Our Human Dilemmas

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There was a time when most of us who are common folk knew little about what was happening in the world outside of our own little communities. News from other parts came slowly if at all. We humans concentrated on the problems of daily life that affected us directly with little thought of what life was like outside of our narrow sphere of reference. Even as late as the end of the nineteenth century most people lived in relative isolation.

My grandfather often spoke of life on his grandmother’s farm and his lack of knowledge of the happenings outside of the insulated world of his youth. It was not until World War I that the average person began to take notice of the symbiotic nature of world politics. That feeling of being part of something larger than a radius of a few square miles beyond our homes grew even stronger with World War II. By the mid twentieth century we were developing a worldview that even included a foray into the universe.

As we have navigated the political waters of worldwide citizenry we have had to determine what exactly our obligations to people outside of our own borders are. There are few clear guidelines and so we tread a wary line between isolationism and serving as geopolitical saviors of those who are being persecuted across the globe. Sometimes it is difficult to determine who the players are. There are no perfect guidelines for choosing sides, and often we wonder if we should even think of getting involved in the politics of places so far from our own. Moral questions abound in the many decisions that we must make, none of which are without contradictions.

Our human natures prefer clear choices between good and evil and so we often attempt to distill complex issues into very simple ideas. In the process we are bound to make mistakes because very few political questions have easy answers. When we make our issues partisan we run the risk of ignoring realities on either side and making things ultimately worse. Rhetoric and emotion are more likely to result in stop gap measures rather than long tern solutions that will endure the tests of time.

The world is on fire in so many places, few more frightening the Xinjiang region of mainland China. In the north west corner of that nation there live a Muslim minority group known as the Uyghurs ( pronounced “Weegurs”). The Uyghurs speak a Turkic language and have a culture far different from the rest of China. They were incorporated into the country in 1949, but mostly lived in their own way until more recent times. Of late the Chinese government has cracked down on them with tactics that should alarm the entire world, but very little of their plight has been discussed by the world powers.

It is believed that upward of one million Uyghur men have been sent to reeducation camps that were hastily built in the Xinjiang region. Some of them have seemingly disappeared and are thought to be dead. Stories of torture and murder are rampant. While the men are imprisoned Chinese males from other parts of the country are sent to take over the Uyghur homes, often forcing the wives who have been left behind to cohabit. Whispers of rapes and great fear are captured by the thousands of cameras that police the region. At any given moment the people are subjected to random searches and accused of being enemies of the state simply because of the way that they walk or present themselves.

There are countless stories of minority people being threatened, imprisoned, and killed in places across the globe. Our instincts tell us that we should somehow help but caution asks us to wonder if and when it is right to interfere in the workings of countries that are not our own. After all, we argue, we have enough of our own problems right here. There are signs of injustice in our own backyards. Should we clean our own house before we are audacious enough to find fault with others? What is the red line beyond which we can no longer simply sit back and watch horror unfolding? How much of our own human and financial treasure are we willing to invest in problems that don’t appear to directly affect us?

These are the questions that plague us and none of the answers are either obvious or without grave concerns. Doing nothing or doing the wrong thing has consequences, some of which we cannot foresee. Our natures leave us frozen with indecision while ideologues rush in head first  often seizing the day and the power. For the most part the rest of us just quietly go along, allowing the squeaky wheels to get all of the attention until things come to a dangerous head forcing us to act one way or another. In the meantime there is so much suffering in the world that is seemingly unchallenged.

Our own civil war was bound to occur because slavery was indeed wrong and our nation was irreparably divided as to how to uncouple itself from something so horrific. In the end as is too often the case it took outright war and horror to force the issue. Perhaps the fact that the rest of the world chose to simply watch as we fought brother against brother rather than choosing sides whether for humane or financial reasons was the right response. Maybe in the long run each country has to find its own way out of social and political divisions, but what about those instances that aggressively overtake and murder innocents? Are we morally bound to help them in some way?

These are the kind of questions that fill my head and I know enough about history and human nature to understand that the world has been filled with intrigue since its very beginning. Knowing when to intervene on behalf of a person or a group is a tricky thing but something that we should always seriously consider not as a means of gaining our own power but as a way of protecting those unable to protect themselves. Such discussions should not be a matter of partisan preference but honest communication in search of reasonable answers.

