Finding Our True Roles

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Shakespeare eloquently reminds us that all the world’s a stage and like members of an ensemble cast we each play many different roles in our lifetimes. The demands on us keep us busy and sometimes even a bit confused about who it is that we truly wish to be as we juggle schedules that sometimes force us to run from dawn to the last hours before we fall asleep. Setting priorities, enforcing limits, choosing what is most important can be more difficult than we might imagine as we encounter duties, demands and requests for our precious time. Balancing the needs of others with our own is often one of the most overwhelming tasks that we may encounter and so we often find ourselves hurrying through our days in a state of exhaustion dreaming of a time when we might take control of our schedules and lighten our loads.

People’s roles in life used to be a bit more rigidly delineated. The men went to work each day and the women stayed home taking care of the household and the children. Each person had carefully defined purposes that were decided more by accident of birth and societal norms than personal choice. Sadly the traditions never really worked for many who felt constrained by norms that overlooked individual desires and dreams, particularly with regard to the ladies. Over time the idea of allowing each person to determine his/her own purpose became more and more commonplace with the hope that in allowing increased freedom of expression we would generally be happier as a society, but it sometimes seems as though we have only created new barriers to finding the best life for each person.

Instead of encouraging one another to embrace themselves we have created expectations that all too often make daily life more difficult and less satisfying than ever. We have constructed artificial templates for success that can seem impossible to achieve. It’s now a “you can do it all and have it all” kind of world that leaves some wondering why things are not working for them. We see the so called icons of achievement advancing in careers, maintaining seemingly perfect families, working out regularly at gyms, cooking healthy gourmet meals, volunteering for various causes with boundless energy and we wonder why we can’t keep up with the pace of their enviable lives. Instead we are exhausted from trying so hard to meet the new standards and maybe even feeling as though we are failing at every turn. Little do we realize that the lives of the rich and successful are not always as wonderful as they seem. Keeping up an image of paradise is wrought with many obligations that may create more dissatisfaction than happiness.

Little wonder that Prince Harry and his beautiful wife, Meghan, have decided to eschew the so called fairytale life of a royal in search of something more meaningful. They have rather wisely determined that the only way to be masters of their own fate is to strike out on their own. They will of course learn that living to the beat of their own drum is riddled with its own complications, but having the courage to make their own choices is the start of a journey toward self satisfaction and happiness.

The reality is that no one person can or should do it all. We each have to decide how much we can actually handle before coming undone. That means that we will have to just say “no” now and again if we are to control the aspects of our lives that mean the most to us. The wise person is one who understands what he/she needs to do or not do to maintain a sense of purpose without becoming overwhelmed.

I know that I am happiest when I have an equal measure of time for myself and for others. I need quiet moments to contemplate and recharge but I also feel best when I have done something meaningful outside of myself. I’ve learned that I just have to be careful not to overdo either being alone or working into a frenzy. These days I’ve become more adept at listening to both my body and my mind for clues that I am taking on more than I should. Those pains in my hip or anxious moments of insomnia remind me that I have to let something go. Like Harry and Meghan I choose what roles I most want and need to perform.

My most basic human roles remain my most important and they all revolve around family and friends. I am first and foremost a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a cousin, a friend. My instinct is to drop everything else when someone who is a member of my circle is in need. Somehow no other task feels as important as helping a loved one. In that regard my role in life is as traditional as such things have always been. Nonetheless, when the situation permits I need to express my talents, my creativity. I find great joy in writing, in helping someone to learn, in being a kind of amateur counselor. I enjoy making the world that inhabit a bit more beautiful which means decorating, gardening, cooking. I must also feed my soul with reading and learning. Finally I push myself to keep my body in good condition, my least favorite role but one that is important for carrying out the other aspects of my life that bring me so much joy. When I feel overwhelmed I begin to shave away my obligations one at a time until I reach a comfortable feeling of stasis.

