Share the Love

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A little boy named Austin Perine has captured the hearts of our nation. He’s an adorable tyke who was recently featured on CBS news because he saves his money to purchase food and drink for homeless people. He wears a red cape and a blue tee shirt emblazoned with the words Share Love when he is carrying out his mission of mercy. To say that he is absolutely precious is an understatement. He has brought smiles and hope to countless individuals in Birmingham, Alabama and now Facebook is abuzz with his delightful story.

Austin is a sweet boy who says that he one day wants to be President Austin so that he might help even more people. I suspect that he is well on his way to at the very least becoming a remarkable adult. While he may have been born with a gentle nature, the truth is that his generosity most likely comes from the lessons he has learned from the adults in his life. It is a fact that those of us who are older teach and mold the little ones that we encounter. Barring some kind of mental illness, most children bloom and blossom under the care of good people. Sadly children are also sometimes destroyed by abuse both emotional and physical. Just as Austin will probably one day be a great man because of the loving and positive influences in his life, so too will children living in an environment of hate and hurt often become the next perpetrators of violence and ugly thought.

While nothing is ever certain, a child’s environment at the earliest ages is a powerful force that is very difficult to change once it has become the model. Certainly history and literature are filled with stories of people who found their way out of horrific situations, and most of us know someone who through sheer will has been able to change the direction of his/her life. No human is automatically condemned to following the damaging ways of bad parents, but freeing oneself from such influences is perhaps the most difficult behavior imaginable. Relatives, neighbors, teachers, friends, ministers all have opportunities to help those who are attempting to overcome abuses and corrupted thinking. We never really know when we might be just the spark to foment positive change in someone who wants to be a better person.

I tend to study abusive behaviors and ask myself what may have happened to a person to make them so mean. I recall one of my students who was arrogant, abrasive and seemingly unwilling to conform to societal rules. Conferences with his mother revealed that she and her husband were actually afraid to sleep at night lest he kill them while they slumbered. Still she loved her boy and simply did not know how he became the way that he was.

I subsequently had a long conversation with the young man. As I listened I found a tale of a tortured soul. His mom had been extremely young when he was born and unmarried as well. She had little desire to devote her life to him at the time and so she left him with her own parents and went about growing up. The boy’s days with his grandparents were idyllic. He spoke of living on a farm with them and learning how to care for animals and grow crops alongside his grandfather. His grandmother adored him and taught him to love God and all people. He was incredibly happy and had little desire to live any other way, but fate was not so good to him. First his grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack and as the boy told it, this was the worst day of his life.

He would listen to his grandmother crying at night and he so wanted to console her but didn’t know how. He was as frightened as she was, but somehow the two of them found a way to carry on until his grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. She very quickly fell into a state of weakness that kept her in bed on most days. She died within months, leaving the boy to an uncertain future.

His mom came to care for him. She had matured by then and realized that she loved her child and wanted to make a good life for him. It was quite an adjustment because he had to move from the farm to an apartment in a bad part of a city. At first everything was great between his mother and him, but then she met a man that she thought she loved. He moved in with them and was actually fairly nice at first. but before long he was beating both the boy and his mom. Life became hellish as he cowered in his room fearing that one of them might one day be murdered by the tyrant. For whatever reason his mother failed to protect either him or herself, so he learned how to fight back. He became strong, unwilling to back down when the man became enraged.

By the time the boy’s mother finally found a way for them to escape from the monster with whom they had been living the boy was completely changed. He felt alone and even unwanted. He vowed never again to let anyone hurt him either physically or emotionally. That meant building a wall around his heart, even with his mom.

After a time his mother found a very nice man to love. She hoped that things would change for the better, but the boy had lost his willingness to trust anyone. He was still angry that God had taken his grandparents. He was angry that his mother had once given him away. He was angry that his mom had waited so long to defend him from the harm of the man she had brought into their lives. Even though the new “father” was always kind and loving, the boy believed that one day it would all fall apart, and so he would not allow his anger to subside.

Because I listened and because I understood, the boy began to do well in my class, but he literally gave hell to other teachers. Before long his actions had become so egregious that he was expelled. He came to may classroom to say goodbye. He was crying, his wall completely gone. All he really wanted was to be able to believe once again that someone loved him. I told him that I did and that I furthermore believed that his mother did as well. I urged him to make peace with her and his stepdad who was genuinely concerned. I promised him that I would pray for him and never ever forget him. I have kept my word, but I worry about him and wonder what ultimately became of him. I hope that he remembered just enough from his grandparents to feel good about people once again. I wanted so much to be the spark that may have helped him, but I also understood that he had so much baggage that might never be undone.

There are very good souls in our midst like Austin Perine. He is sharing the love that he himself has known. Follow his example and share yours.

