Recently I returned home from a day spent running errands and playing tennis, my hands full as I approached the steps to the deck at the rear of my house. Daydreaming as usual, I was aware of three objects on the deck, but it did not immediately register that they were baby birds. When my mind and eyes finally focused in on them, I did an about-face and ran down the steps and into the yard. There I proceeded to do what any rational, level-headed, well-educated middle-aged woman would do. I stood and wailed. It was pathetic. Fortunately, my neighbor was working in his driveway, and I could not have been more grateful for his never-ending efforts to solve the drainage problems that plague his property. Calmly and quietly, he walked over and picked up the dead baby birds, placed them in a bucket, and disposed of them I’m not sure where. I breathed a sigh of relief and went inside, thankful that my animal problems had ended.
Approximately one week after the bird incident, I was leaving the house for an afternoon meeting via the back door that opens onto the deck. Yet again, my mind was a million miles away, and it wasn’t until I had closed the door firmly behind me that I noticed the large black snake curled around the slats of the deck with its head resting sedately on top of the nearest post. Really?!?! Another invasion, this time by a very-much-alive member of the animal kingdom!! I managed to remain calm as I quickly placed my key in the lock and re-entered the house in record speed. After disengaging and resetting the alarm system, I marched right out the front door onto the porch, checked to make certain it was critter-free, and practically ran to my car.
These days I just wonder what creature will show up next. A bear? A fox? A rabid racoon? Perhaps it will be kind enough to warn me of its impending arrival, so I can go far, far away . . . . .
When a gracious and loving God calls to me,
From up the sky and says, my precious child,
Know that I am always with thee,
That my burden is easy, and my yoke is mild.
Then I would hear Him, rejoice, and rest,
Humbled by the gift of love so rare;
At peace in that a powerful Savior blessed
Me with His abundant care.
It is so! How can I ever thank Him?
And why do I conceal a grateful heart?
His care and grace are not by whim,
For mercy was his plan from the very start.
Lord, help me not to drift apart,
From you seated between the cherubims.
All of these are things people typically sacrifice during Lent as they seek to affirm their faith, and each one is truly admirable. Giving up caffeine and cigarettes can be particularly trying given the physiological response to the absence of caffeine and nicotine in the body. While I respect those whose determination causes them to choose difficult sacrifices, I confess that what I really want to give up for Lent is cleaning out my car.
Tennis racquets, cans of used tennis balls, an assortment of tennis shoes, and trekking poles are among the detritus usually visible through the car windows. My Hospice vest and ID badge are consigned to the hook by the left rear window, or I would never arrive for volunteer service suitably attired. The passenger side floor is nearly always littered with empty water, and sometimes soda, bottles. Being forever on my way to or from the public library, there is always a pile of books in the front seat to be carried into the house or deposited in the book return. CDs and their cases are strewn across the back seat, along with the sun protector, assorted clothing, and anything else that doesn’t fit in the passenger seat.
I suppose it is akin to a teenager’s bedroom on wheels, and I am comfortable ignoring the interesting array of items surrounding me on my journey. Only when the mess gets completely out of control do I reluctantly undertake a cleaning spree.
Several years ago my nephew attempted to ride home with me after a baseball game. He opened the back door of my car and came face to face with an all-but-insurmountable pile of debris. “Julie, when do you clean out your car?” was his indignant cry. Then, as now, I wished the answer was “never.”
This morning on my Twitter feed, I discovered a link to an article in The Washington Post about a group of teachers at a high school in Fairfax, VA, that chose a unique way to protest their earnings and lack of pay raises. In order to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with salaries that are less than what professionals should earn, they decided to dress in jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers, i.e., less-than-professional (pun intended) attire. Their idea has spread, and teachers from other schools are beginning to emulate their example.
Reading the article made me wonder what message students will take from the faculty who responded to their circumstances in this way. Haven’t all of us former and current school counselors, teachers, and administrators consistently admonished students to “take the high road,” “just walk away,” or, becoming biblical, “turn the other cheek” when a potential fight, episode of bullying, or other ugliness threatened to engulf them. What about that other familiar admonishment, “don’t allow yourself to be pulled down to that person’s level?” Did/do we mean them, and do they apply only to people who have not yet graduated from high school?