Right now it feels almost impossible to achieve such noble goals. I worry about what may have to eventually happen to bring us to our senses, to help us understand that we should not be enemies. History tells me that it may be a very unpleasant learning experience that we must endure before we find our way. I pray that we figure that out before it is too late.

A New Way To Praise

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I once went to a church service with one of my former students. As a cradle Catholic I grew up with a very formalized kind of religion that has often been critiqued and misunderstood so I kept an open mind as I experienced a very different way of connecting with God. After a reading from the Bible and a few words from the minister the people began praying aloud, sending their petitions to God all at one time in a confusing mix of sound. I was not quite sure how to react so I simply attempted to quiet my mind. That’s when I began to hear the profound beauty of their individual prayers and their deep faith that God would somehow comfort them and ease their pain. Before long the sounds of their very personal pleas brought tears to my eyes and a realization that each of us longs for hope and peace in different ways.

My mother was a confirmed Catholic. She believed in its teachings and traditions with all of her heart. Nonetheless she was quite open to other religions and often voiced her philosophy that her main hope was that each person would find a relationship with God in the manner that worked best. To that end she was just fine with the idea of people following their own hearts in deciding which kind of religion worked best for them. She believed that God comes to humans in many forms. She had great respect for the beliefs of others but was always troubled by those who thought that the very idea of a
God of any kind was a human myth. She prayed that each person might find the goodness and power that she felt from a closeness with a personal God.

I watched my mother’s faith and prayer life take her through challenges that might have defeated a lesser person. There was nothing easy about her life and yet she was known far and wide as an optimistic and happy person, someone who gave when she had so little of her own. I witnessed her love of God firsthand and I saw the incredible strength that it gave her. It convinced me that she was not just experiencing some human fairytale. What she felt was unexplainable in the scientific sense but nonetheless quite real.

Religions of all kinds have taken heat in the long course of history. My own Catholic Church is a target for derision these days because of scandals that shake the very foundations of belief. Other sects sometimes appear to be far less kind that they ought to be. The human discussion of all things spiritual is often fraught with anger and hypocrisy and yet at the heart of the matter is the idea that there is a being much bigger than our humanity upon whom we should depend. For some this is the stuff of legend and a source of ridicule, but for people like me and millions of others it is a deeply held conviction.

The most recent class that I have been taking at Rice University School of Continuing Education centers on the Stuart kings, the monarchs who took the throne of England after the death of the childless Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudor rulers. That particular moment in history was marked by sometimes violent religious struggles between the Church of England, more fundamentalist sects like the Puritans, and the Catholic Church. At that point in time the tendency was to attempt to eliminate any group of believers who did not concur with the monarchy and the national church. Strict laws prohibited true freedom of religion and in many ways served to influence later attempts to form fairer democracies, including the one that resulted right here in the United States of America. By law we are supposed to be as tolerant of all faiths as my mother always was.

I bring up all of this because I see so many instances of derision and sometimes even hatred being aimed at various religious groups and individual beliefs. We all too often presume to understand what is in the hearts of people who profess particular philosophies. We judge in places where we have no business to do so.

A perfect example of this is to be found in the person of Kanye West, a brilliant and talented musician and master of words who has by his own admission led a troubled life. Much like my mother he is challenged by the sometimes crippling mood swings of bipolar disorder. He has courageously admitted to having this terrible illness even knowing that it is so misunderstood. We are still in the dark ages when it comes to tolerance and compassion for the mentally ill, and so Kanye has been ridiculed and sometimes even spurned in his journey to find peace of mind. Along the way he has experienced a seemingly dramatic conversion to the Christian faith.

His enthusiasm for Christ has been mocked by those who think that perhaps he is just going through a manic phase. They call him crazy and joke about the strange twists and turns of his life. Others cynically suggest that he has just found a new way to make money. They see his foray into religion as nothing more than a scheme. Thus his new album Jesus Is King has been panned by many of his critics as little more than the mad ravings of a diseased mind.

I have listened to Kanye’s songs that praise the glory of Christ and I hear instead the work of a genius who has found a power that had previously been missing from his life. I applaud his courage in putting his entire career and reputation on the line with such a daring project. He will no doubt be questioned and misunderstood by many but the message in each track tells the story of someone who truly believes. He has taken his God given talents and used them to shout the good news that he has found. Jesus Is King is a gloriously creative gift, not the ravings of a madman and it is impossible and even wrong for any of us to question what truly lies in the heart of Kanye West. Instead we should celebrate the happiness and comfort that he appears to have found in God.