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Start the Habit

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It is apparent that the clock is ticking for me, but in truth it is also moving quickly for even the very young. Our human reality is that we do indeed have to seize each day and each relationship or endure the possibility of missing our opportunities to do so. We’ve all known that God awful feeling of wanting the tell someone how much we have loved and appreciated them only to wait until that person was gone. Our lives can be built on a series of regrets or a foundation of courageously using each moment to its fullest.

Obviously we have routines that we must perform. We go to school, go to work, take care of our human needs. All work and no play makes us dull and even unhappy, so of course we make time for fun. Still there are so many Moments when we might spend just a few minutes doing something greater than just surviving. How long does it really take to reach out to the people around us? As busy as we are, sometimes just one brief comment can literally change the course of someone’s day, and maybe even his/her life.

I know that such things have happened to me. They have been glorious moments when my heart soared. I have so appreciated the people who made those times happen. We all treasure acknowledgement. We all crave love. We want to believe that our lives are making a difference, but we also need to remember and appreciate those who have helped us along the way.

I recently received a thank you note from my friend Linda. I had brought her a card, flowers and a gift certificate on her birthday. It was not nearly enough to demonstrate my undying affection for her. It gave me pleasure to see her smile. I was even more touched when she sent me that note. My husband remarked that Linda was “old school” because so few people bother to demonstrate their gratitude these days. I agreed that Linda is most thoughtful, but I also grieved a bit that we have become so blasé about expressing our thanks when someone does something nice for us. Linda is beloved by all who know her because she is a very giving person who never takes anything for granted, no matter how busy she may be. I wonder why we have allowed this tendency to become less and less common.

Stamps are expensive and snail mail is slow, but there are so many other means of letting people know how we are feeling. An email or text or comment on Facebook can brighten someone’s day. Even just clicking the Like button might make someone happy. Each of us has moments when our confidence wanes. We have all experienced loneliness, loss, insecurities. We sometimes wonder if anyone even notices that we exist. When that one person takes the time to let us know that we have done something that made a difference we soar with happiness, so why don’t we pay such compliments forward?

I recently saw a program in which a young woman was advised to do nice things for people without expecting anything in return. She did as she had been told for quite sometime, but because nobody seemed to notice her kind acts she began to falter. Her counselor insisted that if she just continue her kindnesses she would find the happiness that she sought. Surely enough she realized that she felt better about herself that she had in a very long time. Furthermore the people that she encountered were more drawn to her. The members of her family and those in her circle of friends smiled when they saw her and embraced her in ways that she had not experienced before. The acts of generosity that she performed for others became a kind of gift to herself.

Have you ever noticed that the happiest and most popular people that you know are much like Linda. They never miss an opportunity to be thankful. They send personal greetings that are filled with so much love that the persons receiving them float on air for a time. Another friend Jenny is like that as well. She spreads sunshine wherever she goes. When her home flooded last summer she kept up an optimistic front even though she was actually terrorized by the event. Because she has always been such an angel people immediately rallied around her. She was almost overwhelmed by the response to her cause. Still she thought of others and once her own home was repaired she shared her bounty with those who had also lost so much. She concentrated on students who had also been affected by the floods. She kept a smile on her face and always seemed to be asking how everyone was doing. Her peers acknowledged her optimism and generosity by naming her the Teacher of the Year at her school. It was a fitting tribute for a deserving person, but even then Jenny was quite humble about the honor.

Right now we each know someone who could use a boost or who has had so much impact on our own lives that we would be remiss if we failed to take the time to do or say something amazing for them. Start the habit without expecting anything in return and it will change your life. It is impossible to be unhappy whenever we think about others. There is something quite astounding that happens when we forget about our own difficulties or state of mind and focus instead outside of our own heads. Try today. Don’t delay. Someone somewhere is going to have a very good day if you do.

A Kinder Gentler Way of Doing Things

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I suppose that we are all feeling a bit of whiplash when it comes to the current political scene. If you are like me just want it all to go away, but know that ignoring it might be more lethal than getting involved. I heard a number of commentaries just last week from sociologists and medical doctors decrying the situation, so I know that I am not alone in wanting things to calm down. Then I watched the finale of Homeland and realized that even the world of fiction is weary of all of the bickering.

A group of doctors have done some research and found that people are actually getting stress induced illnesses which can be traced back to politics. When they are honest with their physicians many folks are reporting stomach distress, headaches, insomnia, anxiety and other symptoms all based on fears related to the current political scene. Such tendencies according to the doctors are not found in any particular set of beliefs or allegiances, but appear to simply be an alarming trend indicating just how much fear is overtaking the populace. While the doctors know that this phenomenon is occurring more and more often they admit that they don’t quite know how to tell their patients to deal with it. They also suspect that the highly charged environment won’t be changing anytime soon, because we now seem to be engaged in a perennial round of campaigning for the next voting cycle. There is no longer a resting interval from one election to another, but rather a constant debate that only seems to be getting uglier and uglier.

