Hearts Bigger Than Mouths

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There are a number of celebrities who are finding themselves in deep trouble these days. It almost seems as though they believe that they are somehow immune from the rules that the rest of us have to follow. They operate from a different point of view inside the bubble of their wealth and fame. There are others who are constantly giving advice to the rest of us as though they somehow believe that their wisdom is more profound than ours. Then there is actor, Gary Sinise, most famous for his role as Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump. I fell in love with the character that Mr. Sinise played in that movie but knew better than to attribute the fictional characteristics to the real man. Over time I’ve realized that Gary Sinise is perhaps one of  the finest men in Hollywood and perhaps even the whole country.

Gary has already set records for his new book Grateful American but most importantly he has proven to be a man who demonstrates his gratitude for his own good fortune by helping the members of the military and their families. He has invested countless dollars and hours in helping wounded warriors, gold star families, and those serving our country in war zones. He is a genuine hero in his own right, someone who is quite modest about the wonderful things that he has done for our armed forces. While others are tweeting and inciting anger, he is actually doing something positive, not to ingratiate himself with his fans, but because it is the right thing to do.

In many ways Gary Sinise reminds me of Jimmy Carter, another truly loving human who has spent his retirement years building homes for those who might otherwise have no place to live. People like Sinise and Carter have the right idea in doing positive things rather than always whining about our society and our country’s faults. They have answered the cry, “Well what are you going to do about that?” 

It’s easy to complain and to cast aspersions, but too few people actually attempt to right the wrongs that they see. They seek attention from social media or hurl insults during interviews on television, but are nowhere to be seen when it comes to digging in to do the hard work. They think that just writing a check is all that they have to do to look and feel better, even if that check is to wrongfully pay for someone willing to cheat to get their children into prestige universities or if it is used as hush money to cover egregious acts. They are actors even in the realm of real life, playing a part that they believe we want to see, but rarely taking real action.

I’m also a fan of Glen Close. She is not only an extraordinary actress who probably should have won an Academy Award this year, but she is also an unrelenting advocate for the mentally ill. She is unafraid to weigh in on a topic that still has a strong element of taboo associated with it. We are so far behind in our treatment of those with mental illnesses that it is both a national tragedy and a shame. Ms. Close’s honesty and understanding regarding her family’s struggles with depression and bipolar disorder is helping so many who deal with similar issues to come forward and seek help.

Instead of using their money and their influence for Prada shoes or Gucci purses those who have reached the heights of fame and fortune might emulate those who find joy and purpose in helping others. If more people would follow the lead of Gary Sinise or Glen Close or Jimmy Carter many of the ills that we face might at the very least begin to fade. It’s up to each of us for that matter to find a cause and then do our best to contribute our time and our talents.

It only takes a few hours a week to mentor a student who needs either academic or psychological help. Just providing a bit of wisdom and compassion goes a long way in helping a young person to navigate the minefields of want or neglect. There are children who benefit from the attention of a coach or a leader. I recall a very nice man who took the time to help one of my brothers with his pitching and served as an advocate for advancing my brother’s talent. This man brought so much joy to a young man who never knew what it was like to have a dad.

I recently watched an episode of Frontline that reported on those with severe mental illnesses who are attempting to live independently. Sometimes they need to know that someone is watching over them, checking in regularly to make sure that they are doing well. My brothers and I did that for our mom but all too often mentally ill persons are abandoned by frustrated families and doctors who grow weary of their noncompliance with treatments. They need the type of kindness that my mother’s neighbors and coworkers always showed her. She would never have survived as well as she did without a village of people quietly acting as her guardian angels.

I know sweet people who regularly visit elderly relatives or family members, bringing sunshine into other’s somewhat dreary lives. There are others who answer every call for food, every request for support for a team or a cause. They don’t just look the other way. They regularly spend their vacation time on medical missionary tours or working in clinics that serve the underserved. We rarely hear such people boasting or complaining because they are too busy getting things done.