If I had one message for young people just beginning their journeys into adulthood it would be to understand that life is about the choices that we make. The important thing is to seek those roles that bring joy and happiness along with healthy bodies and minds. Learning how to strike a balance that allows us to weather difficult times is critical to our wellbeing, and only each individual truly knows what that must be. There are many acts in our lives that require us to play many roles, the best among them are the ones that reflect our true passions.    

Encounters in a Room

futureI sit across from you in the same room and wonder what it is you are doing. You seem to be intently staring at a slim metal box that lights up both your the area and your face when you set it on your lap and lift the lid. I hear the sound of your fingers tapping in a regular cadence on the surface of the object that is so strange to me. Sometimes I detect sounds coming from where you are sitting but nobody else it there so I don’t understand who is making them. I wish you would sit closer to me so that I might discover what it is that has so captured your attention.

I’m very old and you treat me well. I like the way you smile whenever you glance at me. I enjoy the feel of your hand gently caressing me. I’ve overheard you telling people to take care of me even after you are gone. I appreciate that and I hope that I will be as loved by the next person who takes me to their home as have been by you.

You remind me of a girl I knew long ago. She had the same features as you and she too appreciated me. Back then I was able to do more. I had not yet become as fragile as I am now. I was flawlessly beautiful. Now there are dark spots on my countenance and visible cracks and breaks in my once strong stature. I’ve heard it said that I have grown fine with age but I wish that you might have seen what I once was just as the girl was able to do.

I knew her mother Christina first. I helped Christina and made her smile for a time but she became busy with her family and her endless chores. She had little time to even notice me, but the girl never forget me. When she grew into a woman she took me with her to a new home where we got to know each other better.

I liked to watch her sewing quilts and creating intricate embroidery patterns on tablecloths. She sat humming contentedly as her fingers fashioned magic out of cloth. She was such a sweet and gentle soul and I enjoyed being with her. She and I understood each other, so I was both surprised and a bit worried when she asked you to care for me in her stead. I wasn’t sure how that would work because you were so young and hardly even looked at me.

For a long time I felt lonely and abandoned and then one day you were no longer a child, but a woman with a voice like hers and a face that was more kind than beautiful. You gave me one of the best rooms in the house and came to visit with me every single day unless you were off traveling somewhere. I never spoke to you but I wanted to tell you so much about Christina and the girl. I have a sense that you would like my stories about them if only I were able to tell them. Sadly I do not know exactly how to begin nor do I even have the voice to do so.

Christina’s house was in the woods. The lights that she had were not like yours. They were dim and smelled of candle wax and oil. She hardly ever sat quietly contemplating like you do. I’m fairly certain that she was unable to read. She was a hardy soul who did what she had to do without complaint. Her life was what it was and she was content.

The girl on the other hand worried a great deal. She seemed to dwell on the possibility of tragedy overtaking her life. Maybe that is because it so often did. She was quite young when her first husband died leaving her to raise her children alone in a time when there wasn’t much likelihood of a woman earning a decent living. Even after she met your grandfather she brooded incessantly but she always smiled when she saw me. I hope I reminded her of the times when she was still carefree and both of us were still young.

It broke my heart to see how damaged she was by her son’s death. He was her pride and joy. She never really mended after that. Maybe that’s why she sent me to you. Perhaps she felt that I would be living in a happier place and she not longer had it in her to pretend that all was well. Maybe she merely sensed that something was wrong long before anyone diagnosed her cancer. Anyway she somehow wisely knew that you would be good to me. It’s been quite nice sharing your home with you.

Some people might only see me as an object, and an old one at that. You have never treated me that way. You have always understood that I am an important part of your history and so you cherish me even though I am a shadow of what I once was.

