Get Busy Writing Now

Journal

I am always fascinated by the long, lovely, highly descriptive letters and journal entries from important historical times that were somehow saved by the sentimental people who found them. They became treasures because they opened a window to a moment when an ordinary soul took the time to vividly speak of the happenings, the privations, the fears and the hopes that they were experiencing. My mother-in-law had one such heirloom from a relative in the United Kingdom who communicated news about World War II to the family members who had emigrated to America. The words are so poignant and give voice to how the lives of ordinary folk were touched by the unfolding drama. The personal aspect of what the author conveys makes the letter all the more compelling in bringing the realities of daily routines under the duress of war to life. There is a special kind of voice in such first person communiques and luckily their existence traces it’s way far back into history.

I often write in the hopes that my words may one day resonate with my descendants. I know that my grandchildren are presently so busy building the foundations of their own adult lives that they rarely have the time to sit still and read my insignificant tracts. They are instead mastering mathematics, learning of the history of the world, enjoying the genius of the world’s greatest authors. They toil from dawn to the late hours of the night studying the fundamentals that will ready them for the future.

I have been in their position myself when I had little time to tarry and ask my grandparents or any of my elders to describe their lives. I was all too often impatient with their recitation of tales from their youth. It was only as I aged that I began to enjoy hearing what life had been like before I was even born. By then I had more questions than time to ask them. There is so much more that I would like to have known. Their knowledge, wisdom, and accounts of the past are forever lost. Because their educations were limited no written outlines exist. I will never know the full details of their experiences because I foolishly undervalued what they had to say.

My mother-in-law was a keeper of personal history. She researched genealogy and saved seemingly meaningless trinkets and correspondences from members of her family. She reveled in telling their stories and her own. I recall a time when she described her final year of high school when rationing was the rule and the young men who had been her classmates had gone to fight World War II. She showed me her yearbook which looked more like a thin magazine with its paper cover and lack of pages. She brought out a ration book that had once belonged to one of her aunts. She read that letter from a distant relative in Britain whom she had never met but with whom she felt a strong connection. I was fascinated by her dialogue and somehow felt that I had an understanding of those war years that no textbook or college lecture might ever have given me.

Each of us has a story, a history that might become a book. We may think our lives to be dull and unworthy of describing on paper but in truth our everyday thoughts and actions may one day become a treasure for some distant descendant intent on finding roots and knowing the people who came before. I am always thrilled when I discover even a kernel of evidence about my ancestors. I suppose that there comes a time for each of us when knowing such things becomes quite important. The more help we get from those voices from the past, the more exciting our search becomes.

We are now in the midst of a moment in time that will no doubt become a topic of discussion for years to come. We are part of history in the making as we navigate through the unknowns and unprecedented restrictions of the world’s battle with Covid 19. I find myself thinking that keeping a daily journal of what I witness happening across the globe and how I feel about it may one day prove to be an extraordinary gift to my great grandchildren who are yet to exist. What a glorious find my account may one day be even if I never get personally involved with the illness (and I pray that I am saved from ever actually knowing it). I can be a reporter of what I see unfolding in my tiny slice of the world. Surely there will be a future someone like me or my mother-in-law who will be curious enough to want to learn about the very personal aspects of the outbreak.

The very word history indicates that all that happens to us is a personal tale outlining how we react to unfolding events. The books that our descendants will one day read to learn about this moment will speak in more general terms without explaining how our own families endured. Keeping a journal of our thoughts will not only give us something to do while we self isolate but may also become a priceless heirloom of the future. Get busy writing your story now. It’s a worthy and important task.

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.    

Faking It

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Minnie Bell rose anxiously from her bed at the end of the trailer worrying that she had somehow overslept on the first day of school. A quick glance at the alarm clock on the shelf at the foot of her sleeping quarters reassured her. It was only five in the morning and she had plenty of time before she had to depart.

It would be a day of firsts, the first time at middle school, the first time that both of her parents would not accompany her to meet the new teachers, the first time that her home was a twenty one foot trailer instead of the beautiful house where she had once lived. Somehow she dreaded the whole experience but school had always brought her joy and she needed  joy more than ever.

The summer had been difficult for Minnie Bell. Her father had been driving home from work when it happened, a freak accident really, something that never should have happened but did. The deer jumped in front of his car from nowhere. There was no way to stop or swerve without hurting another driver.  The huge animal flew into the air like a missile when he was hit and then returned to earth with such force that it broke the windshield of the car and ramming its rack of antlers into her father’s heart. Death was inevitable and instant the officer told Minnie and her mom. Daddy probably didn’t feel a thing.

The funeral and all of the days after that had been a blur. Minnie Bell could not imagine life without her father, the man who had christened her with a moniker that literally made people laugh. Hers was a regal name he convinced her, one that had once belonged to his great great grandmother, a strong woman with toughness and gentleness rolled up into one very tiny package according to family lore. “Bear yourself proudly, Minnie Bell,” he had commanded her as though her silly name was both a great gift and a responsibility.

