I See You

I See You

I went to a fairly small high school in which we tended to know of everyone of our classmates, but often did not really know details about all of them. Some of my friends from that stage of my life are still very much part of my world, and what I have learned over the decades is that each of us have had to deal with difficulties both when we were young, and when we were adults. None of us have gone untouched by daunting challenges that sometimes took all of our reserves to overcome.

As I have aged I have had opportunities to get to really know some of the people who went to school with me who were once little more than acquaintances or names and faces in a yearbook. Even those that I thought had a golden touch have endured painful experiences, and many of them occurred even as they sauntered through the hallways of our school with smiles on their faces hiding the hurt and fear that was stalking them.

We are in a strange kind of era in which we almost appear to be vying to determine which people among us have been the victims of the most unjust tragedies. Certainly some among us have always had more resources for dealing with difficulties, but none of us have ever been entirely free of troubles. My brothers and I had a heavy dose of sorrow, poverty and exposure to mental illness but we also had more than a generous share of emotional support from our mother, our extended family, our neighbors, the people at our church, our teachers and our friends. We may have been thrown into the maelstrom more than we might have wished, and wondered at times if we would survive, but time and again we learned the very important lesson that we were never alone. That realization was more valuable than money or possessions or influence or privilege. In fact, we were quite young when we knew beyond a doubt that there is always is source of kindness and that often it comes from the most unexpected places.

The one thing that most people desire is to be seen and heard. I recently read a book that my grandson chose for his summer reading that reminded me of our human need to be noticed and honored for being exactly who we are. A Monster Calls is the story of a young man plagued by nightmares in the midst of his beloved mother’s battle with cancer. It is a gorgeous flight of fancy that speaks to our desire to be understood. There is no race or class that does not share the desire to be fully and totally accepted.

Just as the boy in A Monster Calls was filled with anger because he believed that nobody fully understood him, so too are many people in society today filled with rage because they feel misunderstood. They are mad about this or that and don’t want to take it anymore. They seem to be unaware of the fact that we all have been burdened with challenges beyond our control that have made our lives more difficult than we want them to be. They carry on because they want someone to empathize with their plights, some of which appear to be more deserving of our concern than others. In truth it is impossible to discern the difference between rotten apples and moldy oranges. Problems are problems and we all have them. When they pile up and become unbearable, which they tend to do in spite of our efforts, we simply want some compassion and for those around us to acknowledge our sorrows.

When humans feel abandoned they are more likely to lose hope. They lash out or devolve into depression. There is no telling where their thoughts of desperation will lead them. Sometimes they become ugly and violent versions of themselves. I always ponder when I encounter such a person what brought them to such a terrible place. I find myself wondering if someone along the pathway of their lives might have helped them to find positive ways of dealing with tribulations. I contemplate the possibility that they became so invisible that they broke.

I  have been greatly saddened by a tragedy that occurred near where my grandsons live. On a summer afternoon just before the start of school two boys the same age as my grandsons met in a park. One of them shot and killed the other. They were sixteen and my grandsons knew both of them from their high school. The shooter was in the same advisory period as theirs. The victim’s mother was an acquaintance of their mom’s. It hit all of us hard just as it did the teachers at the school. Everyone wondered what might have prevented such an horrific moment. Was there something that might have been said or done? What was the defining event when things began to go so terribly wrong?

We tend to operate as though laws and rules and allegiances are more important than individual lives, and yet there are stories after stories both in literature and history of people who were saved because someone witnessed their pain and did something meaningful to help them. Kindness often does wonders. I know for a fact that it made an enormous difference for me and my brothers when we were growing into adults. Just having someone see us and offer a hand taught us to be optimistic even in the darkest hours. Little acknowledgements were enough to sustain us.

I was reading about Latinas going to college and feeling different and a bit frightened when checking into their dormitories. It reminded me of my own college days. I was unable to live on campus. I went to the university in my city and commuted to and from school each day. I did not have a car but I had two dear friends who offered to get me there and take me back home. They went out of their way to help me.

