The World Is Thirsting

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Things were slower, less complicated when I was a child. The noises that I heard came mostly from the hum of daily living that wafted through the open windows of my home. There was a kind of routine on my street that rarely varied, even in the summertime when school was out for three full months. The world became relaxed in June, July and August, filled with precious time that I was able to use however I wished.

The cooler mornings always lead me outside to see if anyone else had ideas for new adventures, but by noon the heat often became too much for us to bear and so we retreated back inside our houses where we were sheltered from the burning rays of the sun, if not the humidity and heat. Most homes on my street had massive attic fans that pulled hot air in through the windows, creating a kind of artificial breeze that made our climate only slightly more bearable. Afternoons were a good time for quiet play and so we engaged in marathon card games or set up never ending boardgames like Monopoly.

Without a doubt reading was my favorite pastime when summer rolled around. I positioned myself on my bed in front of an open window and forgot all about the temperature or any of my worries as I escaped into worlds brought vividly to life with words that painted pictures in my mind. It mattered little what volume lay before me. I was willing to explore new authors, new genres. The excitement was in expanding my universe from the confines of my little house, my street, my neighborhood. Through those books I traveled all around the world and learned of people and cultures. I considered new ideas and felt as adventurous as if I had actually embarked on a junket to the far corners of the universe.

I guiltlessly indulged in the stories that expanded my horizons and taught me the beauty of language. Each summer I was mesmerized by the written word and its power to transport and transform me. I read voraciously like a starved soul, and mentally catalogued my favorite authors and titles. I little understood at the time how much more complicated my life and the world would eventually become, but as the years went by and I entered my adulthood, the luxury of spending hours reading for three months out of the year would become little more than a memory. My time became ever more filled with obligations that absconded with the minutes and hours. I found myself rushing from one thing to do to another. I was lucky to find a few minutes here and there to stoke my passion for reading. I had to steal moments from my always filled calendar, and somehow my favorite thing to do became that last thing that I would do, often reading long after everyone else in the house had gone to sleep. In the quiet of the night I escaped from my own complex world to those of others.

The list of books that I have read speaks to the change in my habits. I have enjoyed most of the classics but I am sadly unfamiliar with so many of the modern authors. I simply haven’t found as much time to discover them and yet so often when I do I am enthralled. I suspect that there is a whole new world of wonder just waiting for me if only I can talk myself into slowing down. I raced through my days for so long that even in retirement I don’t seem able or willing to return to the delightfully slow pace of my childhood. I have bought into the idea that I must somehow justify the merit of each day by ticking off my accomplishments. I am still trying to justify spending three or four hours reading everyday when so many other things need to be done.

Perhaps I must teach myself once again to be more like a child, open to letting each day unfold without plans or expectations. I need to release the stresses and guilts that we adults so often carry like baggage. I must accept that giving time to myself is as important as giving to others. I try to remember that it was in the innocence of childhood that I learned so much that made me who I am today, and those hours reading were invaluable in my development.

I’ve heard that people do not read as much today as they once did. Libraries don’t see as much traffic. Bookstores sell fewer volumes. Newspapers are struggling to sell subscriptions. I know folks who blithely admit that they haven’t read a book in years. We spend time that might be better used reading in the pursuit of other activities  like playing computer games or posting on Facebook or tweeting our thoughts. We feel as though we know more about what is happening in the world, but we rarely bother to read up on the facts behind the headlines. Our knowledge is often limited to the soundbites that we accept from our favorite politicians or celebrities. We believe without going into depth on any topic, learning the history and all of the background. We rush around and rely on others to keep us informed. We have incomplete pictures of the world because even with all of the global communication at our fingertips we still operate in tiny bubbles that rarely give us the big picture. We readily believe whatever lines up with our own thinking rather than challenging ourselves by seeking to delve more deeply 

Reading challenged me when I was in my formative years. It taught me about the history of mankind and the variety of personalities that comprise the human race. I learned to think and to see the difference between a fact and an opinion. Those hours spent feeding my mind that seemed so lazy and even a bit selfish were actually some of the most important moments of my life. There is little that I might have done that would have been more valuable and truly I suspect that it is more important than ever for me and the rest of the world to set aside time to learn lessons from the past and ways to move toward the future.

