What Did You Do This Summer?

summer-vacation

“What did you did this summer?” It’s a question that will no doubt be repeated many times in the coming weeks as schools open and students return to classrooms once again. I’ve answered that query countless times, but only once has my answer held as much transformative impact as it does for this particular summer.

The last time that I felt as changed by events was when I entered the fourth grade after my father died. I wasn’t doing very well then. I was still quite afraid of what the future might hold for my family.. Everything was so uncertain and my faith that all would eventually get better was severely shaken. Our family would prove to be up to the task of moving forward with only one parent, and I would learn how truly strong we actually were, but it would take a great deal of time for me to realize that. This year’s ringing of the school bells marks another moment when I have been severely tested, but this time I have enough confidence and wisdom from experience to understand not only that I will be alright, but also that I have found a newfound contentment that comes from the certainty of knowing what is most important.

I am the first to admit that I am a planner and control freak. I’ve already placed appointments on my calendar for December. I like to have routines and keep things flowing smoothly. Deciding how I was going to spend my summer was no exception. I wanted to take my grandson to New Orleans in June because he had never been there. Our trip was indeed quite successful, but it was only the beginning of all the wondrous things that I was prepared to do, including experiencing a grand adventure traveling to Cancun and attending the wedding of a very dear friend. That particular journey was so incredibly exciting and made even better by the pleasant emotions that I shared with others who attended the ceremony who also happen to be quite important to me. I returned from my trip filled with joy and so many stories. After such a remarkable excursion I might have been content to spend the rest of my summer at home, but I had planned for so much more to come.

After spending the Fourth of July holiday with all of my children and grandchildren I was slated to relax for a week in a lovely Texas state park with friends Monica and Franz. Then I was traveling to Colorado to meet up with my brother and his family so that we might drive together to Wyoming to observe the total eclipse of the sun. I already had purchased the special glasses that I would need for the viewing, and I was beyond excited about that once in a lifetime event. I had no idea just how radically everything that I had scheduled would change, but it all did.

On July 3, my husband had a stroke as many of you who regularly read my blog already know. The thing is that as soon as I saw him lying on the floor unable to get up, with his mouth and eye drooping, nothing else mattered to me but the fact that he was still alive. If I had been required to give up every single material item that I own to keep him with me, I would surely have agreed to do so. As it was his symptoms disappeared within minutes and he is doing well these days even though he is not yet out of the woods. We’ve been mostly tied down to the house and our days have been rather quiet and uneventful. Because there is an increased chance that he will have another stroke within the first ninety days after the one that occurred in July we have cancelled all of our out of town plans, and it doesn’t bother me at all.

What I did this summer is change. I don’t want anything other than to enjoy the moment that I happen to be experiencing. I am finding happiness in the most ordinary activities, and I am so filled with love that my heart is fairly bursting. I have had the time to take stock of my blessings and they are many. I feel like a newlywed with my husband. After almost forty nine years of marriage I admit that I had been taking him for granted, but now I treasure every second that we are together. I like to hear the sound of his voice, and things that sometimes irritated me before now seem quite adorable.

I have also learned to appreciate the challenges and struggles that my friends endure. I find myself thinking about the shut-ins and the widows, those fighting illnesses and those who are afraid and uncertain. I am no longer as ignorant of their feelings, nor as cavalier about how brave they are. I have a new found respect for those who are wounded are marginalized. I have realized in a very spiritual way that nothing on the face of this earth is ever more important that its people.

I have enjoyed my interactions with friends and family as never before, and in the process I have remembered and appreciated those who helped me to become who I am today. I have had many thoughts of my departed mother and mother-in-law, and my only regret is that I never truly thanked them enough for the love that they showered on me. Now I understand how important it is to let people know exactly how much I care about them, not tomorrow but today.

I am like a whole new person, and it feels so very good to be me. I have found a contentment that is peaceful and fulfilling. I know that God is with me and that I have never been alone nor ever will be. I may be tested again, and my worst fears may come to pass, but I will be okay. This is what I learned this summer, and what a glorious time I have had reaching this destination! 

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Summers and Huckleberry Finn

1622398_origI have to admit that I have never much liked August for the same reason that I used to have an aversion to Sunday evenings. August meant that it was nearing the time when I would have to return to school, something I did both as a child and later as an adult. August seemed to be the dog days of the entire year, a month in which the heat had built to a climax and the fun and relaxation that I had enjoyed in the summer was in its waning days. When August came around I was generally filled with a sense of dread knowing that my vagabond adventures would soon be replaced by early rising each morning and working on school related projects until late in the evening. I seriously didn’t want to even think about all of the labors and restrictions on my time that lay ahead.

