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.

A Sense of Happiness

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Does anybody remember Leon Hale? He was a writer for both The Houston Post and The Houston Chronicle who traveled around the city of Houston and the state of Texas writing about this and that. His columns revealed a man who was always on the lookout for a good story, and over the years he found hundreds that delighted readers like me. His best ones were often about rather ordinary people who came to life under the magic of the words he chose to use to describe them. His talent was so profound that he somehow made the mundane incredibly interesting. He had an eye for finding the beauty in a single moment or face or comment.

I know I would have enjoyed sitting down with Leon Hale to talk about his decades of adventures with folks. I would have liked to ask him how he developed his writing craft so well, but I suppose I already know many of the answers because he was masterful at noting even the tiniest details about his subjects and then finding words and phrases that painted pictures without so much as a single photograph. His was indeed a brilliant talent that brought me many years of joy. Even on days when I was too busy to peruse the other pages of the newspaper I found time to see what Mr. Hale had to say and I was never disappointed.

Leon Hale taught me as much about humor, love, acceptance and other such positive characteristics of the human heart as the sermons I heard in church. He got me to thinking about the best inclinations of humankind and his stories were as uplifting to my spirit as readings from a book of meditations. He also had a knack for describing people and situations with unique combinations of words that invariably brought out emotions that either made me laugh or cry. I literally felt as though I knew him and the people that he introduced in his tales.

The glory days of local newspapers are dimming. Houston was once a two newspaper town long before it was even close to being the forth largest city in the country. The Houston Post, which was always my personal favorite, went the way of dinosaurs long ago and The Houston Chronicle is just a shell of its once glorious self. A Sunday morning edition used to be so big that it came in two separate rolls from the paperboy. Now it is so slim that it’s hardly recognizable. It’s surface area is vastly diminished as is the quality of writing between its pages. Before long it won’t be too far different from the little suburban newsletters that come out once a month.

It was the printing press that wrought dramatic change in the world. As ordinary folk had more and more access to books and newspapers equality became more possible. The new revolution has been on the technology front with news and print entertainment on demand at any given moment. A morning or evening run of a hard copy is old news by the time it arrives and is less and less cherished by avid readers than it once was. Computers allow us to see the latest information whenever we wish. Blogs provide us with almost infinite numbers of writers that we might follow. The new Leon Hales can live and write in Texas and then publish for a worldwide audience within minutes.

I am definitely an electronic reader. I use my various devices to read wherever I go. I don’t have to cull through dogeared magazines about topics that have little interest for me when I wait to see my doctors because I have my trusty phone to keep me apprised of breaking news or to provide me with columns from writers that I enjoy. I even have a Kindle app that allows me to read from the latest best selling books. Still, there is something about the look and feel of paper and printed letters formed from ink that adds to the reading experience. Actually holding a physical copy of writing is as enticing to the senses as wearing fine perfume.

The glow of letters on a screen just ins’t as exciting as holding a printed version of a story or a book and I always have the sense that I may be missing something important whenever I read from an electronic device. I understand and learn best when I have a fully kinesthetic experience in which I can actually manipulate the words by circling or underlining them or making comments in the margins. I like to put paper tabs on certain pages or turn down the corners of the sections that contain my favorite passages. Not even mechanical highlighters on ebooks do the job as well for me. My photographic memory feels a bit lost in the world of computers, notepads and phones. I have to spend too much time remembering where all of my information is stored. With a paper copy I know exactly where to look.

Several years ago I rid myself of all of my long playing record albums and I had quite an extensive collection They took up a great deal of room in my house and I was more inclined to play CDs which were far easier to store and rarely had a scratchy sound from overuse. Eventually even my CDs became rather arcane and I was more likely to stream music to one of my devices. Low and behold LPs became a thing again, a kind of homage to authenticity in music.

One of my grandsons is slowly building a collection of records from artists of my generation. He finds them in thrift shops and half price stores. It pains me to know what a treasure trove of music I once had that I might have given to him as a gift. Instead I was a bit too quick to convert to the new ways. For some reason I have not been able to do the same when it comes to the written word. I still have books and magazines all over my house. Some are growing so old that the paper inside is yellowed and fragile which makes them even more precious in my mind.

I suppose that there is a good argument for conserving natural resources by using only electronic versions of writing. I think of all of the trees that were cut down just to satisfy the human search for knowledge. While the Amazon forest burns we might consider being more conscious of the cost to our world of eschewing more modern methods for reading. Perhaps it’s time for me to retrain my brain to be more appreciative of the evolution of the reading experience. It’s certainly more democratic and inclusive. Nevertheless, I still miss sitting with the latest copy of Leon Hale’s column and reading with enthusiasm as my fingers become smudged with newsprint and the paper makes a crinkling sound as I hold it on my lap. I can almost see it, hear it, and feel it now. It gives me such a visceral sense of happiness. I miss that.

