that her children and grandchildren brought her each year she saved them for a rainy day. Sadly upon her death many of them were still in their original packages. No doubt her life of economic want had made her cautious, but it was sad to think that she so often wore raggedy old dresses when beautiful new ones were stored away in her closet.

On our fortieth anniversary my husband Mike bought me a lovely leather jacket with a fox fur collar in Estes Park Colorado. I’ve only worn it a few times thinking that I needed the perfect occasion. I’ve lately thought of a friend who owned a full length fur that she used on every cold day whether she was wearing jeans or a designer dress. She was so relaxed in that beautiful garment that she would throw it across the back of a chair as though it was just made of plain cloth. She used the heck out of it and thus really enjoyed having it. I’m thinking that maybe it’s time for me to be less like my grandmother and a bit more like my friend. This winter I plan to wear my coat even on ordinary days.

We purchase china and then store it away in a cabinet for use on special occasions only. Why not take it out in the middle of the week and enjoy it out on the patio? So what if we accidentally break a piece. There’s little point in owning it if we never use it. It will just be something for people to deal with once we’re gone.

The same is true of following those dreams. I’ll never forget an older man that Mike once carpooled with to a downtown bank. Almost every day he told Mike of the places that he would eventually go once he had retired. He hardly ever took a day off and sometimes let some of his vacation time go to waste. He was focused on reaching that glorious day when he would no longer have to go to his job rather than taking advantage of the leisure time that he had. Sadly he died only days after he retired, never to see all of those wonderful places that had so filled his imagination.

Life can be filled with regrets and thoughts of “if only” when we constantly plan for the future rather than doing our best to enjoy today. We simply have no idea what tomorrow will bring, so seizing our todays whenever possible really is the thing to do. If we have thought of telling someone how much we admire them, why do we wait? Why don’t we just pick up the phone right now or at least dash off a quick note or an email? I wonder what compels us to be so conservative in the use of our time. We all know that it is limited. None of us will live for eternity. What are we waiting for?

For years I had spoken of earning an advanced degree but never quite got around to getting started. I was all talk and no action until my brother one day left a university catalog and all of the paperwork for applying in my mailbox. I was too embarrassed not to follow through and before long I had been accepted and was signing up for my first classes. It proved to be an exhilarating adventure that ultimately lead to the degree that I had wanted, not to mention better job opportunities. Without his less than subtle push I doubt that I would have ever done more than just blather on about what I wanted to do.

Sometimes it is fear of the unknown that compels us to procrastinate. We worry too much about what might happen if we try or say something daring. Even when we are less than happy or excited about our current state of affairs we often would rather remain in a state of boredom and unhappiness that take risks. We think that we might fail and so we do nothing.

Every single time that I have taken a leap of faith it has turned out to be magnificent. There was even an occasion when I was asked to teach a class for mathematics educators at Rice University. I was terrified of the very idea but my co-teacher insisted that I would be just fine. At one point I had to admit to her that I was just not up to speed and that I felt lost. Instead of thinking ill of me she patiently tutored me and in the end I felt quite confident and proud that I had actually accomplished something that scared me.

My husband has been told not to sit in a chair all day since having his stroke. We sometimes live our lives as though we don’t have the strength to move when being stationary is actually bad for our health. The only way that we remain vital is by constantly living each day to the fullest and remembering to enjoy whatever we have with gusto.

Like Ms. Stenvinkel I have learned that life should always be now. It is important that we squeeze every moment out of every day. We need to use our nicest things, voice our compliments, do whatever we have always dreamed of doing. Waiting for tomorrow or next week when we have opportunities today will cause us to miss some of the best moments of our lives. So get up and get started right now.

Choose Experiences

PossessionsI have accumulated lots of things over the years. Some of what I own was handed down to me from my elders, other items are treasured gifts from friends and family. I still possess many of the wedding presents that I received almost fifty years ago. Of course I have kept souvenirs from vacation trips and art work from my children and students. There are all of the usual household and clothing items, not to mention furniture and books. I own music and musical instruments, hobby supplies and gardening implements. I keep wrapping paper and greeting cards and decorations for virtually every occasion. I enjoy my collection of little pigs that are supposed to bring me good luck and smile at the thought of the china that my brothers purchased for me using all of their savings when they were still young boys. My possessions represent a lifetime of accumulation and most of the objects are actually somewhat sentimental to me. Still, I remind myself continuously that they are just things and of little value when compared to people and experiences.