I sit across from you on the wooden secretary that is almost as old as I am. I am silent when I so wish to speak. I once was at the center of family life as I held water or milk for lovely meals. The roses painted on my white porcelain finish were as bright and colorful as the life that I lived back then. Now I am antique whose value lies not in what I do, but in my age. I am confused by a world so different from the one in which I first lived. Times have changed and I do not always understand what is happening around me. It is only because you seem to appreciate me that I feel safe and loved. I am a pitcher, a container, a repository of the love and laughter, sorrow and hard times through which I have existed. Like Christina and the girl you too are now part of who I am. I only hope that one day someone like you will still want me. Perhaps it will be one of those boys or girls to whom you have introduced me. I hope so.

A Treasure Trove

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There is no telling what might lie inside the folds of a woman’s purse, particularly when it is a rather large one. In my own case a handbag becomes a repository for all sorts of “just in case” provisions. Of course I carry the usual suspects regularly like wallet, phone, keys, reading glasses. For quick trips I don’t need much more than that, but if I’m going to be away from home for a time I need to include some ibuprofen just in case my knees begin to ache or I feel the threat of a migraine. I almost always need a comb to rearrange my fine hair that blows into a kind of bird’s nest at the slightest provocation from wind. I generally include a pair of sunglasses to shade my eyes from the bright rays of the sun and then there’s a tube of lipstick to brighten my countenance after a long day.

In truth I prefer the “less is more” version of packing a purse these days. It’s uncomfortable to lug a heavy load around as I do my errands. I find myself cleaning out extraneous items more and more often but when I was younger my purse was akin to a hardware store. I never left home without a repair kit for my classes and a sewing kit to men loose buttons or an unexpected tear in my clothing. I carried a little notebook for writing down things that I wanted to remember or lists of things that I needed. I toted tiny cans of hairspray and a little pouch filled with first aid items. I’d bring along my checkbook and a supply of pencils and pens. In winter I included gloves and chapstick. If the purse was large enough I might even bring a book or my laptop. Like a girl scout I was ready for virtually anything.

When I was still a fledgling mom I’d have toys and bags of snacks inside my purse, maybe even little bottles of water or milk. I’d bring extra changes of clothing for the little ones just in case of an accident. My bag was like a magician’s prop, holding anything that would feed or entertain my girls. There was no telling what may lie inside.

I used to go to the movies with my mom. She was from the old school when twenty five cents got her a ticket and a little snack. The ever rising prices of things astounded her and so she found ways to save on the cost of entertainment by getting me to hide candy and such in my purse. In between her own handbag and mine we were able to bring in some rather amazing things. On one occasion she asked me to stow away some fried chicken and two cans of Coke in the folds of my handbag while she smuggled in homemade popcorn. I have to admit that there was something rather exciting about the adventure of it all and we no doubt had the best food of anyone in the theater.

After 9/11 it became less and less acceptable or advisable to carry half of a household inside a purse. I’ve lost cans of hairspray, pocket knives, nail clippers and all sorts of things during searches. I’ve learned to carefully check the contents of my purse before leaving home lest I lose something that I value. Some places insist on clear bags or pocketbooks so small that only the most essential items will fit. I don’t grumble too much because it’s all in the name of safety but I sometimes worry that I’ll get caught short in an emergency situation.

I honestly don’t know how men get by with only pockets to hold their essentials. I suppose it works because their clothing is made quite differently. I have few outfits with sewn in pouches large enough to carry even the most basic things that I need whenever I leave home. My keys would take up most of the room and my phone would undoubtedly fall out of my jeans and trousers. My dresses have no compartments at all. To eliminate purses the fashion designers would have to rethink the way they make women’s clothing. It would be revolutionary and perhaps not so popular among the ladies.

I’m a fan of nice purses but I draw the line after a certain price. I’ve been in stores where the handbags cost more than my refrigerator, and while they are lovely I can’t imagine making such an investment in an item that I will probably want to replace within a year. Besides, I don’t want to be lugging something around that makes me a target for thieves.