Don’t get me wrong. I was a devoted student as a child and once I became a working adult I threw myself wholeheartedly and enthusiastically into the teaching profession. I enjoyed being in school, but I had a love/hate relationship with the entire experience. On the one hand I felt a rush of excitement about the new challenges that I would most certainly encounter in each new year, but on the other hand I fully understood how much intensity I would surely throw into my labors. Thus each time August rolled around I longed to extend my freedom and relaxation just a bit longer.

When I was a child I had the luxury of enjoying all thirty one of the final days of my annual holiday. Not even once did we return to the classroom before Labor Day. The trend of beginning  the school year before the eighth month of the year had ended did not come about until I had been working for a time as a teacher, and so our family often planned a big vacation to cooler climes to take a break from the heat. Some of our best vacations to places like Montana and Wyoming happened during the first couple of weeks in August. I didn’t even think about school until the middle of the month, and even then the transition from vagabond days to almost total preoccupation with work were usually gradual enough to help me grow accustomed to a return to my labors.

All of that began to change over time. The old school year ended later and later and the new one began earlier and earlier. Expectations regarding professional development became more demanding, so much so that I often spent most of June attending classes designed to improve my teaching. By the first week in August I was already planning lessons and visiting the school to prepare my classroom. My summers became more and more constricted as did those of my daughters who had to attend practices and complete summer assignments.

When August rolled around we were no longer able to make family plans because everyone in the household was quite busy gearing up for the coming months. I adapted to the changes albeit a bit grudgingly. I knew that many of my friends had little sympathy for me because they worked all year long with only one or two weeks of vacation. It was difficult for them to understand just how much I needed the down time of a full three months when such an extended break was an unheard of luxury for them. What I knew is that very few of them would be grading papers and creating lessons at eleven in the evening and all weekend long just to stay afloat of the demands of their jobs. The extra work that I did at home every day of the school year was easily equivalent to the eight to ten hour days that they spent at their jobs all summer long. In other words our labors were equivalent, even though they were not performed in the same time frame.

Now I’m watching the demands of the school year begin as soon as August rolls around. A grandson who is in his middle school orchestra has already been practicing for several weeks for a performance that his group will give to returning teachers. Another grandson is working with his band from seven in the morning until five at night. Teacher friends are attending conferences and training sessions that will dovetail with requirements to be on duty beginning early in August. Many schools will open their doors to their students by the middle of the month, making the summer seem shorter and shorter. Soon the buses that stop at my corner will be rolling again and everyone will be in full swing.

Part of me feels quite sad about the abbreviated summer vacation for students and teachers even though it really doesn’t affect me anymore. In retrospect I think that as a youngster I learned as much during my time off as I did during the school year, maybe even more. By the age of fifteen I had a job as a receptionist for our family doctor from June through August. I learned how to work with the public and deal with emergencies. I became an expert at keeping books and running a small office. I developed people skills and found talents that I had no idea even existed. I also learned how to spend and save the money that I earned in a wise and reasonable manner. I would have been unable to go on my senior trip or purchase a class ring without the income that I generated during the three months that were mine to use in exploring the world.

Those three months also allowed me to read purely for pleasure. It was in my self selected forays into literature and nonfiction that I have the most wonderful memories and grew most fond of reading. I had time to learn how to dance and twirl a baton, how to paint and mold clay into sculptures. I enjoyed being creative with the other kids in the neighborhood and spent hours writing and performing in backyard plays or creating a neighborhood newspaper. I had bridge tournaments with friends and made my first attempts at cooking. I had time to do exciting things that I was too busy to tackle during the school year when my teachers filled my calendar with assignments of their choosing. Summers were glorious moments spent on my grandparents’ farm soaking in their folk wisdom. It was an opportunity for education of a different sort than the kind that is ruled by curriculum guidelines or a scope and sequence of learning. Summer was the frosting on the cake of my learning.

I suppose that today’s kids have little idea of what they are missing. They go with the flow and follow the new rules because it has always been that way for them. Everything in their lives is far more organized than my experiences were. I don’t see many children playing outside even on the hottest days. Summer jobs like the ones I had are hard to find. It’s a different world and I suppose that everyone takes the new ways for granted just like I did those glorious three months of freedom. Perhaps it is best to prepare students for the realities of a world that is far different from the one that existed when I was growing into an adult. With air conditioning there is little difference between August and November, so schools may as well be open for business. Still I find myself wondering which way really is the most effective. Somehow I think that I would not be nearly as interesting if I had not had those precious three months each year in which to develop myself just as I wished. Those were my Huckleberry Finn moments and I am all the richer for enjoying them.