In spite of the nonstop flurry of headlines and commentaries our world is thirsting for knowledge and information. We are falling victim to propagandizing that is everywhere. Reading is the antidote for our malaise. Just as with exercise, the more we read the better our minds will be, particularly when we don’t limit ourselves to one point of view. I’m ready to begin a journey into the world of books once again. I have a fine list of suggested titles from a friend. I can’t wait to start reading.   

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Far From Finished

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From time to time I get writer’s block and find myself searching furiously for a blog topic. That’s when I surf the web for ideas, and luckily there are a number of sites offering suggestions. I found myself laughing out loud at one post about lists that focused on ten things to do before one dies. It occurred to me that my time for considering such things is perhaps running a bit shorter than say someone in his/her twenties since I will turn seventy on my next birthday. While nobody ever knows when the time for parting this world will actually come, it is more and more likely to happen as the years go by, for none of us is immortal.

I’m well past many of the things that once tempted me like learning to be a downhill skier. My bones would be quite unhappy with the falls and I’d rather sit inside a warm chateau sipping on some hot soup at the top of a mountain than contemplating sliding my way down. The same goes for exploring the Amazon River. Such an adventure sounded thrilling until I saw a program about a trek that almost killed Theodore Roosevelt. After realizing how brutal such an excursion would be, I’ve given up all thought of even trying such a crazy thing. I’ll leave that kind of insanity for the young. My new ideas are far more in line with the limitations that age has imposed on my body.

I still want to travel as much as possible. I haven’t seen Buckingham Palace or the Eiffel Tower or the Vatican, and it seems to me that everyone should enjoy a view of those things at least once. I know that we are all a bit spoiled in this era because most of our ancestors were lucky to get a few hundred miles out of the towns in which they were born. Now such travels are rather commonplace, at least for Americans. I sometimes have to admit that I feel a bit guilty about our abundance and opportunities, but then I still dream of seeing more of the world and think I will be a better person for having done so. Travel opens the mind and the heart.

Of course, I still want my book to get published. To spur me forward my husband showed me a TED talk on planning. It made me realize what I need to do to move forward, and I am feeling more determined than ever. I have only a small bit of editing to do and then I must find someone who will help me design a cover. I already know how I want it to look, I just don’t have the skills to do it myself. After that I intend to send it to a company that will format it properly so that I can easily upload it to Amazon. I have to specify the time that I will do these things and then stick with the plan. I have friends and family who have already successfully published their works, so I need to be less hesitant to consult with them. I’m sure they will be more than glad to share their experiences to help get me going.

There are a number of small things that I think should also be on my list. I hope to live long enough to witness the next total eclipse of the sun. It’s not that far away and this time there will be great viewing right here in Texas. I also want to see the fall colors in Vermont and go to the Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. Maybe I might catch a showing of Hamilton while I’m in there.

I’d like to take a cooking class and then prepare a special feast for friends and family. My culinary arts are rather basic, but I’m fondly known as “The Bean Queen” and my gumbo might win a prize. I think that baking would be fun or becoming an expert in Italian cuisine. The art and science of food preparation is fascinating to me.

I want to reteach myself Calculus. I once did well with that subject but I was a good fifty years younger the last time I took a such a course. I never taught that subject nor had reason to use it, so it feels as though all memory of it is gone. I once began a review session at a junior college only to develop a bacterial infection after two days that left me hanging over the toilet bowl for over a week. I had to drop the idea of relearning, but never the desire to get back up to speed.