Minnie Bell thought of how she and Mama had ended up living in an RV park inside the tiny trailer as she stowed away her bed linens on the upper bunk and transformed the bed into a table with benches on both sides. Her mother had delivered the bad news of their situation after spending the day “taking care of business.” The family finances were strained for now and they would have to make some changes for a time. “Soon enough we will be in a better situation,” Mama promised, “but for now we need to sell the house. We’ll have a little adventure living in our travel trailer. It will be fun. We’ll rent a space in the RV park near your school. I’ll get a job and maybe even go back to school myself. It will be our little bit of excitement.”

During the summer things had been fun. It was like an eternal camping trip. Mama worked in the office of the RV park and Minnie Bell walked dogs and did odd jobs for the mostly elderly people who lived there. They were all so nice. They taught Mama how to keep the systems inside the trailer working efficiently. They showed her how to get good television reception and how to make the most of the free Wifi in the park. They often invited Minnie Bell and her mother to dinner and one lady even made some new clothes for Minnie Bell to wear to school.

Minnie Bell and her mother had slowly adjusted to life without her father but as she prepared for a new school year a sadness and sense of foreboding overwhelmed her. Everything was so different and she did not want to talk about it with anyone. She hoped that she might be able to just fake it, not mention that her father had died or she had moved or any of it. She just wanted to pretend that nothing had happened.

Minnie Bell filled a bowl with cereal and sat quietly at the table worrying as her mother stirred in the bed at the other end of the trailer. She sat up and smiled at Minnie Bell across the space. “Hey, sweetie, are you ready for a grand new school year?’ she smiled as though there was nothing strange about the two of them living in cramped quarters with a future so uncertain that both of them often had nightmares.

Minnie Bell returned a weak smile for her mother. She would pretend that she was happy because she didn’t want Mama to have anymore worries. “I’m excited!” she lied. “I can’t wait to see my friends and meet my new teachers.”

Her mother was beaming now. The two of them bumped into one another as they bustled about the trailer getting ready for the new reality. Minnie Bell donned the outfit that the neighbor in the trailer next door had sewn for her. She gathered the school supplies that the residents of the park had surprised her with inside a brand new backpack. Mama handed her money to buy her lunch just for that day and then as Minnie Bell walked down the metal stairs of the trailer she was greeted by a crowd of well wishing neighbors who had gathered to take first day school pictures and give her hugs for good luck.

Minnie Bell wanted to just stay with the wonderful people who had supported her and her mother all summer long but now it was time to face the moment that she had most dreaded. She thought of her father and could almost hear him urging her to hold her head high and be as tough as her namesake had been. She looked at Mama who was so genuinely and hopefully smiling and she knew that she had to set her selfish fears aside. Daddy would want her to be his amazing girl and Mama needed for her to be a help, not a problem.

The ride to the school was only five minutes away. As Mama eased the truck into the school parking lot her face lit up with a happiness that she had not exhibited since that terrible day when Daddy died. “I have a feeling that this is going to be your best year ever, Minnie Bell,” she gushed, seeming to really mean it.

Minnie Bell forced a smile as she shook her head in agreement. Somehow she was going to make it even if she had to fake it.

Note: I often use a book of writing prompts for topic ideas. Today’s prompt asked me to write the first pages of a book for young readers. This is my idea. What do you think?   

Each New Day

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I have reveled in my retirement from work, but I still have the urge and the energy to keep myself busy. I try to stay active because I’ve witnessed the times when people that I know became unable to get around like they once did. Admittedly I find it difficult to stay still due to a personality that is always pushing me to continue making a difference in the world. I still operate from a general routine which I swore I would never do once I dropped out of the daily rat race. Some habits are difficult to eliminate.

Nonetheless I enjoy my mornings the most. I used to hate the sound of the alarm clock announcing that I had to get a move on lest I be late for work. Now it is my internal clock and my bladder that push me out of bed in the early morning hours. If I try to catch a few more Zs I end up with a headache and dreams so goofy that they are disturbing, so I just rise and enjoy the quiet when the silence is only broken by the sounds of the birds and people beginning their daily treks. I brew some tea and sit in my front room reading about what happened while I slumbered.

I write five days each week as a kind of meditation. I challenge myself to put the random thoughts that run through my head on paper in a cohesive and meaningful form. It’s an exercise that I so enjoy and one for which I rarely had time in my teaching days. Back then I had to be out of the house by six thirty and then I would spend as much as an hour or more commuting to the campus where I worked. My mind was never ready for such a hurried and raucous start to the day and so I despised every aspect of the early hours. Being forced out of my home without time to sit quietly was horrific. Now I luxuriate in the moments that I have with my thoughts.

I’ve never been able to completely get away from working with young people. I still tutor seven students from nearby and I glory in being able to do so. They delight me with their optimism and honesty. I gain as much from them as they get from me. I find children to be a delightful diversion from the seriousness of the world. They keep me hopeful and challenge my brain to continue working. I look forward to my weekly visits with them and fill in my academic longings with tutoring sessions with my grandchildren.

As I have become older I have found more and more solace in attending church each Sunday. I look forward to my weekly pilgrimage when my heart and soul are filled with a sense of calm simply from being in the house of the Lord along with other people who have become so special to me. I never fail to leave feeling refreshed and somehow a bit more at peace.