The sociologist that I heard indicated that the normal curve of politics is changing. Whereas there have traditionally been outliers to the left and the right with the bulk of the voters in the middle, the new trend shows the middle shrinking while the extremes continue to grow. She pointed out that the moderate independent voters have been the true defenders of our democracy with their willingness to consider all sides of an argument to forge alliances and compromises. She maintains that it was the moderate who built our Constitution and later continued our progress through subsequent necessary changes. She worries that without a dominant middle ground we will erupt into a kind of deadlock that will ultimately endanger all of us.

This season of Homeland was art imitating life with its topics of political upheaval. It was a fictional call for people of character to defend our country with diplomacy and acts of understanding. It suggested that our only way forward is to begin reaching across the aisle even to those with whom we disagree. It will take trust to do so, and at least for the present such willingness to believe in our innate goodness is in short supply. We have become almost paranoid when it comes to dealing with anyone who does not think exactly as we do. Thus we are not only ripping apart the country with our demands, but also sending ourselves into frenzies of illness. I wonder what it will take to make this stop.

The sociologist suggested that some mega event may pull us together, but such happenings often bring a great deal of shared pain before the healing begins. Wars have been known to create strange bedfellows. Natural disasters often bring out our best tendencies. Somehow we need a cause that is not as horrific as either of those things, something like John Kennedy’s idea that we should race to the moon. I simply wonder if we have anyone with enough imagination to create a coalition of people who want the noise and the distrust to stop. It has been far too long since we have had much success in that regard.

I’m one of those folks who has stuck with the middle. I refuse to align myself with any party because I generally find that I don’t entirely agree with anyone or any group. I simply vote for the closest approximation to what I believe. I am more than willing to hear the arguments from both sides and I find both good and bad points all around. I find that very few individuals are perfect nor are many of them so evil that I must dismiss them. I myself hold many contradictory opinions, but some of them are stronger and more important than others. I’m willing to compromise on just about anything as long as doing so does not hurt someone.

I’ve been hearing some wonderful sermons and readings from the Bible in church each Sunday. This week began with the reminder that Jesus was all about love, regardless of our differences. We desperately need some real dialogue with one another, especially those whom we most fear. We need to honestly learn what is driving the varying thoughts and behaviors. We may find that others are not really as different from us as we may think. There are certainly those who crave power, but most of us just want to lead quiet and secure lives. Perhaps it’s time to send a message that we are tired of the anger and the fighting and are looking for people who are willing to bring our country back together again.

Sadly all of the doctors and researchers are simply screeching in the wind if we as individuals do not combine our power to create change. A brief study of politicians demonstrates that the majority of them will change when they see that we the people want something different from them. Instead of following the shrieks of the outliers, it’s time for the great big middle to save us all from ourselves. it’s time that we insist for the good of our country and our own health that we return to a kinder gentler way of doing things.

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.

The Geniuses Among Us

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I’ve never forgotten a moment during a mathematics test when I was walking up and down the aisles of my classroom monitoring the progress of my students who were working away to complete the calculations before the bell rang for the next period. I quietly looked down at their test papers as I strolled from one desk to another trying not to disturb them unless one of them had a question. I was happy to note that all of them appeared to be working away in a frenzy of understanding, ratifying my hopes that I had somehow done my job of teaching them well. As I neared the end of my route on the last row of desks I noticed a boy staring intently at the bulletin board that was located adjacent to his desk. He appeared to be in an almost hypnotic state, so I worried that he was somehow confused by the questions on the test paper that lay on his desk or perhaps concerned about a personal problem. Whatever the reason, it seemed to be all consuming.

As I made an uncharacteristically swift bee line to his location he didn’t even notice my impending arrival. Instead he continued to almost burn a hole in the display on the wall with his unmoving eyes. Even when I was standing right behind him he did not move a muscle, seemingly unaware of my presence in his personal zone. Before I had time to interrupt his thoughts I noted with horror that he had only finished half of the problems on his test and the clock was ticking rapidly toward the final ten minutes of work time. I was about to shake him from his reverie when he suddenly turned in his seat with a smile and triumphantly announced, “I found him!” Only then did he glance my way and notice me for the first time. He looked at me in wonderment and repeated his words once again as though he believed that I understood their meaning, “I found him!”