My favorite purse of all time was one that my husband bought for me in Estes Park, Colorado. We found it in a little shop called Craftsmen in leather. The owner designed and made each handbag with magnificent skill. It was a thing of beauty that I treasured and it lasted far longer than any such item that I have ever owned. Sadly a leaky ink pen did a number on it one day, damaging the color and suppleness of the leather. When I returned to the little shop in hopes of replacing it with a new one, I learned that the man who had so lovingly crafted fine objects had retired and sold the place to new owners. The newer proprietors had kept the name of the store but filled it with horrid manufactured pieces that did not come close to the quality that I longed to find. I still dream of one day finding another purse like that one on ebay.

I suppose that like most women I enjoy a cute and comfortable pair of shoes and a nicely made purse but these days I find that I am more and more able to fit whatever I think I may need into a smaller and smaller parcel. I’ve lightened the weight on my shoulder and opted more and more for practicality. Still, there is nothing like a truly fine purse. It creates a kind of signature for an outfit and helps to define a woman’s personality. Even better is that looking inside of it can a be a real treasure hunt.

Finding Joy In Work

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When I was a little girl I kept my toys sorted in cardboard boxes that I found at the grocery store. One carton held board games, another had all of my dolls and their clothing and a third container was filled with items for playing school. I generally had a difficult time recruiting volunteers to pretend that they were in my classroom because nobody wanted to do extra work during time away from the real thing and I was notoriously strict as an erstwhile educator.

I used some of my father’s books for my lessons and meticulously created practice examples and comprehensive tests. I graded everything in red ink of course and gave each of my somewhat unwilling students report cards at the end of each session. Needless to say I always had to search for new victims each time that I decided to open my classroom but I had enough sway over my brothers that they grudgingly went along with my role playing. I suppose that it was almost a certainty that I would one day be a teacher, but in truth I fought against that idea until I was in my early thirties.

I am a woman from the pioneering era of equality for women. The trend for my peers was to eschew the customary female occupations for positions in traditionally male roles. I was encouraged to become a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer, an accountant, anything but a teacher. The word on the street was that those who were unable to do anything else became teachers and I was a bit too proud to channel my intellect into a job that was rapidly losing its luster. I changed my major so many times that I finally took a sabbatical so that I might clear my head and contemplate what I really wanted to do with my life, not what everyone was telling me to do.

No matter how much I meditated on my ultimate role in society I kept circling back to the idea of teaching. Ultimately I became determined to follow my heart and I returned to college to finish my degree. The second time around I encountered the most incredible professors who encouraged me to use my talents in what they deemed to be one of the noblest of professions. I channeled all of my enthusiasm into learning about the science of teaching. I soon realized that there was way more to the profession than just bending students to my will. I became an eager advocate for the profession that would become an integral part of my life.

My first job was literally a Godsend. There happened to be a glut of teachers in the Houston area due to an economic downturn in the oil business and my fellow graduates and I were having a difficult time finding open positions anywhere. I submitted applications all over town and finally got a call from a private Catholic school only minutes away from my home. Surprisingly I landed a job teaching mathematics to sixth, seventh and eighth graders, something that I had never intended to do. I had to create lesson plans for six completely different classes as well as sponsor the school newspaper and head a committee taxed with purchasing computers for the campus.

I don’t think that I have ever worked as hard as I did during that first year but I enjoyed every minute of the experience. My students were delightful and I found out that I was fairly good at my chosen occupation. I was surrounded by other teachers from whom I learned how to improve my craft and the atmosphere at the school was one of kindness and optimism. I was certain after my maiden voyage as a teacher that I had found the perfect fit for my interests and my talents.

My determination to be an educator was solidified by that initial foray, but I wanted to have experiences in different settings so that I might define both my strengths and my weaknesses. Before long I set my eye on working with economically disadvantaged students in elementary school. There I had to plan for lessons in every single subject including art. It was an incredible challenge because my students were often riddled with home problems which often showed themselves in bad behaviors at school. It was time consuming to prepare for each day of school and I was challenged by both classroom management issues and methods for conveying knowledge of every conceivable kind. Each day I was responsible for twenty seven little souls who ranged from brilliant to learning disabled, well behaved to difficult. With the help of an amazing principal I learned much and became more confident than ever that I had made the right choice in deciding to be a teacher.