There are entertainers I would love to see in live performances like Yo Yo Ma, Celine Dion, Kelly Clarkson, Usher, The Gypsy Kings. As a matter of fact I would love to take advantage of all of the concerts that come to town. I find that even people that I never thought to be so great end up being fabulous. My in-laws once took me to see Andy Williams. I was polite about their generous offer but believed that it would be a snooze, It was not. In fact it was a very memorable evening that demonstrated what makes someone famous. In person Andy was incredibly charismatic.

I’ve seen a sunset over the Grand Canyon but I’d love to observe a sunrise there. It would be more than cool to be in Chaco Canyon for the solstice. I want to hear the bagpipers at Edinburgh Castle and walk through the streets of the towns in Slovakia where my grandparents lived as children. I’d love to be in the audience of Saturday Night Live or Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show or even better would be to see Ellen. I want to reread the great classics and pour over the newest bestsellers. When I become too frail to go too far from home I hope to watch marathons of my all time favorite movies and call friends just to chat.

I suppose that my list is in fact rather endless. There is still so much to do and see. The world is an exciting place that I haven’t explored nearly enough. I’ll write about each of my adventures as they unfold, so stay tuned. I’m far from finished.

It’s My Hobby and I’m Sticking To It

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I was reminded by a Facebook memory that I have been posting blogs five days a week for six years now. If my math is correct that means that I have somehow managed to write somewhere around one thousand five hundred sixty essays, a number that is almost overwhelming when I think about it. I suppose that in many ways an undertaking that was supposed to be an avenue for advertising the book that I have written has become an obsession, while the book itself languishes in a state of unfinished editing which leads me to believe that I have some sort of psychological hangup regarding my opus magnum. Surely there is a reason for prioritizing my daily chatter over the work that took so much of my time. Anyway, this is an anniversary of sorts which brings me back to one of my earliest and most memorable posts.

Husband Mike and I had gone camping with friends at Ink’s Lake State Park located in the hill country of Texas. Things went awry from the start, beginning with the failure of one of our tent poles that resulted in a fix that left the structure leaning to one side. We should have taken this as an omen and either left immediately or made a visit to a camping store to purchase new outdoor living quarters. Instead we soldiered on, and for a time everything went remarkable well until the next bad sign came with the arrival of a group of young people late one evening. They literally came into the campground like storm troopers intent on stealing our sense of security

The members of the group appeared to have no sense of the lateness of the hour as they set up their tents using the bright headlights of their trucks to throw light on the project as well as all of the nearby sites including ours. They bantered so loudly that we heard every sound that they uttered which included both arguments laced with profanity and laughter laced with profanity. One of the members of the group had a chortle that most surely had been designed to drive people insane. Unfortunately he seemed to think that everything was funny. Even after the new folks finally went into their tents they chattered on and on and on, with the sound of that horrific laugh punctuating every single comment.

Needless to say it was a very long and unrestful night, but I was encouraged when I awoke to find the irritating people packing up to leave. In truth I almost asked if I might help them in order to hurry the process along. Instead I simply observed them while I ate my breakfast. I noticed that they were flying a large flag that was unfamiliar to me so I Googled a description and learned that it was something known as the new Nazi banner. Somehow I wasn’t surprised at all because the group was accompanied by a black Labrador Retriever whose name was a pejorative starting with the letter N. I held my temper as best I might, and soon enough they were gone leaving behind so much garbage that vultures came around to clean up the mess. As creepy as those birds were, they were preferable to the people whose place they had taken.

I was able to laugh at the adventure and enjoyed a lovely day at a winery with our friends.  Later that evening we enjoyed dinner together and played a rousing round of Scrabble while sipping on wine, so I truly thought that I would enjoy a night of deep sleep until thunder, lightning and a torrent of rain began falling mercilessly on our tent. The “sturm und drang” only got worse as the wind picked up and took advantage of the broken tent pole that now threatened to collapse under the intensity of the weather. I was far too terrified to sleep and so I lay on my cot hoping and praying that the little stream right behind our site would not decide to flood the floor of our home away from home, or that the wind might become too much for our structure. All kinds of warnings were making frightening noises on my cell phone, so when there was a small break in the downpour I raced to our car with a pillow and a blanket and found the refuge that I needed. It wasn’t long before Mike had given up his post and joined me. It wasn’t the most comfortable situation, but at least it felt safe.