When I think back on my life I hardly remember buying something, but I always vividly recall the special times that I have spent with the people that I love. Thinking of the Sundays that I spent on the banks of Clear Lake with my cousins back when I was a kid warms my heart. I am literally able to hear the humming of the motor boats that were pulling skiers over the water. I can taste the salty spray and feel the heat of the sun on my neck. I recall our antics as we jumped the waves and lowered chicken on strings into the water in hopes of catching crabs. I see my mom and her siblings and they are so young and beautiful and fun to be around. I’m not sure what I purchased in those years or even what I wore, but I am certain that those days we spent together were magical.

I can still see and hear every single detail of my first date with my husband Mike. It’s funny how I knew on that day that I had met my soulmate. I’ve never so instantly clicked with anyone else in my life. We started a conversation back then that we have never completed. He was so incredibly handsome as he arrived looking as though he had just stepped out of the pages of GQ magazine. We saw The Flight of the Phoenix at a theater at Gulfgate. We ran into a couple of my high school classmates and I was proud to be in the company of someone as stunning as Mike. Later he took me on the first of the many adventures we would share. Our destination was to a downtown musical venue called The Cellar that was unlike any experience I had ever before enjoyed. I would later tell my friends that I thought I had met the young man that I was destined to marry.

I am able to outline every detail associated with the births of my children from the time that I learned that I was carrying them all the way through the pains of labor. Of course those wonderful child rearing years were most decidedly the best of my life. We really did have fun on Anacortes Street as they grew into lovely women. Best of all were our vacation trips that took us all over the United States in our different trucks. We slept under the stars in a canvas tent that resembled a circus big top. We laughed and shared stories and marveled at the wonders of our land. Summer after summer we traveled to all of the national landmarks making memories that have never been forgotten.

I can still feel the burning in my muscles as we trudged up the rocky path in the middle of the night on our way to the top of Long’s Peak. We watched the lights come on in the towns below and made it to the Boulder Field by dawn. We weren’t able to make it any farther because the girls were just not old enough and strong enough to climb over the huge rocks, but we felt such a sense of accomplishment and that hike became one of my all time favorite memories.

I still think back on my daughter’s milestones, their first steps and words, their school days and accomplishments. I am often reminded of their programs and performances and the glory of their graduations. Of course their weddings were wonderful even though I was so busy that I hardly had time enough to eat. Best of all were the births of my seven grandchildren who brought new and unparalleled joy into my life. Spending time with them and watching them grow has provided me a whole new set of joyful experiences.

I always loved my work and the educators and students that I met in that capacity. So many of those people are still numbered among my friends. We shared long days together, some of which were stressful at the time but always in the end we felt that incredible sense of having accomplished something very personal and important. I suspect that we are still as close to one another as we are because of the real significance of our work together.

I’ve had so much fun over the years with very special friends. I loved the times when my friend Pat and I spent weekends taking our children to movies and the 59 Diner. I still laugh at our visits with Linda and Bill and the way it took us hours to actually drive away whenever we had announced that it was time to leave. I treasure the trip to Austria that we shared with Monica and Franz as the new year dawned in 2005. I smile with pleasure at the memory of bridge games with Susan and Nancy. I love the dinners and lunches with friends and students that keep our relationships thriving and provide all of us with feelings of being loved. The concerts in which I saw the Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney were sensational. Seeing The Phantom of the Opera  on Broadway was the culmination of a dream.

It may have taken me a bit too long to get here, but I now understand the critical importance of an undisputed truth, “We should all invest in experiences rather than things.” At the end of the day even if we lose every possession, nobody will ever be able to steal the joy that we have felt from the moments in which we have seen glorious places and been with people that we love. That is what we should seek. That is what is most important.