I would have liked to have been part of college life with a dorm room and all of the activities associated with that experience, but I barely had enough money to cover my tuition which I paid from summer jobs and little bits of work here and there. I instead got something even better, a lifetime relationship with the two wonderful souls who made sure that I got to my classes. They saw me and they listened to me then and all the way into the present. I don’t know what I might have done without them, but I’ll never have to wonder because they were there.

Perhaps instead of growing irritated by those who are shouting about their pain and sorrow, we simply need to let them know that we do see them and we will listen to them. That is the first step in helping someone to find the way to a better life. I had angels who gave me that gift, I pray that other frightened souls will find someone willing to provide for them.

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Those Kids

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A cousin shared a story from The Washington Post written by a teacher who considered the dilemma of THAT kid, the one that drives teachers crazy and worries the parents of the “good” children. I was sobbing by the time that I reached the end of the very well crafted piece because I thought of all of THOSE kids who crossed my path during my teaching career. They touched my heart when I taught them and to this very day I worry about what may have come of them. They were the youngsters whose lives were riddled with troubles that not even an adult should have to face. Their behavior all to often reflected the pain that they were feeling and the confusion that they riddled their minds in having to face situations that were beyond their control. I hope that I helped them in some way, but I also know that there were times when they frustrated me so that I let them down. I see their faces with those looks of longing for compassion that were often masked by actions that seemed so horrid.

The first of them was a child of only ten who disrupted class on a regular basis. Most did not know that she lived in dire poverty with absentee parents. She was followed by the nine year old boy whose mother left him to watch his little sister while she worked nights as a prostitute. There was the young man whose mother had attempted to set him on fire when he was only an infant and the girl whose uncle impregnated her when she was only twelve. I’ll never forget the teen who witnessed his father murdering his mother or the one whose mother shoplifted to keep the family from starving. They were all part of a band of children whose lives were often defined by poverty and parents struggling to fight their own demons. They did not start life as troublemakers. They did not want to be viewed as bad seeds. They were innocents who got chewed up by a world that they did not fully understand. In their fight for survival they asserted themselves and pushed back. They became angry and difficult to handle.

How many of us would have been able to endure some of the horrors that they faced? Fate had subjected them to ordeals that no child should ever encounter. They acted out. They behaved badly. They were screaming for someone to help them.

I did my best with most of them but sometimes I became tired and frustrated and passed them along in anger. I wanted them to be punished for ruining the calm of my classroom. I disliked them for the distractions that they were. I fell into the pattern that they had already experienced hundreds of times from adults, that of being ignored or punished for the sin of reacting to adversity the way most of us probably would given the circumstances of their lives. I feel guilt for the times when I gave up on them.

There was a young man from a decidedly dysfunctional family. He exuded a tough guy image. It was his way of coping with abuse by those who were supposed to love him. He made an ugly racist comment to another student. He claimed that he was only joking, but I knew that he was really just crying for help. Our answer was to expel him from our school. A counselor sobbed for him and begged us to reconsider. I was afraid to counter the majority opinion even though I did not believe that sending him away was an appropriate answer. I voted with the group rather than following my instincts. He only became worse because in a sense we had convinced him that he was as worthless as his parents constantly told him that he was. I still grieve over my lack of courage in defending him along with his braver advocate. He needed love at that moment, not rejection, but we we not willing to listen.

So it often is with THOSE students. We adhere without thought to sets of rules that do not take into account what is behind the reprehensible behaviors. We wash our hands in innocence insisting that exceptions only make matters worse. It’s easier to operate from words on a paper, set in stone without consideration of all of the facts.

I think of one of my very best principals, a woman who cautioned me to be flexible with my rules and consequences. She urged me never to paint myself into a corner. She warned me that there will always be those for whom the so called rules do not really apply. She was as wise as Solomon in guiding me when I was just a pup in the beginning of my teaching career. I understood what she meant as I met more and more of THOSE kids. I realized that I had to attempt to reach them rather than judge them. I had to love them as much as I did the ones who were no trouble at all.