Liturgical music has included the compositions of giants. There have been Gregorian chants and litanies, symphonies and gospel pieces. Now the voice of Kanye West uses rap to tell of the glories of Jesus. It is both brilliant and lovely. His is a new way to praise. We should all celebrate that he has found a way to ease the tempest in his mind by sharing his genius with those of us who believe.

Hats

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I love watching the old black and white movies from the thirties, forties and fifties. They remind me of my childhood and how lovely my mother and aunts were when they were young women. In those old films the ladies always wear glamorous hats and the men sport fedoras. It’s actually the way people dressed whenever they went out on the town back in the day and it was always fun to watch the parade of people styling in their finest fashions. I sometimes think that most of us have lost the sense of elegance that was more commonplace decades ago. We are certainly more comfortable but there was something so refined about the efforts that people made when they went to church or just on a downtown shopping excursion.

I still see those who go all out for Sunday services. They wear fashions worthy of a visit to the Queen of England. They don lovely bonnets and wear stockings with their polished pumps. They are a lovely sight and in my mind they present an aura of respect for the occasion. They take the time to elevate their style from the more casual look of jeans and flip flops or sneakers. they stand out from the norm in their fastidiousness unlike the times when dressing up was more common place. 

When I was a young I always had a pair of dress shoes, gloves and a hat at the ready for Sunday services at church and special occasions. The millenary sections of department stores were filled with delightful bonnets of every conceivable style designed to perfectly compliment whatever outfit a woman or girl might wear. In all honesty I never looked particularly good in hats but I loved them nonetheless. I always managed to find at least one that complimented my features that I kept in a round hatbox of the kind that was a mainstay in most women’s closets.

I must admit that all of the lovely styles were sometimes distracting at church, especially on Easter Sunday when there was a virtual parade of fascinators bearing flowers and feathers and veils. It was a day when the old hats that were beginning to fray just a bit were put aside in lieu of the newer models for the spring and summer months. Along with all of the spring frocks, white shoes and spotless gloves the hats were indeed a sight to see.

Whenever we went shopping in downtown Houston my mom would insist that I dress in my Sunday best which meant polishing my shoes until they gleamed, wearing nylon stockings, putting gloves on my hands and donning whichever hat I had that went with the season. We’d catch the city bus so that we would not have to worry about parking a car and ride to Main Street feeling a sense of growing excitement about our adventure.

When we entered the splendor of Foley’s Department Store we felt as grand as any of the ladies wearing Chanel suits, designer hats and furs even though our fashions had been purchased in the bargain basement downstairs. I always thought my mother was one of the most beautiful women of all in her lovely dress and chapeau. She had an elegance that transcended the cost of the things that she wore. She carried herself with so much dignity and confidence that she might have been a resident of River Oaks. I always felt that those little accoutrements like gloves and stockings and hats were the keys to adding a touch of glamour to the occasion.

My husband tells me that he too accompanied his grandmother on shopping excursions downtown on many Saturdays. She had a large collection of hats that she always wore whenever she went out. She was a rare beauty who was able to choose any style and look stunning. She might literally have stepped out of one of those old films that I so enjoy with her sense of fashion and the hats that complimented her lovely features.

The days of men and women wearing fine hats as a matter of fashion are all but gone. The gimme cap is the choice of most men and women rarely cover their locks. Hats are more likely found in antique shops than in department stores. They are the stuff of  history that is slowly fading. We find hats for sale at amusement parks and quirky gift shops. We wear them on Halloween and at festivals but not so much on fine occasions. We seem to prefer to be relaxed and unencumbered by excess gear. Comfort is our accessory of choice.

I enjoy the notion that the members of the royal family in England still adhere to the old ways. Their custom demands that the ladies wear hats for special occasions. The queen always reminds me of my own mother whenever she appears in public. She has her lovely suits and still wears stocking on her legs and always there are her beautiful hats that make her look elegant even as she grows old.

Some traditions are so lovely that they should always have a place. Wearing hats is one that I think we should revive. I greatly admire those who have never given up the custom. They are so wonderfully lovely.   