The rest is history as they say. I returned to an upscale private school for a time and then agreed to work in a public school filled with gang members. By then I understood that kids are kids and they all struggle to get past the angst of adolescence and teen years. My specialty became understanding where they were and starting from that reality to encourage them to move forward. I found myself loving every single one of my pupils and every challenge that I encountered with them.

I ended my career as a Dean of Faculty. By then I was working with the teachers, understanding the problems that they faced and doing my best to encourage and help them the way others had done for me. I never regretted a single day that I spent in the teaching profession. I felt that I had found my true purpose in life and I still get great joy from helping young people to learn. Our society may not have much regard for the teaching professions, which is unfortunate, but I learned that only those who can, teach. It takes dedication, long hours of hard work, physical and mental stamina, and a true heart. I’m glad I followed mine and found so much joy as a teacher.

Harriet Tubman

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The first time I learned about Harriet Tubman I was stunned by her story. She was born a slave as were her mother, father and siblings. Her father eventually earned his freedom but was unable to free his children. Over time he bought his own wife when she had grown old and confused and was of little use to her master but many of his children still languished as property.

Harriet was originally known as Minty. She married a free man but still had to live on the plantation of her owner. Nonetheless she dreamed of freedom and hoped to one day join her husband as a free woman and start a family. She watched helplessly as her sisters were sold and sent to some unknown place. She suffered under the yoke of slavery and finally reached a point of preferring to die rather than remain enslaved. Somehow she managed to travel over a hundred miles all alone to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where she finally lived as a free woman and chose her own name of Harriet.

Most people would have simply enjoyed their good fortune and lived happily ever after without chains and the whims of slave masters but Harriet was not happy knowing that her husband still lived so far away and that the members of her family were suffering. She decided to return to the place of her captivity risking her very life to be reunited with her husband and bring him north with her.

What she found was that he had married again when he thought that she had died. He was unwilling to leave his new wife who was with child. Harriet soon found that her brothers were about to be sold and so she decided to help them escape just as she had. Others joined her in the journey north which was hazardous but ultimately successful.

Over time Harriet worked with the Underground Railroad returning south again and again to free as many as seventy slaves. During the Civil War she served as a spy for the Union Army and even became involved in combat. She is credited with freeing another seven hundred slaves during that conflict.

In spite of risking her own freedom Harriet was passionate about helping others who lived in bondage. She understood what might happen to her if she were caught but she nonetheless felt compelled to fight for others who were still suffering under the chains of slavery.

Harriet Tubman is indeed one of the most courageous women in the history of the world. I cannot even imagine the kind of bravery that it took for her to accomplish as much as she did. She was a fearless warrior for justice and I think she should be honored as much as historical giants like Abraham Lincoln. I seriously can’t think of another woman in the story of our country who compares to her.

Now there is a wonderful movie about this amazing woman. Harriet is a beautifully crafted film that tells her inspiring story with a cast of actors who seem to be passionate about their roles. It is one of those films that I recommend to everyone, young and old alike. It is also one that I will probably watch again and again because its story is one of faith and grit and honesty. I can’t think of when I have been so moved by a movie, and knowing that it is true makes it even more wonderful.

I once visited a landmark in Memphis, Tennessee that had been part of the Underground Railroad. The guide told us how the slaves developed a way of communicating through their songs and with quilts that alerted them to which locations were safe. There was a whole world of intrigue that helped thousands of slaves find the freedom that they so deserved. It both a tragic and touching story of the human spirit and all people’s desire to live free.

The holiday season is upon us and people will be going to movie theaters for the annual round of family entertainment. I know that there will be cute little films reprising the Frozen story and even action and adventure movies, but I can’t think of a better way to spend time with the family than watching Harriet together. It is a story that has been longing to be told and everyone needs to see it.