I’ve got a hero list and it is comprised of such individuals. Some of them are famous like Gary Sinise. Others are folks that nobody has heard of save their friends. All of them have hearts that are bigger than their mouths, generosity that is selfless. We could certainly do with more of that.

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May the Road Rise Up To Meet You

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This weekend there will be grand St. Patrick Day celebrations in Boston, New York City, Chicago,  New Orleans and all across the United States. There will be many a river died green and folks will don their emerald colored clothing lest they be pinched. Lots of corned beef and cabbage will be the dish of the day along with beer and soda bread. It’s a fun occasion and everybody gets into the act even if they don’t have an Irish bone in their bodies.

It was not until a few years back that I discovered that I am a descendant of the real article. My great grandmother was Marion Rourke, a true Irish name if ever there was one. I know little more than that she existed, married my great grandfather James Mack, had a baby boy that she named William, and died only a few days after giving birth. That baby boy was my paternal grandfather, a man who like me would often think of his mother and wish that he had known her. She is a kind of mystery in that she doesn’t show up on census records or death certificates of the time. Nobody knows for certain why she died, but my grandfather would never forget her, one day naming his daughter “Marion” in her honor.

I’ve searched record after record hoping to know her better. A general discussion of her name mentions that Roarks are probably descendants of a Viking  named Ruaric who found his way to the Emerald Isle and stayed to build a life and a legacy in a territory known as Breffny, now Cavan and West Leitrim located in Northeastern Ireland. The Roark family was at one time quite powerful in Ireland and their motto was “I govern by serving.” Over time famine and poverty drove many of them to seek new possibilities in places like the United States. I suppose that I will never really know how Marion got here and where she met James Mack. Somehow though I suspect that through her DNA her spirit and maybe even her physical characteristics live on in members of our family.

It makes me sad to know that she died before ever getting to know her son. I think that she would have been quite proud of the man that he ultimately became. She might have enjoyed knowing that she had a granddaughter and a grandson. Surely my father with his intellect and impish sense of humor would have brought her the same kind of joy that I derive from my own grandchildren. I wonder if it is possible that the twinkle in my youngest grandson William’s eyes is part of his Irish heritage. Is the quick wit of my brother Patrick right in keeping with Marion’s ethnicity? Surely he has the perfect name for the great grandson of an Irish lass, as do his own sons Ryan and Shawn.

When I gave birth to my first daughter I had a long labor of over eighteen hours that was complicated by the fact that my baby weighed more than nine pounds and was determined to arrive in a breech position. My doctors eventually got her facing in the right direction, but he told me that in the days of yore I might not have made it. When the same thing happened with my second child he asked if I knew of anyone in my family who had experienced a similar situation. I never thought of my great grandmother Marion but now I wonder if her labor and been similar to mine. Without a hospital, nurses, and a highly trained doctor the delivery may have been so difficult as to render her weak and unable to rebound.

I try not to get too sad thinking about Great Grandmother Marion. Instead I prefer to celebrate the ancestry that she gave me. I like to think of how she must have loved her baby boy William if only for a very short time. I suspect that her life was always a bit difficult but she had found some joy with James and hope for the future with William. Her son was a very handsome and articulate man, a storyteller and gifted craftsman. Did some of those traits come from her?

Now I celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a new feeling that I am very much entitled to this annual fest by birth right. This year I have bangers from Ireland that I will try along with some cabbage and potatoes. I may make a trip to Central Market for some Irish soda bread like my dear friend Marita Doyle used to bake. She would get a kick out of knowing that the two of us now share a link to Ireland because she was an Irish girl from Chicago through and through.

In a touch of irony my grandfather William ended up being raised by his grandmother Sarah Reynolds. I find that interesting because when I was teaching at a local Catholic school I worked with a fine woman named Therese Reynolds who spoke with a lovely  brogue and had the same kind of humor that runs from my grandfather down to my youngest grandson. Like my grandfather she was a teller of tales that were filled with blarney and fun. She once gave me a beautiful copy of the Irish Blessing that hangs in the entryway to my home. I’ve always been taken by it’s words and now I know that it is part of my heritage. So on the eve of St. Paddy’s Day I pray:

May the roads rise to meet you,

May the winds be always at your back,

May sun shine warm upon your face,

The rains fall soft upon your fields,

And until we meet again

May God hold you in the hollow of His hand.