All the World’s a Stage

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I was one of those young college students who struggled to decide what path to follow in preparing for a career. I began with an unspecified arts and sciences major and changed directions multiple times. I even dropped out for a time because I was so confused about what I really wanted to do with my life. In the end I graduated with many more hours than usual, ultimately majoring in English and Education with a heavy dose of mathematics courses for good measure. By that time I saw myself as a purveyor of literature, and I dreamed of inspiring students to love Shakespeare as much as I do. I carried visions of my favorite high school teacher, Father Shane, in my head and hoped that I might inspire a new generation of young people to appreciate the beauty of the the written word as much as he had impacted me.

To my surprise my first job was as a mathematics teacher, something I viewed as a temporary status wrought by a dwindling market for newly graduated educators. I assumed that within in year or so the economy would right itself and I would soon enough be dramatically quoting lines from Othello and demonstrating the art of writing. Somehow I instead became branded as someone capable of instructing students in the algorithms and formulas of algebra, geometry, probability and statistics. It became an unbreakable trend, and soon enough my preferred mode of work. Still, there hovered in the back of my mind an undying love for literature, grammar, linguistics and composition. The artistic side of my nature needed to be unleashed, but would have to learn how to express itself in unique lessons for teaching proportion and the wonders of circles.

Once I retired from my career I returned to my roots, writing almost daily, reading and rereading some of my favorite authors, and immersing myself in the beauty of language. I even enjoyed tutoring a student or two in the ways of interpreting literature and then writing about metaphors and other tools of language. If found great joy and relaxation in having the time to devote myself to explorations of the ideas that I have always so loved.

Still there remained a longing to visit the land where so many of my favorite authors had once lived and to experience the history and culture that had so molded them. The number one entry on my bucket list was to travel to London and its countryside, and I was determined to one day make it happen. It was with great expectations that I recently crossed “the pond” and had the opportunity to walk in the shadow of some of the greatest authors of all time, not the least of which is my favorite, William Shakespeare.

The original Globe Theater where Shakespeare’s plays were performed was destroyed long ago, but a replica now stands along the Thames River offering seasonal productions for those desiring to get a feel for how the Elizabethan world might have been. It is an outdoor venue with a large open area for the “groundlings” who must stand during the presentation with three levels of seating on the same type of narrow wooden seating that the more prosperous patrons of old might have enjoyed. The only nod to comfort in the arena are the small cushions that may be procured for an extra fee to soften the harshness of sitting on a hard surface for three hours.

My traveling companions and I went to see The Merry Wives of Windsor, a comedy that might not have been my first choice but was nonetheless the offering for the season. It was a greatly modernized version of the rollicking farce featuring the crowd pleasing character, Falstaff. The members of the company played well to the audience just as the actors of old most surely had done. Their light hearted banter kept all of us laughing and enjoying the ridiculousness of the story.

When intermission came I learned that the members of my family had little idea what was happening. They had not taken entire courses on the works of Shakespeare as I had. Only my sister-in-law Becky was somewhat attuned because I had gifted her with a translated version of the play since she was worried that her English might not be up to speed enough to understand the nuances of a Shakespearean production. I hastily describe the premise of the play and each character’s role in the tale. After that there were more laughs and enjoyment coming from my family, and I felt a small sense of satisfaction in being a purveyor of understanding for them.

I was literally floating on air as we emerged from the Globe Theater at the end of a riotously fun evening. The night sky was clear and illuminated by a million points of light from the city of London. I walked across the Millennium Bridge in high spirits as I marveled at my good fortune, and considered that the course of my life had gone full circle, returning me to the passion of my youth. I thought of Father Shane and gave him a silent nod of gratitude for instilling me with a love of all things literary. I felt quite complete as I considered how well the course of my life had gone. There was something very Shakespearean about the way that I was feeling and the contentment that filled my heart.

As if to remind me that life is filled with comedies and well as tragedies, in the midst of my elation my brother Michael ran into a low barricade, did a complete somersault, and banged his head on the pavement in view of St. Paul’s Cathedral. His glasses were broken, his body was bruised, and we worried that his injuries were severe. With the usual aplomb he brushed away our fears, but the bubble of perfection in which I had been floating returned to reality. It felt as though Shakespeare himself was reminding me of the vagaries of life that are the stuff of both tragedy and comedy.

I shall never forget my evening at the Globe Theater. I have seen better plays and more superior acting at the Alley Theater in Houston, but those entertainments did not feel as sacred as my pilgrimage to the place where the undyingly prescient words of the Bard still deliver their universal messages. More than ever I knew that “all the world’s a stage,” and I have been a player in its never ending plot.