  

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.

Bliss

18622147_10212589589995817_4316414510225396392_nI got my first real job when I was fifteen years old. Our family physician was looking for a summer replacement for the receptionist in his clinic. In spite of the fact that I looked about ten years old at the time he took a chance by hiring me. After that I worked for him each summer until I graduated from high school. I also did babysitting on weekends from the age of twelve, and I was particularly popular because I was always available since I was a dateless wonder in those days. My foray into the world of work continued unabated from those times until I finally retired a few years back. If you count tutoring gigs that I still do you might say that I have never completely stopped earning a paycheck, but I have definitely slowed down. Now I am still constantly on the go, but mostly in the form of trips here and there. I like to travel whenever the opportunity presents itself because I am fully aware of the reality that the day may come when I am no longer able to do so.

I take great delight in my little jaunts no matter how simple they may be. I find it quite exciting to leave my own backyard and venture to places that are far away from home. I’ve learned a great deal about humans and nature and how much we are actually alike from my travels. The people and places that I have encountered have generally been quite welcoming, and I discover something new each time that I explore new horizons. Still, I have learned that there is much to be celebrated right at home. I don’t have to hit the road to find the bliss of adventure which is often staring me in the face in my own hometown.

After travels to New Orleans and Cancun this summer I needed to recharge my batteries so to speak by sticking around Houston for a time. When I learned that my daughter was embarking on some landscaping and renovation projects around her house I eagerly volunteered to be part of the work crew because being a fixer upper is in my DNA. My ancestors were farmers and builders and somehow I feel a spark of genetic compatibility with them each time that I hold dirt in my hands or transform broken objects and rooms into things of beauty. In an unexplainable way I get as much joy out of such enterprises as jetting away to picturesque destinations.

Thus I found myself spending three days working the soil and puttering with the plants in my daughter’s backyard. I listened to the birds chattering and announcing my intrusion into their domain and heard the dreamy sound of a train whistle in the distance. Somehow I felt a kinship with all of the ancestors whom I had never met but felt myself to be so much like. I wondered what they would think of me and my family, their descendants who have done so well. We are all educated and part of the middle class while they were lucky to go to school beyond the fifth grade. They tilled the soil to make the food that would carry them through heartless winters while I was creating a tropical paradise beside my daughter’s pool. I thought of how far our family had come, and I felt a burst of pride and gratitude for the blessings that have been bestowed upon us as a direct result of the extreme sacrifices of my family members of so long ago.

A few days later I was feting my father-in-law with wine from the Texas hill country, shrimp from the waters around New Orleans and steak from our local HEB. It was an intimate gathering with just me, my husband, and my in-laws. We laughed and spoke of this and that and I thought of how much I loved being with them. In fact if I had to choose between a junket to Europe or an afternoon with them, there would be no contest. I would want to spend my time just enjoying their presence.

I suppose that I have reached that age of wisdom when I understand what true bliss actually is. It has little to do with great wealth or possessions and everything to do with treasuring the moments that we have whether they be simple or extravagant. Being truly and fully part of the passing parade that defines our lives is what matters most. In the long run all of the money on earth can’t buy contentment. It has to come from inside our hearts.

I fully understand that each of us needs certain material possessions to insure our well being, but our constant pursuit of greater and greater riches is a poor way to spend our time, especially when we consider that we never really know how much more of it we will have to enjoy the people and places that bring us joy. It is up to us to find pleasure no matter where we are, and it isn’t all that difficult to do.

My husband and I have taken to eating dinner outside each evening when the temperature cools down just a bit. We like to watch the wildlife that joins us during our nightly meals with great regularity. We enjoy the antics of a particular lizard whose injured tail has given him the dubious name of Stubby. We listen for the doves who greet us from the rooftop and the bluejays who fly from one tree to another. We catch quick glances of hummingbirds who flit around the yard so fast that we can barely keep up with them. Our little routine is a joyful experience that brings us together quietly and with little fanfare. It gives us the kind of bliss that we have learned to more fully appreciate.

I am no fool. I realize that I have been truly blessed and that there are those who never received the gift of time to rest and enjoy the fruits of a lifetime of labor. Even more so because I understand that truth, I am grateful for the small and the great pleasures that come my way. I have learned to find the exquisite beauty of a moment and it is a wonderful way to experience life.