It’s Never Too Late

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Back in 1988, he headed off to college. At some point on his way to earning a degree things got complicated and he quietly dropped out of school. He moved to Chicago, enrolled in the Police Academy and became a cop. The years passed by and in the interim he raised a family and made a nice life for himself, but he knew that something was missing. Not long ago he retired from the police force with a pension that gave him enough income to follow a dream that had never really left his mind. He applied for admission to college and when the acceptance letter came he proudly announced that he was going back to school to pursue a major in engineering, undaunted by the fact that he is only a year or so away from turning fifty.

I did not know this man very well, but when I heard his story I wanted to jump for joy. I admire his willingness to keep learning and to make sacrifices to enrich his life. All too often I hear adults bemoaning the trajectory of their lives and blaming all sorts of people and situations for their plight. Whenever anyone suggests steps that they might take to improve their lot in life they are filled with excuses of why it is simply not possible to make changes. They note that educational programs cost too much or take up too much of their time, and yet they prefer being miserable for the long run rather than making sacrifices for the moment.

Again and again I see examples of people who take charge of their lives and push themselves just a bit harder to make changes and reach goals that may at first glance appear to be unattainable. I recall a woman who got married and began having children right out of high school. She and her husband barely got by as they worked at a series of low paying and dead end jobs. In their late twenties it seemed as though they would always struggle just to make ends meet. Neither of them had high school transcripts worthy of even the mid range universities and they wondered how it would be possible to pay the tuition and fees even if some institution accepted them. Nonetheless they agreed one evening that they had to redirect their destinies and they applied to every sort of program imaginable. Their journey began in a local junior college where they took courses one or two at a time while working all day and managing a family.

Before long they had both earned associate degrees with honors. This one step allowed them to get better jobs, but they were not yet done. Eventually the woman became a registered nurse and the man earned a law degree. By the time they were nearing their forties they were able to purchase a nice home and treat themselves to vacations and luxuries like nice furniture. They had so inspired their children that the kids were excelling in high school and headed for some of the best universities in the country. To all the world they appeared to be a power couple. Few realized how far they had come.

I could go on and on about people who reclaimed their lives with a willingness to work hard to bring about the changes that would help them to escape the debilitating grind of the mistakes of their youth. Instead of wallowing in self recriminations or envy they did something positive to make changes. They went back to school and worked in the wee hours of the night and on weekends to master skills and write papers. At times they were exhausted and worried that they might never recoup all of the money that they spent for courses. It was a slow and demanding process, but they never surrendered to the little voices that tempted them to throw in the towel. In every case that I heard of they were victorious, standing out as exceptional students and the kind of employees that any organization dreams of having.

I tell people that no one need ever feel stuck in a rut. I think of the bookkeeper who earned a degree in accounting, became a CPA, and opened her own firm. I remember the man who was miserable in his job who attended night school to become certified to be a teacher. I applaud the friend who graduated at the top of her law class when she was almost fifty years old. I have witnessed brave souls who demonstrated with their determination that where there is a will there is a way to control destiny rather than being ruled by it. All it takes is a willingness to divert the energy wasted complaining and parlay it into tangible efforts to learn and grow.

There are countless opportunities for anyone of any age. It is never too late for any of us to become the person that we have always wished to be. If we wait for privileges to suddenly appear or lottery tickets to pay dividends we will be sorely disappointed. For most of us it will take time and money and effort and no excuses. 

I hope that the man who is embarking on earning a degree for a second career will find the success that he seeks. His is an admirable goal, and even before his journey is done he has inspired those of us who have heard of his courage. He reminds us that it is never too late.