I keep wondering how teachers expect to be treated more professionally when they act (and dress) the opposite and how it would have affected both them and their students if they had chosen differently. What if they had decided to embrace more fully the appearance of a professional and explained why to their students? High school students are quite capable of understanding that teachers are frustrated by financial challenges. They are equally able to appreciate the seemingly illogical response of teachers increasing, rather than decreasing, their professionalism in the face of indifference to their economic woes. The teachers’ unwillingness to sacrifice their professionalism, regardless of inadequate pay, would have been an amazing testament to their strength in adversity and a remarkable instance of modeling to students the philosophies they advocate. Isn’t that the more powerful message students are worthy of receiving and one that might shape their future attitudes in the workplace? It seems like a profound teachable moment might have been carelessly frittered away.
While I fully concur that public school teachers, counselors, and other professionals are seriously underpaid and that they deserve greater respect both in treatment and remuneration, I also believe that the teachers in Fairfax could have taken the unlikely measure of extending their professionalism rather than reducing it and achieved a more lasting positive impact on their students and all other observers of their actions.
It was a typical Sunday evening in January 2007. I was finishing up some chores and thinking about the work week ahead when my sister called with the unbelievable news that our mother had been diagnosed with metastatic brain cancer following a CT scan at the emergency room. I remember wandering around the house trying to figure out what to do, what to think, what to feel. Maybe if I sat down and remained calm, it would not be true that my picture-of-health 71-year-old mom was now terminally ill. But of course the diagnosis was accurate, and eight months later her life came to an end.
Fast forward to January 2014, and I have just learned that my father has a virulent form of prostate cancer that has already spread to other organs. My 82-year-old, never-sick-a-day-in-his-life, father suddenly has a limited life expectancy. Once again I wonder how I can make this not be real. Not looking at the scans would have helped, but I did, and it is.
January is for new beginnings, for making resolutions to exercise, eat healthfully, strengthen relationships, find a better job, or read more and watch TV less. It’s the spotless whiteboard, the pristine notebook, the untouched sketchbook onto which we will write, calculate, draw, record, and dream as the year unfolds. It’s supposed to be about the future and the limitless possibilities it affords us to reshape our lives in whatever way we see fit.
But for the second time in a brief number of years, someone I love is faced with a diminished prospect that the hopes and dreams of a new year will have time to come true. Yet again, the reality of January is of a life drawing to a close, and I am profoundly sad.
He arrived right on time, his delivery having been scheduled months before for the morning of 20 December. Shortly before his birth, my sister graciously allowed me to place a stethoscope on her stomach, and I can still recall the beautiful sound of his heartbeat, like waves crashing on the shore. Soon thereafter, mom, dad, and baby returned from the operating room, and I was lucky enough to hold him in the first hour of his precious life.
Through the years, he dunked cookies in my coffee until a smooth layer of sludge coated the bottom of the mug, drank from my Big Gulp cup that was only slightly smaller than him, and ate off of my plate as much as from his own. Every moment together was magic, and my stomach turned flip-flops with excitement whenever I drove across town to see “my baby”. We played with blocks, built Legos, zoomed cars, read books, worked puzzles, clicked through Dr. Seuss’s ABCs, blew soap bubbles, and sang songs.
And we laughed. We laughed sliding Beanie Babies down the banister, tossing a miniature football, watching Disney movies, splashing in the pool, and eating ice cream. His father once said that if he heard his son laughing, it meant that Aunt Julie was nearby. It is the finest compliment I have ever received.
My dear nephew is a couple of weeks shy of his 19th birthday and finishing his first semester of college. Loving him for almost two decades has softened my heart and given purpose to my life. I cherish being his aunt and am grateful that we remain close as he grows into adulthood.
Last week we spent Thanksgiving together. It was a major laugh fest.
Many of us of a certain age are familiar with the admonition, “You deserve a good talking to!” Recently I saw the quote turned on its head: “You need a good listening to,” and it’s wisdom and truth made me wish I had thought of it.
As a trained counselor, I understand the value of listening and the dear price some people pay to licensed professionals in order to be heard. Discussing abuse, post-traumatic stress, or other extreme life issues is often impossible outside of a confidential therapeutic environment. Indeed, some life circumstances are so complicated as to require the services of a therapist in order for long-lasting healing and personal growth to occur.