The Game that Filled Her Head With Dreams

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When my father was still alive football was king in our household. Of course it was not just any brand of football. It was always about Texas A&M football. After my dad died my mother kept his love of the Texas Aggies alive. Anytime a game was aired on television she faithfully tuned in and sang all of the school songs with gusto. Thanksgiving dinners were always timed to work around the annual game against the University of Texas. She’d get almost reverential when chanting the Aggie cheers and songs on those occasions and she fill our heads with stories of the times that she spent with my father on campus when they were young newlyweds and he was earning his degree in engineering.

She had a way of making Texas A&M seem like a magical place with her tales that she spun like the fairytales of old. The Aggies were heroes in my mind and my father was a knight in shining armor who captivated my beautiful mother with his Aggie manners and brilliance. I listened to her memories of happy times with a kind of reverence and awe.

My mother remained faithful to the Texas Aggies and their football team throughout her life with a fervor that belied the fact that she had not had the opportunity to be a student there because it was an all male institution back when she was young. Sometimes she even hinted that she thought it should have remained that way, but once my youngest daughter was a student there she changed her tune. She was quite proud of finally having another Texas A&M graduate in the family and felt doubly blessed that she also gained an Aggie grandson-in-law in the bargain.

If possible, my mother was an even bigger fan of baseball. She made sure that both of my brothers took part in Little League and was rather proud of their prowess on the field of dreams. She recounted the times that she attended baseball games for a minor league team in Houston back when she was young. Baseball was her game and she knew it well. As soon as the city of Houston landed a major league team she became an instant fan. The guys started as the Colt 45s and she would take us to watch them play in an outdoor park filled with hot nights and mosquitoes. Those were amazingly fun times when my mother became as raucous as the most enthusiastic fans. 

Eventually the Houston team got the first ever indoor playing field and a new name, the Astros. Mama was giddy with excitement each spring when the season began and she never once lost her childlike spirit when it came to the hundreds of games that the Astros played. If she wasn’t at the stadium or if the team was out of town she tuned in on her radio listening to every play and punctuating the air with her cheers and groans. I’ve never known anyone to be as faithful to a team particularly during some years when the Astros were not doing well at all. She weathered many disappointments with optimism and spoke of the players as though they were her good friends.

Mama had grown up listening to the radio so just hearing a game was as vivid to her as being there in person. She was able to feel the excitement and see each play in the vividness of her mind. She often spoke of the stats of each player and described their incredible feats as though they were living heroes. She knew the opponents just as well and talked of what to expect from them. She critiqued the manager’s decisions and made predictions that often came to pass. She was not to be disturbed whenever there was a game. During those times she did not answer her phone and only came grudgingly to her front door if there was knock.

She had a collection of baseball cards that she purchased over the years. Most of them were Astros but she also had those of other players that she admired for their prowess. She thought of Nolan Ryan as a kind of baseball god and she boasted that she had actually seen a couple of the famed “Killer Bs” in a restaurant on one occasion. Getting her started on a discussion of baseball was unwise unless there was a great deal of time to hear a long history of what she saw as the greatest game in America.

When I was a teen my mother befriended a woman named Emily whose brother worked with the New York Mets. The lady was as much of a fan as my mom and the two of them often went to games together at the Astrodome. Mama would come home as giddy as a child at Christmas with blow by blow accounts of every inning and every play. Sometimes she even got extra special seating when the Mets came to town compliments of her Emily’s brother. You would have thought that she had won the lottery.

We took our mother to an Astros game at Minute Maid Park one Mother’s Day. She was having trouble walking by then and she became easily exhausted from the hike to the seats. She enjoyed being there in person but somehow knew that she would have to be content with “seeing” them on the radio in the future. When she spent her last spring in my home I often heard the sound of the play by play announcements coming from her room. She would lie on her bed and visualize the ballpark, the guys in shades of orange and blue and white, the hotdogs and peanuts and beer.

My mother never got to see her Astros go all the way to the big championship. She died six years before they won the World Series, but somehow I knew she was watching. She never missed a game, not even on the day that she died. From her bed in the ICU she watched her beloved Astros one last time before she fell peacefully asleep and later breathed her last breaths.