Being Ourselves

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One of the hardest things in life is to be brave enough to be yourself

—-Bradley Cooper to Lady Gaga before their performance at the Oscars

It seems as though the whole world is suddenly in love with Lady Gaga. In the movie A Star Is Born she shed the outrageous costumes and makeup that has always been so much a part of her onstage persona and instead looked into the cameras in all of her natural glory. Without gimmicks or electronic orchestrations she simply sang and showed the world her inner beauty and vulnerability and strength. It landed her an Academy Award for her music and allowed her to come close to winning one for her acting in her screen debut. I suppose that we all love the movie both for its tender story and for the truth that in those celluloid moments a true star of enormous merit was born and her name is Lady Gaga.

I like pop music and I have enjoyed rocking and singing along with Lady Gaga in hits like Telephone, Bad Romance, and Alejandro. I smiled at her goofy costumes that I never thought she actually needed to attract attention. I liked her music just as it was, but I suppose that in today’s market there have to be ways of standing out from the crowded field of would be artists. It was when I heard Lady Gaga sing a duet with Tony Bennett that I first understood what astonishing talent she had. She stood next to him in a black evening gown reminiscent of the 1940’s and without much more than the accompaniment of a piano sang a torch song that displayed her voice as never before. Later she sang the National Anthem and both surprised and thrilled the crowd with the realization that she was much more than just a flash in the pan of music.

Still, it was other information that I had learned about Lady Gaga that made me a dedicated fan, someone in her corner for the long haul. I was tutoring students at a local high school when I met a sweet young man who was struggling not just with mathematics but with all of the kinds of angst that torture teenagers. He was trying to find himself and to determine the direction in life that he truly wanted to follow. He was a bright and reflective individual who constantly considered probing questions about the world and his place in it. He worked hard to improve his knowledge of math, but also was dedicated to critically thinking about life in general. He often spoke of both his fears and his dreams and I enjoyed being of small help in his journey of self understanding.

At one point he had an opportunity to apply for a spot at a conference for teens sponsored by Lady Gaga. He asked me to write a letter of recommendation for him which I was more than happy to do. Not long after he excitedly announced that he had been chosen to participate in the gathering of young people from across the United States. I was happy for him and felt that the committee that selected him had been wise in noticing how earnest he was to learn more about coping with our human condition.

The student returned to our usual tutoring sessions with a renewed spirit not just about his academics, but also his feelings about himself. He glowed with a new confidence and spoke of how inspiring all of the sessions had been. He showed me photos with the friends he had made and breathlessly described how he had surprisingly been tapped as a leader. Then he talked about Lady Gaga and how she had motivated him and all of the kids to love themselves and be proud of whomever they were. He showed me a video of her speaking to them that was so encouraging and understanding. He felt as though she understood the struggles that he and the others had been enduring. He noted how her concern for them showed in her facial expressions as she seemingly spoke to each of their hearts.

When I listened to him and then to Lady Gaga’s words I felt her compassion and sensed her wisdom. I understood why he believed that she was targeting him with her gaze and her advice. She was not a star pandering to her audience but a human with a generous heart hoping to help heal those that where broken or confused. It was a moving experience for me to see just how much she really cared about the teens who had come to find some kind of solace from her.

I’ve since learned that Lady Gaga is from a big happy Italian family. She enjoys old fashioned Sunday dinners with them and is unabashedly proud of her heritage. She is a sensitive soul who worries a bit too much and like many is sometimes her own worst critic. All of her natural beauty and talent and vulnerability came through in her movie portrayal under the direction of Bradley Cooper. What we saw on that big screen was as though a butterfly was emerging from a cocoon and we rejoiced at the wonder of it.

I suppose that most of us are romantics at heart. We enjoy a good love story and A Star Is Born is certainly one of those, but it is also a story of illness and addiction. I believe that given her real life efforts to help those who struggle it is little wonder that Lady Gaga’s role as an unconditional lover was a perfect part for her. Every aspect of the wonderful person that she is burst from the screen and into our hearts.