I witnessed transformations. The boy who threw books and told me to F off graduated with honors as the president of his class. The young man who ran with gangs doing despicable things changed his ways and became a police officer. The kid who nobody could control went to college and earned multiple degrees because “somebody took the time to care.” Nobody should ever wantonly be tossed on the dustbin of society while they are still young. Our goal should be to redeem them rather than to urge retribution against them.

I still cry at the thought of what some of my students had to endure. I flinch with guilt at the realization of how I may have failed them too. I hope that I made a difference for most of them. I’d like to think that perhaps they are now doing well. I still love THOSE kids. I hope they know.

When One of Us Hurts

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We can’t run and we can’t hide. Problems will find us no matter how hard we try to escape from them. Not only that, we can’t avoid the reality that all of us live in a symbiotic relationship even when we have never met each other. In fact, we intersect with all things on this earth and in our universe. The old adage that we feel a butterfly flap its wings in Africa is not that far fetched. Sooner or later the cumulative effect of our interactions and those of the natural world have an impact on us. To deny this simple truth is to threaten the very health of all humans and the survival of the earth.

We like to believe that when one person is hurting it has nothing to do with us. We may not have caused that individual’s problems, but there is almost always a kind of ripple effect that reaches out in all directions from someone with a shattered heart. In a million little ways each person has an impact not just on the people who know and love them, but on strangers who may not even realize their existence.

As parents we attempt to instill character and family values in our children. We often forget that they won’t always be with us. They will encounter people who may ultimately misguide or misuse them. Nothing hurts us more than seeing a loved one who has been degraded and disappointed by someone that they trusted. We would rather have to deal with something terrible ourselves than have to see family members or dear friends in pain, and yet such situations are very much part of human life. It’s critical that we teach our young how to work their way through the tough times because none of us fully escape them. It is impossible to be totally sheltered from hurt and betrayal.

Flexibility and resilience are two often ignored and underrated characteristics that help us to deal with tragedy. It’s critical that we take time to demonstrate to our young how to keep moving forward even when our path seems to be impossibly blocked. Providing them with a place where they feel free to vent and then communicate their fears is a first step in helping them to find solutions to the difficulties that plague them. Every person should understand the simple idea that there is always a way to resolve the conflicts in their lives. The outcome may be far different from anything they have ever imagined, but nonetheless a way of crawling out of the muck.

We don’t have to be filled with rainbows and unicorns and unrealistic expectations. Going to Disneyland is not always an answer to our prayers. Sometimes we have to endure tough times and work harder than we ever thought possible just to keep from falling into a pit of despair. It is in those times that we find our truest allies and friends and then it is incumbent upon us to always remember them when their moment of uncertainty occurs. We are in this crazy mixed up world together, and brawling over who is right and who is wrong only clouds the issues and delays solutions. Someone has to be the adult in the room.

Years ago my husband was critically ill with a disease that more often than not killed people back then. He was in the hospital for months undergoing chemotherapy in the hopes of a cure. I had two little ones at home that needed my care so I wasn’t always able to be with him. His mother on the other hand was able to sit by his side throughout his treatments. In all honesty I became jealous of her attention to him while I was stuck at home with the children. Even when I showed up at the hospital she took control of the situation and made me feel as though my concerns did not matter. I allowed a smoldering anger to build up inside until I was about to burst. I finally admitted my feelings to my mother who gave me absolutely perfect advice.

She reminded me that my mother-in-law loved her son as much as I loved my two daughters. She asked me to imagine how I would feel if one of my girls was in the hospital fighting to win a battle with a deadly disease. She said that this was not a time to have a contest of who loved my husband best because he was in a very difficult position and should not have to choose between his mother and his wife. Then she said that what was needed most was for someone to emerge as the adult in the room, someone who loved everyone so much that he or she was willing to step back and just go with the flow of things.

Of course she was not so subtly hinting that I needed to be that person. She suggested that I keep the home fires burning in my husband’s absence and let his mother sit by his side. She pointed out that each of us has a role to play in the many chapters of our lives and if we work together everyone will ultimately come out better. It was wise advice that I decided to follow. In the process I began to better understand just how interconnected we all were in the challenges that we face. I realized the love that prompted my mother-in-law’s seemingly overactive concern. Instead of thinking of how I was feeling, I began to empathize with her and with my husband. In that moment of understanding I saw the importance and the power of working as a team.