I was agitated and confused, but he was disturbingly calm as I asked  him what he was doing and why he was making such an enigmatic comment. He looked at me with a kind of amusement that I was so dense, explaining that he had managed to find Waldo. That’s when I realized that he had been peering at a gigantic poster that featured the little guy with a stocking cap who over and over again becomes lost in a sea of humanity. The student had become mesmerized by the hunt to the point of losing his way into the world of a make believe puzzle rather than attending to the work of the test. As I stood incredulously before him I didn’t know weather to laugh, cry or visit an outburst of anger upon him. I chose quiet resignation instead, and gently congratulated him on his victory while reminding him that he had only a few minutes to complete as much of the test as possible. I physically handed him his pencil, focused his gaze on the teat paper and indicated the urgency of the matter with a concerned expression on my face.

Later that day I felt compelled to grade the boy’s test first to determine how much damage he had inflicted on himself with his distraction. Perhaps not so amazingly he had actually finished all of the problems and his mistakes were minor enough to earn him one of the few almost perfect scores. It was only then that I burst into unmitigated laughter, because I had always believed that this quirky child who often challenged me and his other teachers was in truth a kind of little genius in our midst. I understood that his mind was on a slightly different plane than the rest of us, and that his utterances revealed the workings of a mind running free through a world of thoughts that were often provoking and sometimes strange. Indeed he was gifted, of a mind that confounded us as it raced from one idea or question to another.

I’ve taught a number of students like that during my career. They are quite different from their peers and more often then not misunderstood. They rarely fit into a mold that defines them and many times even their teachers wonder if they are really great thinkers or simply frauds who enjoy rocking boats for their own entertainment. Genius does not always reveal itself easily. Sometimes we don’t see the clues and we misinterpret the behaviors.

We’ve all heard about the difficulties that Albert Einstein endured in his early years. His questions and frustrations were viewed by his teachers and those who attempted to manage him as audacity and laziness. Even after earning a degree he was unable to land a position as a teaching professor because his thinking was so orthodox that nobody was willing to provide him with a reference. Instead he was reduced to working as a clerk at a government patent office where he often became the target of his frustrated boss who complained that he worked too slowly and without any discernible enthusiasm. It was not his job that fascinated him but rather the research that he conducted in the evenings that occupied his mind. He prolifically published one theory after another until his thinking finally caught someone’s eye and eventually that of the entire world. Even at the height of his fame, however, his beliefs were often controversial, exposing him to criticism and even investigations and persecution. Somehow like most geniuses he lived in a world of his own creation inviting those with an open mind to partake of his thinking.

We have geniuses in our own time and in almost every case there is something almost other worldly about them. They are creators and free thinkers who see the universe through lenses that are different from the rest of us. Their minds are ablaze with thoughts which when uttered may seem bizarre, impossible or even controversial. We may view them as being a bit crazy because they are willing to suggest ideas that appear to be foolhardy or out of touch. They many times endure the ire of society when they innocently express their beliefs. They often live in ways that fly in the face of convention and refuse to apply filters to their behavior and utterances. They make enemies, but also force us to pause for a moment to consider possibilities that have never before crossed our minds. They provide the engines of progress and debate that we humans require to solve the mysteries of the world.

Of late we’ve been hearing about Kanye West, a celebrity who at first glance appears to be little more than a spoiled entertainer whose wealth has isolated him from reality. Things that he does and says sometimes  appear to border on insanity and other times seem more like heresy. He becomes an annoyance that we want to crush, but then we study the body of his work and his many careers and realize that he is much more complex than he at first appears to be. He is more akin to the boy who has found Waldo than a trouble maker. While we are doing our best just to get from one day to the next, Kanye is constantly thinking about things and rearranging accepted beliefs and values. He is asking questions and challenging conventional wisdom. Taken in soundbites his utterances may seem to be the product of someone who lacks empathy or manners, but when considered against the backdrop of all that he has achieved they become the intellectual considerations of a true genius. Rather than condemning him we would do well to allow him the free reign to develop critical questions and thoughts that few of us would have the courage to utter.

Kanye West is a true genius who was writing poetry at the age of five and went on to create some of the most poetic lyrics in hip hop. The world is his canvas and the wanderings of his mind rarely stop. We may not like some of the things that he does and says, because he is a free thinker who does not hide even his most controversial ideas. Like so many geniuses before him he is unwilling to be fettered by convention or political correctness, and the truth is that we should all want to protect his right to be who he is regardless of how uncomfortable it may make us. He is thinking out loud and his stream of consciousness may be confusing unless we take the time to contemplate his thoughts in context and with deliberation. Like all geniuses he ultimately is not worried about what we may be thinking, so it is up to each of us to carefully parse his words and allow him the freedom that each and everyone of us deserves. In the end his are simply opinions that we may take or leave. It would only be wrong if we were to dismiss him only because we disagree. Kanye West is figuratively searching for Waldo and it is important that we encourage him to find what he seeks.