By morning we assessed the damage and decided that it was time to bail and head back home. As we were leaving the park rangers mentioned that we had been the only tenters left in the park during the storm. They said that they were glad to see that we were okay because they had worried about us and even considered coming to check on our safety,\. Sadly they felt that it had been just too dangerous outside for them to brave it. Somehow I did not feel better for their kind thoughts.

Ultimately Mike and I gave up on being boys scouts and invested in a nice trailer that has kept us safe from other storms that we have endured. We were eventually able to laugh about our adventure in the tent, and I felt some sense of gratitude that it had given me a topic for launching my blog.

I’m not quite sure why I still get so much out of writing so prolifically. I sometimes wonder if anyone other than my good friends Linda and Adriana or my cousin Terri are reading my work. I know that I am addicted to putting my thoughts on a page. It is my drug of choice and since it does me no harm I suppose that it is as good as any habit gets. The ironic thing is that six years later I find myself in a new state of chaos much like the storm of long ago, and it is just as humorous. Who knew the power of water? Just a brief sprinkle from a hot water heater has upended my household for six weeks now. By tomorrow I should have all of the repairs completed including getting new carpet, but the process has been akin to moving out of the house, tearing it apart, rebuilding it again and then moving back in. For someone as obsessive compulsive as I am it has taken a great deal of laughter to keep me from losing my perspective. I’ve even thought of those God awful campers of late and chuckled at the thought of them just to stay sane.

Right now every item from our walls, closets, drawers, etc. is stored in boxes stacked high in the garage. We attempted to remember to leave out things that we would need for the duration but have found ourselves returning again and again to those boxes because we neglected to keep something at hand. Mike realized that he was going to need his checkbook after we had boxed it up,  and after a bit of a hunt retrieved it and carried it around in his back pocket. One morning he came to me and announced that he had somehow lost it. We searched everywhere and were on the verge of calling the bank to have the account changed when I used my most excellent sleuthing skills to retrace his steps. I eventually found the missing item on the floor of the guest bathroom where it had apparently fallen from Mike’s pants when nature called.

I’m doing rather well given my perfectionist tendencies. I’ve made my journey a study in empathy as I think of friends and family who suffered far greater devastation in the floods of last summer. I also have a new appreciation for anyone who is remodeling in any way. I remember Adriana telling me once that she and her husband had been forced to stored their belongings sky high in their garage while new floors were being laid in their home. I honestly had no feeling or understanding for her situation. Now I just want to give her a long overdue hug for what she must have endured.

In the meantime I suppose that I will keep writing, even if it is only for myself. I’m part of a vast group of people crying out in a kind of wilderness, unknown authors who write out of compulsion. Perhaps I am a bit crazy for doing it, but it’s my hobby and I’m sticking to it. Oh, and I really do want to get that book out for the public. I really believe that it has some merit. I hope it won’t be another six years before I get it done.

Letters To Elsie

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A faulty hot water heater wreaked havoc in my home about a month ago. Several rooms were affected by the damage necessitating a general overhaul of many of my belongings. As I have moved things around to make room for the repairs I have used the opportunity to do a bit of spring cleaning and organizing. In the process I once again found a packet of letters that had been sitting untouched and unread in a cedar chest for many years. I came upon the missives when I was unable to move the chest to paint a room and replace the water logged carpet. I had to remove many of the items that I had stored inside compartment so that it moved more easily. That’s when I came upon those long forgotten correspondences.