We delude ourselves if we believe that we can close our borders, lock our doors, hide in our rooms. The world will find us and if we have not embraced it before hand it will overtake us. For our own sakes and those of our children we must be willing to accept differing points of view and find ways to eliminate hurt and pain whenever we encounter it. When one of us hurts, all of us hurt and the best way to counter the suffering is to demonstrate compassion. One day it may be our turn to suffer and hopefully there will be unselfish souls to help us.

Keep On Keeping On

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When we are young we tend to be impatient. We see life as a sprint rather than a marathon. Every mistake we make feels like the end of possibilities. We fret over our futures and worry that our lives are over before we even get started. I recall thinking that I would never experience any of the things that I dreamed of doing. I was in a hurry, and life rarely works that way. Over the decades I’ve learned that there are some things that we can’t rush, but they happen all in good time.

When I graduated from high school I enrolled in college but I honestly felt totally confused about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I found love with the man who is now my husband, and nothing mattered more to me at the time. So many young men that I knew were being drafted into the army and shipping off to Vietnam where some of them died or were severely wounded. The nation was in a state of upheaval far worse than anything we are now experiencing. Somehow I lost my way and when the chance arose to marry the one person who made me feel good every minute that I was with him I leaped at the opportunity.

I was determined to continue my education even as an incredibly young married woman and for two semesters after my wedding I was as good as my word. Then my world came crashing down around me when my mother’s mental illness advanced to a stage that was more than she was able to bear. I became her lifelong caretaker even as I had little idea of what to do or how long this journey was going to take. I was playing each moment by ear and hoping for the best. On top of everything else I suddenly found that I was pregnant with my first child. Nonetheless I kept taking classes in spite of the reality that none of them felt right for me.

My mother’s battle with mental illness would recur again and again and I would need to focus my attention on her whenever she was especially sick. I decided to take a sabbatical from my university studies after my first child was born. I vowed to return to complete a degree of some kind but for the moment I had my hands full. Things became more complicated when a second daughter was born and my mom’s illness became a constant in our lives. My husband also developed a life threatening disease when we were in our mid twenties that required many months of hospitalization and chemotherapy. Any thoughts of college that I may have had were set aside as I buckled down to take care of my mom, my children and my husband. Somehow the years slipped by and any promise of graduating from college seemed remote so I found little jobs here and there teaching preschool or working as the Director of Religious Education at my church. I had turned thirty before I once again became determined to finish my studies.

I brought a great deal of wisdom and experience to my second foray into education. I found that I enjoyed my classes and gave extra effort to them out of joy for learning. I finally knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life and that certainty gave meaning and purpose to each of the courses that I took. Before long I had earned my degree in education and began teaching in earnest. I would spend the rest of my working days with children and teens. I found that I truly enjoyed my job and the real life experiences that I had encountered were as important in preparing me as my studies had been.

I earned a high level of satisfaction and success in my career. By the time I retired I had taught thousands of students in grades from preschool to middle school to high school to college. I had been an administrator and a mentor to teachers. I felt fulfilled and happy. Since my last full time job I have tutored students and taught children who are being homeschooled. I write every single day as well which was a secret dream that I had long held.

I like to tell my story to young people because I think that I am a living example of the adage that it is never too late to be the person one wants to be. I was thirty two when I earned by degree. I was in my forties when I received a masters degree. I have been learning and working hard for all of my life. I have been willing to think out of the box and try things that had never occurred to me to do. I have never given up on myself, and even when times were tough I believed that brighter days were most assuredly ahead.

Sometimes it takes a bit of sacrifice to get where we want to be in life. We may not get there in the normal ways. Our paths may be rugged and difficult to endure, but with determination we can and will overcome the obstacles that seem to stalk us. I was unable to control all of the situations that overtook my life but I could take one or two classes at a time each and every semester until I finally walked across the stage for my diploma.