I think of her each spring when the Astros take to the mound. She would have been so happy and proud of their accomplishments, even when they struggled. I suspect that her spirit is always with them each time they take to the field. There was a never a more devoted fan. Spring and summer were her favorite times of the year when her boys took to the field and played the game that filled her head with dreams. 

A Fall Tradition

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Fall is filled with a number of traditions for me. I don’t ever see leaves turning glorious colors unless I travel away from my home near Houston. Everything stays green here until the leaves eventually dry into a crispy brown and fall to the ground, so I bring out all of my artificial wreaths and garlands to remind me that somewhere the colors of fall are glorious. I decorate with pumpkins, acorns and pine cones, festooning my home with shades of orange, yellow, red and brown. It’s quite lovely and in many ways I enjoy the decorations of the fall season even more than those of Christmas.

I take an annual fall pilgrimage to The Cheesecake Factory to share a piece of pumpkin cheesecake with husband Mike. The treat is only available for a short time each year so I make careful plans to be certain that I don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy the creamy goodness while I can. I used to purchase an entire pumpkin cheesecake for my birthday but the days when I might eat entire slices without adding inches to my waist are long gone. Sometimes it feels as though simply looking at a slice of pumpkin cheesecake adds a pound or two to my girth. Now I eat sensibly and sparingly, but always include at least one shared slice of my favorite taste of fall.

I rearrange my closet each fall to bring jackets and sweaters within reach in case the weather finally turns cool. I store shorts and sleeveless tops farther to the back. It’s like getting a whole new wardrobe and I always find myself feeling a bit giddy about the way that the clothes hide a multitude of sins in my eternal fight to maintain a healthy weight.

So much about fall makes me incredibly happy save for one tradition that never fails to come around. Ever since I can remember there is a time when my throat begins to feel as though it is going to close up so tightly that I won’t be able to swallow. Almost without warning I am unable to speak in a normal tone of voice. My laryngitis forces me to weakly whisper any communication that I wish to convey. No lemon or honey or medication seems to help until it has run its course. For a few days each and every year I learn what it would be like to be trapped in a state of muteness.

Now that I am retired I am able to simply stay home until my body adjusts to whatever allergic reaction I have had to things floating in the air. When I was still teaching my problem was far more serious. I never felt so bad that I need to retire to bed or stay at home, but attempting to teach a lesson in mathematics with a voice so small that it sounded as though it belonged to a tiny mouse was almost impossible. Sadly each school year of my career I found myself attempting to manage students while keeping them in a learning mode without the aid of my voice that would carry across a room. It was always a challenge.

Amazingly my students always rallied to help me. They immediately sensed my predicament and rather than taking advantage of my inability to actually control the situation they resorted to extreme kindness toward me. No matter how rowdy the group of kids might have been under ordinary circumstances they rose to the occasion and proved themselves to be helpful in my time of need. It was as though their natural tendencies to be good overcame any temptations to use my illness against me. I always let them know how much I appreciated their efforts once my voice finally returned, and they assured me that they would save their shenanigans until it was a fair competition.

I find that all people, not just my students, trend toward kindness. This year when my annual bout of laryngitis came I was scheduled to have my driver’s license renewed. Upon my arrival the workers at the DPS were determined to be as surly as they are known to be until they realized that the squeak in my voice was real. Each person suddenly became incredibly helpful and even smiled at me. They actually seemed to enjoy having an opportunity to be nice. Instead of barking orders they treated me gently and even made suggestions as to how I might treat my illness.

On an evening when I was slated to help my grandsons review for a Pre Calculus test I stopped at a Starbuck’s to get some hot tea in the hopes that it might keep my voice going long enough to be of use to the study process. The barista was quite patient as I attempted to squeak out my order. The expression on his face told me that he was feeling my pain. When I was searching for the change I needed to pay my bill he anxiously waved away the few pennies that I was unable to locate and wished me godspeed and a quick recovery.

I suppose that my point is that each fall when my allergies wreak havoc on my system I am reminded that people are truly good. It’s always been that way and I am certain it always will be. It’s easy to focus on the ugliness in the world but it is the exception, not the rule. That’s why we notice it. What we often fail to see are the thousands of moments when we humans take care of one another without even being asked to do so. Being nudged to remember this each fall is just one more reason that I so love this time of year.