I don’t need much to be happy these days. I have begun to take great delight in the most ordinary aspects of life. I now have the time to be more available for the people that I love. I enjoy a wave from a neighbor, a cute photo of someone’s child, a joke that makes me laugh from my belly. I get to read more and watch ridiculous television programs without feeling guilty. I do silly things like dressing up in costume for a party or festival. I don’t want excitement anymore. Serenity is the companion that I cultivate.

I have become more in tune with myself and with the people that I know. I enjoy celebrating their victories, milestones, and happiness. At the same time I don’t shy away from helping them through challenges and losses. I’ve finally learned how to really listen and hear the individuals who mean so much to me. I now have all the time that they may need. It feels wonderful to be able to embrace friendships without the obligations of work pulling me away.

I explore new ideas and challenge myself to remain open minded even when people’s beliefs differ greatly from my own. I have become a defender of the individual right to think about the world from differing points of view. I have lowered my blood pressure considerably by understanding that I don’t need to argue or judge or turn my back on someone just because he/she disagrees with me on matters of politics or religion. To each his own has become the gold standard of my reaction to such things.

My life is quiet, routine, relaxed. I know who I am and I really like myself. I have a group of wonderful friends, a loving spouse and an incredible family. None of us are without our flaws but I love all of us just the same. What more might I want? I go with whatever flux and flow enters my life and find ways to stay content. I look forward to each new day and the possibilities that it brings.

When Heaven and Earth Collide

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Our society places a high value on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the STEM subjects. We no doubt need the knowledge and advances in those fields and I tend to believe that the very future of the world will unfold through the ingenuity of the people who are skillful in unlocking the mysteries of the universe. We live far more comfortably than our ancestors because of the innate curiosity and genius of our left brained brethren. Nonetheless, we all too often underestimate the value of individuals with an artistic bent. We urge our talented painters, dancers and musicians to follow a “more practical and useful” pathway as though there is something less than about the ability to create more abstract inventions of art. I would argue that humankind is often at the apex of intellect whenever we move beyond the concrete of time and space and into the incredible universe of artistic imagination. The truth is that we need both our STEM leaders and the individuals who bring us so much pleasure with the arts.

Humans are quite breathtaking in abilities and it is often through our artistic expressions that we leap toward the heavens. Leonardo da Vinci was a mathematician and scientist but his paintings are the works that remind us of how truly awesome he was. The paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo timelessly evoke our other worldly longings. The music of Andrew Lloyd Weber takes us to places that we might otherwise never have imagined and tugs on our emotions to leave us in tears of joy and pleasure. Watching Gregory Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov dance in White Nights is sheer bliss that reminds us of how beautiful our very bodies can be.

I have always been awed by the ways in which we humans transcend our most basic needs to become creators of stunning works of art. I have often wondered what in our natures caused us to scratch out pictures on the walls of a cave. How is it that we realized that our very vocal chords were musical instruments? Why do we take such joy in using and twisting words to convey new meanings? What is it about us that prompts us to experiment with color and sights and sounds?

What truly separates us from the animals is the way that we use our minds and we don’t seem to be satisfied with merely building structures to protect us from the harshness of the elements. We want to decorate our abodes with artifacts that add a sense of individuality. We fill our lives with music, sculptures, paintings, dance, books, plays that strive to explain just who we humans are. We share an essential need to express ourselves. It is in our very DNA, and yet of late we tend to dismiss the artists and artistic contributions to society as being a notch below the work of our talented STEM citizens.

Try to imagine a world without art of any kind. Think of a totally utilitarian existence devoid of music, singing, visual arts, make believe. Only the colors of nature would surround us. Our minds would be focused on being ever practical. How dreary life would be. How frustrated many among us would become. Without artistic expression so much beauty would suddenly disappear. It is almost unbearable to consider.

There was a time when geniuses of all varieties were treasured. The era of the Renaissance enshrined all forms of human inventiveness. It almost seems as though the coming of the Industrial Revolution was a turning point in the way we view human talents. In the present day we tend to place more of a premium on STEM than on the arts. We scoff at a young man who majors in Creative Writing but admire one who follows a pathway to science. We are in awe of the mathematics teacher but believe that dance teachers are expendable in times of tight budgets. We constantly undervalue those with artistic talent and attempt to force our young to pursue the occupations that we deem more useful.

The miracle of humanity is that we are a species of great variety with brains that are capable of incredible thought. Some of us excel in STEM and others delight in the arts. If we are truly honest we will encourage our young to find themselves wherever that might lead. We will applaud not just the stars of the artistic world but anyone who is willing to make our lives more beautiful through art.

I was asked to describe my favorite work of art and I found that task to be impossible. How can I possibly narrow down my choice to a single artifact when there are so many incredible creations that fill my mind with profound appreciation? My home is filled with art in the form of music, books, movies, sculpture, paintings. I dance with joy in the sheer beauty of each day that is made better with the countless creations of the human mind. I am in awe of those who rise to the level of genius whether it be to build a driverless car or create a play that touches our souls. Art is the expression of our souls, the incarnation of heaven on earth.