I have genuinely had it all, and so can almost everyone. Where there is a will to accomplish something there is always a way. I never belonged to a sorority or lived on campus at a university, but I still made friends in my classes. I had to forgo vacations and all sorts of luxuries for years, but eventually I was doing well enough to treat myself. I had a grand purpose in caring for my family, and I’d like to think that I inspired my daughters to live their lives to the fullest. I’ve tried to help my students also understand that the problems that have daunted them are only temporary detours. If they just keep on keeping on they will emerge into the highway that leads them to their grandest dreams and a few surprises that are even better.

Longevity

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The leaders of Naples, Florida have embarked on a program designed to help its citizens live longer, happier healthier lives. To that end they studied five places around the globe where the average life span is above those of other cities and countries. Their research has revealed that there are indeed some things that we can do that appear to help individuals find better ways of living longer. Since embarking on this program the money spent on medical care has gone done and the life span of the populations has dramatically increased in Naples. So what are the simple ideas that seem to be doing wonders there?

Everyone is encouraged to eat healthier by particularly including more plant based menus in diets. Stores feature products and options that are known to produce longevity, and restaurants are vying to offer entrees that use healthy ingredients. The populace is responding positively by choosing healthier foods and exercising more. In fact, many employers are providing time during the work day for physical activity and offering attractive incentives and bonuses for those who participate. People are walking, biking and making exercise part of their daily routines. Schools are even opening early each morning so that children will have time to play outdoors or in gyms before settling down to academic routines.

The studies all demonstrated that having one glass of red wine each day also does wonders for the health and well being of adults. It’s becoming commonplace for the locals to pause for a glass of wine and fellowship each afternoon or evening. Whether it’s the wine or the time spent with others that is making the biggest impact isn’t certain but results are happening.

Those who have some type of religious beliefs or philosophies also appear to live happier and longer lives. Religion seems to lessen stress and provide people with a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves. Those who have a purpose in life also do better, and so many religious activities encourage service to the community where everyone wins.

City planners are deliberately changing the environment of the city so that the locals almost naturally begin to adopt lifestyles that lead to better mental and physical health. There is an emphasis on being outdoors, gathering together, and eliminating stress when possible. Even the landscaping and building of roads is designed in the hopes of slowing down and enjoying the moment. Pleasant walkways have been added all over town and old roads have been reconfigured. There are cycle lanes that make it possible to get to work and run errands without ever needing a car.

The increased level of participation in the various programs has been almost exponential. As one person gets healthier others are encouraged to see what happens if they also change their ways. Everyone begins to benefit. The city’s longevity age has gone up to 83.1 years while that of the rest of the country is declining. People are enthusiastically embracing the lifestyle movement, even attending discovery classes that provide them with ideas as to how to feel more productive and part of the fabric of  society.

The hope is that the people of Naples will live longer without chronic illnesses or pain and that when it is time to die the end will be quick. In many parts of the world this is already happening, and aside from genetics, the places where this occur share the kinds of lifestyles that Naples is trying to implement for its citizens.

I suppose that I would not mind living to one hundred or beyond like some of my relatives have done. My only concern is that I might become a burden to my family and spend my final years in a reclusive state of pain or dementia. If I were able to enjoy my days as my grandfather did until the last few months of his one hundred eight years I would be eager to hang around for a very long time. Sadly I have too often seen the exact opposite of this where elderly individuals are confined to beds and wheelchairs with little stimulation or purpose day after day for years. They grow weary of waking up to yet another morning of slowly watching the hours tick by. Their children grow old themselves and become less and less able to care for their parents. Often the ancient ones end up all alone and at the mercy of care givers who may or may not be dedicated to making them comfortable and happy. It is one of the big secrets of our society that we tend to avoid because the thought of it is so unpleasant.

My doctor tells me that medicine is making great strides with hundreds of diseases that used to greatly restrict the lives of the elderly. He is confident that even within the next ten years people will be free of illnesses and conditions that now plague us. If that is so then we will need to plan for more and more old people living longer and longer. Hopefully those added years will be good ones.