They had been written to my husband’s aunt during and just after World War II. Aunt Elsie was originally from Great Britain but had moved to Houston from England in the early part of the twentieth century. She had kept in contact with relatives over time and even sent little care packages now and again. The notes that I found were striking in their honesty and the portrait of life in a war torn country. I realized that they told a tale of privation and uncertainty that continued well into the post war years. They were fascinating to say the least, and so for today here is one of them just as it was written so long ago.

26/12/44

Dear Elsie

You couldn’t have timed your letter and parcel better, for they arrived on Christmas Day. It is kind of you and we do appreciate it. We drank to your health with the tea and gave you good wishes when tasting the cake. It is ages since we had any currants, peel or almonds (we have had raisins, sultanas and other dried fruits) and so we appreciated the flavor very much. We do pretty well really but rationing does cramp one’s taste. Everyone is remarkably healthy and the children are wonderful so the diet must do us good.

I was interested to know about Wig’s visit. Olga does hope he is on his way home again. You will have all our news, I suppose. Well I got home from the nursing home on the day before Christmas Eve and I have a new daughter who is called Stella, so now I have a nice family, 2 boys and 2 girls. Beryl is delighted with her sister and just loves her. The boys too are very pleased with her so she is going to have a good time. I think 4 is a large number but 7 deserves a medal, although I believe Grandma N was a grandmother at the same age and she had 7 children.

One doesn’t know how long this war has lasted until one finds schoolboys in 1939 are married and in the Forces now. We have been free from raids and getting to think they were things of the past until the second night I was home when we had our first experience of flying bombs. I was glad I was home and not helplessly tied to bed. The lights do make a difference. Beryl and most other young children went to view the lights when they first came on. These children have never known anything but blackout and though the lights are dim it makes a great difference to see lights from houses and buses etc.

We are well except for slight colds but our weather is so variable and has been so wet since August that one can’t expect anything else. Mother is bit better but still has to take care.

I am glad to hear of Robert Q and that he is all right. What a big slice of these boys’ lives is being spent in strange places, and what hard times they are having.

Give my best wishes to all other members of the family for 1945. May it bring peace to the world though I am afraid the aftermath of the war will take more settling than the fighting has done.

My love to you all and again many thanks.

Yours affectionately

Edna

Edna was living in Cottingham at the time she wrote this letter. I was struck by the quietly resigned manner in which she spoke of the hardships that she and others so impacted by the war were experiencing. Hers is a tiny portrait of a time in history when all of Europe was struggling to carry on while life continued to play out with births, children and family traditions. She wants to be brave but her fears peek through the brave front that her words attempt to imply. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been. At the same time Elsie must have been beside herself with concern knowing that members of her British family were enduring so much hardship. Elsie’s brothers were doing their part as American troops, so she was no doubt worried about them as well. It was a time of uncertainty and sacrifice the world over and the letters that travelled across the ocean must have provided a kind of life line between loved ones. How admirable the everyday people had to be. 

 

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

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I write a blog five days a week and sometimes I wonder if anyone other than my friends, Linda, Adriana and Paula are reading my thoughts. It often feels as though I am simply exercising my long held fantasy of being a writer for an audience of practically no one. One might argue that that my public journalling has become a vain obsession, but perhaps what is more important about my literary efforts than the number of readers that I attract or my reasons for writing is that I am allowed to voice my views freely. There is something more remarkable about having such a basic right than earning a viral following.

I read a great deal, observe continually, and watch historical documentaries in my quest for blog topics. From those efforts I have learned about the many parts of the world in which I would either be restricted in my comments or banned entirely. My freedom of speech is something that I admittedly all too often take for granted, but it is in fact one of my most precious gifts because I am someone who has a difficult time sitting silently in the background. I truly believe that I have a story to tell and a point of view to share that may not be particularly important or even wise, but that illustrates the resilience of the human spirit.