Happy Birthday

4760252204_d1ab50cd7f_oToday marks the birthday of the United States of America, at least in terms of being the day that the Founding Fathers published the Declaration of Independence from Britain on July 4, 1776. That makes our country 241 years old which means that we are still really just youngsters in relation to other countries around the world.

Our government has made it through almost two and a half decades but not without a few ups and downs. Somehow our democratic republic has managed to stay intact thanks to the wisdom of the men who designed our Constitution. For better or worse their ideas appear to continue to work, but all of us sense that we have yet to achieve the perfection that we desire. In the long history of the world there has yet to be a flawless union of diverse people and ideas, so perhaps we are sometimes a bit too hard on ourselves. Still we long for a land in which people of varying cultures, backgrounds and beliefs will be able to live together in harmony. Perhaps ours is a pipe dream but it is built on what was perhaps the most audacious and daring experiment in freedom that history has ever witnessed. It seems to be in our DNA to want a nation in which everyone enjoys a full measure of justice and opportunity.

All of us can recite the problems that our country has sometimes ignored and other times attempted to unravel. We might spend hours outlining the injustices that were part of our past and some which continue into our present, but what’s done is done and our only goal should be to continue to move to an ever more just system. It does little good for any of us to stand in judgement of our nation’s architects given that we did not walk in their shoes.

I suspect that those men who developed the idea of becoming a free and independent country understood that getting everyone to agree on one document would be almost impossible, and so they were willing to make compromises along the way in the hopes that one day as the nation evolved the citizenry would be willing to accept new ideas and make changes to help our country grow ever stronger. To a large extent we have accomplished just that, but at the same time the world itself has become more and more complex. It is very difficult to read into our future because we are members of a massive global community in which there is a very delicate balance. As the saying goes, if a butterfly flaps its wings in Africa we all feel the effects of the flutter.

The world as we know it today is chaotic. People everywhere are searching for answers to very difficult questions. Just as with the ultimate design of our Constitution, there are no simple resolutions. Sometimes we have to compromise to keep the steady heartbeat of democracy alive. We find ourselves more and more often wondering just how much change is good and how much is too much. These were the same eternal questions that kept the signers of the Declaration of Independence awake at night.

Some of my ancestors stayed to fight the battles and some of my husband’s left for Nova Scotia to remain loyal to Britain. Who could have known back then where all of the furor would lead? Who would have dreamed that one day the entire world would be looking to our nation as a power?

In spite of my reservations about the ways in which our government runs on this day I still believe that I live in the best land on earth. I have traveled to other countries and viscerally felt the difference between our nation and theirs. On a recent trip to Mexico I was treated kindly and felt very welcome. The experience was quite lovely in all regards, but in the background were the heavily armed guards at the airport whose presence in military uniform was difficult to ignore. I enjoyed visiting the ruins of the Mayan civilization but could not help but note that the rest stop where we lingered just long enough to take care of our needs was surrounded by men in body armor who bore big guns at the ready in case of trouble. Our tour guide joked about such things and then reminded us that we should not try our adventure alone. I felt safe but had a strange sense of foreboding that I do not encounter in the place where I live.

We have a president who is struggling with his role and a Congress that seems to be incapable of working together as our Founding Fathers once did. We insist on all or nothing in our governing which has led to a great divide that far too closely resembles the state of affairs when our nation was not quite one hundred years old. We toss aside politicians who appear to want to compromise for the betterment of everyone and instead cast our lots with rabble rousers who refuse to acknowledge the things that we have in common. We forget that the our beginnings were imperfect but managed to give us a starting point. Today’s atmosphere would have kept us under the rule of Britain and we’d all be singing “God Save the Queen” if men like Madison and Hamilton, Adams and Jefferson had not been able to come to an agreement that began the process of establishing our republic.

I love my country and continue to have great hope for it. We will soon enough settle down and find ways to move forward together. It is something that we always seem to eventually do. I long for politicians who will unite us rather than divide. I believe that incremental progress is inevitable. So Happy Birthday, United States of America. Long may your banners wave. Let’s hope we can guide you through your adolescent years and into a future that will unite us as never before. I have faith in you. God bless.