As we watched Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper perform at the Academy Awards we witnessed a personal chemistry that may be the love of friends, the love of collaborators or perhaps even a bit of romance. Whatever it was came directly from Lady Gaga’s heart and Bradley Cooper’s belief in her. It was so true and good and devoid of guile that like my student we felt as though she was sending us all a personal message, telling us to be brave enough ourselves. There is nothing quite as beautiful.

A Joyful Presence

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Eileen and her big family lived within sight of the church and school that I attended when I was growing up. She was a beautiful girl with long blonde hair and a welcoming smile. She was also very smart with a level of confidence that I was still hoping to find back then. By the time that we were in high school we were scheduled for the same classes with the same teachers and our friendship blossomed.

Eileen sometimes got to take her family’s  van out for a drive, thus becoming the designated chauffeur for our group. She’d take us to Friday night football games, days at the beach, and now and again a special concert like the time when we saw the Beach Boys. I adored her and counted myself lucky for being invited to partake in so many fun times with her and the rest of our friends. Some of the very best times of my teenage years were spent with Eileen.

Of course things change after graduation. Eileen and I went our separate ways. From time to time I would hear about what she was doing and where she was living. I knew that she had become a nurse and ended up in Washington state. I suppose that I should have made an effort to contact her to see how her life was going, but the world intervened and created a busy schedule for me. I was caring for two daughters, teaching, taking classes, and being a caretaker for my mother.  Somehow I barely kept up with my responsibilities and so I never found the time to reach out to Eileen. Nonetheless I often thought of her and remembered how much fun she had brought into my life. I hoped that she was doing well.

It was not until our fiftieth high school reunion that I saw Eileen again. She was as beautiful and as sweet and friendly as ever. She had a daughter and a handsome husband who seemed to adore her. She enjoyed living in Washington State and was hoping that some grandchildren might be in her future. We traded addresses and reignited our friendship on Facebook. I so enjoyed catching glimpses of her world. Over time I learned just how faith filled she was.

Eileen battled breast cancer for a time after I was once again in contact with her, and during that time she inspired those of us who read her optimistic posts that demonstrated her determination and belief that God was by her side. We rejoiced when her weeks of treatment resulted in a positive outcome, and celebrated even more when she announced the birth of her first grandchild. As when we were both young, I found myself in awe of this wonderful woman who somehow offered hope and happiness even in her darkest hours. It was so fitting that life appeared to be falling into place for her with long golf games and photos of lovely moments with her grandchild.

It never occurred to us that Eileen’s cancer might return, but it did. The news was difficult to accept, but as always seems to be the case with Eileen she was soon attempting to soothe our concerns. She stoically insisted that she had the very best doctors as well as the comfort of God to guide her through her latest journey with cancer. Even with her courageous spirit we saw how hard it was for her and so we began to pray.

Eileen keeps us updated on her progress. Some weeks leave her exhausted and without even enough energy to let us know how she is. Others seem to revitalize her. Always she tells us how wonderful God is and how she has doctors in whom she places all of her confidence. Inevitably I find myself thinking of her all day long, praying each morning and evening that the outcome of her battle will prove to be positive and with as little pain as possible.

Recently one of our classmates started a prayer chain for Eileen. It didn’t surprise me at all to learn how beloved she was. She has always been a generous and giving person to virtually everyone. She is open and honest in ways that few of us possess, so much so that I still find myself wanting to be more like her when I finally grow up. I want more than anything for the power of love that we are directing her way to gird her and comfort her.

It amazes me how neither time nor distance has the power to destroy the feelings that we have for another person. Eileen was and will always be quite special to me. She kindly took the gawky unsure teenager that I was under her wing. She made me laugh and feel good about myself at a time when I sometimes thought that I would always be a misfit. She still has the power to make my day with her smiles and her serenity. She is truly a joyful presence, a living angel. I only hope that she knows just how much she has impacted so many lives and how ferociously we are praying for her.