But what about the usual ups and downs that mark every-day life, the concerns about jobs, families, health, and friendships. We need and want to share them (other than on Facebook), yet where do we turn in order to be listened to in a meaningful way? Isn’t that part of our obligation to each other as fellow human beings? Our desire to be heard transcends every outward characteristic or inner belief that might seem to separate us. I believe it is something we all want and sometimes desperately need, and it might be the most precious gift we can offer one another.
As Christmas approaches, and we wring our hands worrying about buying the ideal present, maybe the best we have to give is already in our grasp.
It was our first Christmas without Mom, and my sister’s and nephew’s second holiday without husband and father. We agreed that spending Christmas in a “neutral” location was best and decided that an adventure in the mountains of North Carolina was in order. I, having torn a ligament in my knee some years past, am forbidden from donning skis. My sister felt that many months with her leg in a cast would not suit, and therefore declined to ski. So, tubing it was, and we were all excited about hurling ourselves down the side of a mountain on a giant inner tube.
There was just one teeny-tiny glitch. No snow.
Plans B and C quickly went into effect.
First, we went to the outdoor ice rink and laced on skates along with many other would-be tubers and skiers. After her tenth fall, my sister had had enough, and we wandered back to our cabin for coffee and hot chocolate. Given that one of us was decidedly worse-for-the-wear the next day, we three non-tubing vacationers eschewed additional ice-skating and took off for Grandfather Mountain. It was a glorious winter day, cold and clear with bright sunshine. We managed a short hike before walking across the Mile High Swinging Bridge, with a little browsing in the gift shop in between. All of us declared the day a success.
Although the absence of snow deterred us from our original plan, we had a great time just being together and enjoying the beauty of the mountains. And what of tubing?
The sky was November blue, endless and impossibly clear, full of bright sunlight. People were dressed in winter attire, bundled against the crisp air in coats, scarves, and gloves in every shade. Still, the predominant color was green. Marshall University green. Thundering Herd green. We Are Marshall green.
I was watching a live stream of the ceremony in front of the Marshall University Memorial Fountain, held annually to honor everyone who died in the plane crash outside of Huntington, WV, on November 14, 1970. Seventy-five people, including members of the Marshall football team, coaching staff, University personnel, and fans perished in the crash. I was ten years old and unsure how to react to a tragedy of such immense proportions. Schoolmates lost parents and grandparents, brothers, and aunts and uncles; it was difficult to grasp the enormous loss and pain shrouding an entire community.
Although it has been nearly thirty years since I have called Huntington home, I was drawn to today’s event as a daughter of the town and one who experienced the tragedy up close. The water in the fountain gurgled gently throughout the ceremony, soothing music that helped ease the sadness of the occasion. When all the remarks, prayers, and songs were concluded, a memorial wreath was placed in front of the fountain. Fittingly, one of this year’s wreath-bearers was a first responder to the crash site that November long ago. After the name of each person killed was read aloud, the fountain was turned off, as is customary, and will remain silent until next spring.
The water was stilled temporarily. The memories of 75 special people remain forever. They were, and are, Marshall.
It sometimes reminds me of those terrible puzzles that ask “how many triangles/rectangles/squares can you find in this picture?” The mere thought of them makes me cringe, causing my mind to wander back to the horrors of 10th-grade geometry. In this case, the shapes in question are rectangles, specifically the boxes that constitute a standard tennis court. Suffice it to say that there are several, albeit fewer on the rare court without doubles lines.
Tennis is all about lines and angles, both in the structure of the court and in playing strategy. The baselines, service lines, service boxes, and doubles alleys make up a regulation court. Players hit the ball cross court or down the line. They angle serves wide to the left or right of the recipient to make returning the ball more difficult. Volleys from the net are meant to be crisp, short strokes designed to angle the ball out of the opponent’s reach. When properly executed, a perfectly arced lob serves as both an offensive and defensive weapon, depending on the circumstance of the shot.
It’s a game that I love and play as often as possible, yet my enthusiasm seems somehow misbegotten. How can someone who despised geometry be so crazy about tennis? I never could grasp the concepts of angles, shapes, arcs, and planes. Or fractals. What are they, anyway? Hours of agony trying to understand theorems and then solve problems that were hopelessly beyond my comprehension made for some long days. Why care about angles and lines that will never have any relevance in real life?