I’ve watched almost seventy years of history unfolding and some of it was ugly and tainted with violence and hatred. Most of the time, however the horrific behavior that I have noted was more of a societal aberration than a true reckoning of who we are as people. Time and again I have watched the goodness of human beings ultimately win the day, often in imperfect but well intentioned ways. Like President Barrack Obama I believe in the idea that the arc of history bending toward justice is more that just a platitude. It is our reality. Unfortunately our evolution toward perfection is slow and even jerky at times as we lurch back and forth between our better natures and our more selfish tendencies. We are often reticent to speak out or fight for what is good and right until the pain of witnessing injustice becomes overwhelming. We tend to want to be left alone, but we are unwilling to let evil fester indefinitely.

When I was young I used to think that I would one day see a time much like that described in Dr. Martin Luther King’s most famous speech, a moment when we would all be judged only by the content of our individual character. Perhaps I was a bit premature in believing that we were on the brink of achieving an almost idyllic world. Still, I do think that we are moving in that direction even though at times our progress is imperceptible. My experience with people has taught me that generally everyone possesses a sincere wish to be loving and heroic, but sometimes circumstances make it difficult to be our best.

We are a society of rules and that is as it should be. I have never been in any situation that worked out well without some form of guidelines. Rubrics and laws help us to set parameters, but we have to be careful not to become so driven by regulations that our most basic freedoms are curtailed. I suspect that we all want to be able to think, speak and act in our own manner as long as what we are doing does no harm. Of late, however, we have tended as a society to turn our backs in profound judgement on those with whom we disagree. This trend has created schisms in families and among friends. We are broken on both a personal and a worldwide level, filled with suspicions and immutable opinions. Exercising our free speech has become a means of formally bending arms rather than a vehicle of persuasion. We are being distracted by propaganda and revolutions rather than hearing quiet but often compelling viewpoints filled with reason.

We have unwittingly allowed our freedom to speak to be dominated by the passions of the fringe, the outliers on a normal curve. While those of us who are more moderate have been busy performing the tasks of living, those with louder voices and unyielding opinions have managed to assume that they represent the rest of us. While we toil to survive, they are busy choosing the candidates and the platforms from which we will have to choose at the polling places. We are busy or perhaps too reserved and unwilling to foment disagreement to concern ourselves with the raucous until we find ourselves in front of a ballot filled with the names of individuals with whom we disagree, powerless to do more than choose the lesser of two evils. We watch in dismay from the sidelines as the opposing sides of the many issues that worry us tear each other apart when we actually want them to set aside their differences and come to a fruitful conclusion. We know that we are members of a silent majority that is the glue that is so tentatively holding our nation and our world together even as it appears to be falling apart.

Most of us have been taught to be respectful. We learned from our elders that speaking of religion and politics in public is bad form, taboo. We don’t wish to rock the boat, so we walk away from disagreements. We avoid mentioning topics that may lead to arguments. We tip toe around any discussions that might provide knowledge that makes us uncomfortable or challenges our thoughts. We worry that what we say will be ridiculed or misunderstood. We tell ourselves that nobody really cares what we have to say, and so we leave the speeches and the commentaries to strangers who are leading us away from what we actually believe. We know that we want to do something to change our current situation, but we have no idea how to even begin. The answer lies in the very freedom that we all too often neglect to exercise.

A shockingly low percentage of those eligible to vote take the time to go to the polls. Even fewer voice their beliefs to those who have been elected and are supposed to be serving all of the people. It takes only a few minutes to send an email or compose a letter to a representative. We waste our time on Facebook and Twitter, but when enough of us flood the offices of the President and Congress with our opinions we have the power of collectively making a difference. We have glorious rights that we have become too lazy or cynical to use. Instead of battling with friends and family in circular arguments, we should be contacting the very people who are supposed to be working for us.

I write because I am free to do so. I will please some and enrage others. The facts of my demographics do not serve as impediments to my rights as they might in so many corners of the world. I celebrate my life, liberty and pursuit of happiness with my words. It is a glorious feeling to be able to do so, and I will continue as long as it is my right.