Words to remember.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

This time of year is hard for so many people.  We don't always know who is struggling, but chances are that many of the people we interact with each day are having a hard time.  Whether they're mourning losses, missing loved ones, dealing with financial troubles or job concerns, facing health challenges, trying to come to terms with unfulfilled dreams and goals, wishing away difficult life situations, feeling buried by to-do lists, or just putting one foot in front of the other during a holiday time that feels not nearly as picture-perfect and happy as it's supposed to -- it's hard.  Legitimately hard.

Truth be told, I battle a lot of forces that try hard to pull me down during this time every year.  This year I'm fighting a little harder because there's a hole in my family.

I've never shared what I said at my father's memorial service, but I've found myself looking back at my speech many times recently -- somehow these words are giving me strength right now.  So I'm posting this here in hopes that they might help someone else too.  

At the very least, I hope somebody out there is reminded to be extra kind this time of year, to yourself and others.  And for anyone out there who is hurting, I hope you are reminded that you are loved.

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What do you say about a one-of-a-kind original who, in many ways, defies description?  How do you put words to the life of a free spirit who plotted his own course and forged his own path?  

I could tell you about how he was an exquisite craftsman and could do amazing and beautiful things with wood.  But chances are you already know that, and many of you are fortunate, as I am, to be able to look at some of his handiwork each day.  

I could tell you about his passion for clean living, for eating natural foods, exercising, treating his body with great care.  In fact, I could probably talk for hours about this, especially if we get into qui gong, archery, acupuncture, mountain-biking, yoga, tennis, golf, country dancing, not to mention organic raisins, coffee, and various spicy foods.  But if you knew my dad, you undoubtedly know that this is something he was very passionate about.  

I could tell you about how much he loved to watch sports, even how a 20-year-old me took him to a UT football game, where we sat in the student section and he got every bit as rowdy as the drunk frat boys around us, or how much he loved to talk politics and listen to talk radio, or how much he enjoyed a good fiddle tune.  

Or I could tell you about his gift with words and the volumes of poetry he produced, or his spiritual side, from his years of i Ching to his interest in Native American spirituality, how he loved spending time in the woods or in a sweat lodge.  

But, knowing my dad, this wouldn’t surprise any of you.

I could talk about how he had his own distinct style, his signature look of black Levis, boots, t-shirt, bandana tucked in his pocket, long silver ponytail, and wire-rimmed glasses with only real-deal glass lenses.  

But that’s old news (although you may not know just how many years running his mother gave him a brand-new, stiff-as-a-board pair of Levis for Christmas).  

I'm tempted to bring up how tough he was, how strong-headed, firm-in-convictions, and some might even say stubborn.  After all, how many people do you know who would choose to have their root canal done with no anesthesia?  But, again, as some of my dad’s biggest fans, you know all too well.

I should probably mention what a great smile he had, and how a hearty belly laugh from my dad was one of the best sounds anyone could ever hear.  But I don’t need to, because you already know.  You know.

I could try to tell you tell you about how he loved his family and his children and grandchildren.  But I honestly wouldn’t know where to begin.

As I thought about speaking today, I realized that I don’t have to find my own words.  As the oldest of my dad’s five children, and having spent 45 years listening to and learning from my dad, I think his words say it all.  So I’m going to share with you some of the gifts he has given me, the lessons he taught and tidbits of wisdom he imparted over the years.  These are words that I will always hear in his voice:

Just be yourself and don’t worry about what anybody thinks.

Your body is a temple.  Listen to it, take care of it, respect it.

Breathe deeply and let yourself relax.

Don’t sweat the small stuff.  

Stretch every day -- stretch your body, your mind, and any boundaries you have placed on yourself.  

Love what you do, and do what you love.

Find an outlet to express what lies deep within you, be it words, music, art, working with wood, or physical activity.  

Don’t take anything personally.  Ever.

Say what you mean, mean what you say.

Accept people as they are and don’t try to change them.  The only person you can change is you.

The most important things are not things.  

Seek a deeper understanding, look beyond the obvious.

Learn.  There is always something to be learned.

Laughter truly is the best medicine.  

Let go of sadness, guilt, and grudges; they only hold you back.

Finally, life is short; live as if each day is your last.

For my dad, these were not just words.  They were how he lived his life.  Every day.  Every moment.

My dad lived with no regrets, he embraced each day as an opportunity not to be missed, a chance to learn and grow and feel free, to breathe deeply, acknowledge blessings, and appreciate the gift of life.

There is a lot to be learned from the way my dad lived his life and how he cherished his time on this planet.  I’m thankful for these lessons that will stay with me always.

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My dad's best friend also spoke at my father's memorial service.  He recounted how he and my dad spent countless hours talking about how these are troubling times for our nation (and that was before the election; I can only imagine what my dad would say now!).  He shared my dad's answer -- Spread Love and Light.  Wherever you go, whoever you meet, whatever you do, spread love and light

So that's what I'm trying to do.  Be the light, see the light, share the love, feel the love. 

An Election Day Letter.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

To my daughter, and all of America's daughters, on Election Day 2016:

Today our nation chooses our next President, and today we end a campaign season that has felt very long, ugly, hate-filled, fact-challenged, and policy-lacking.  On both sides.  Regardless of who wins, a great many Americans will feel upset and angry, afraid for our country's future.  Some will feel their votes didn't count and will say that our political and electoral system is broken.  Perhaps it is, and perhaps we should all think long and hard about overhauling it.

But what I want to tell you before the votes are tallied is this:

Today America wins.  No matter who gets sworn in on January 20th, America wins.  Why?

Because this election reminds us that any American can become President of the United States.  Man or woman, black or white, rich or poor, career public servant or career business person, policy wonk or celebrity, political outsider or Washington insider.  Work hard, take initiative, be committed and determined in whatever you undertake.  If you do those things, there's no limit to what you, your friends, or your classmates can achieve in this great nation of ours.

Because this election represents all that we have overcome.  First, we overcame so much to elect a black President.  Now, a woman has a realistic chance to become President.  My grandmothers grew up in a time when women were expected to be homemakers, supporting their husbands' careers.  My mother grew up in a time when women worked, but for lower wages than their male counterparts, and they were rarely able to reach leadership positions in companies and organizations.  In my time, women have been fighting for equal pay and family-friendly employment opportunities, making slow and steady progress, and we've started climbing corporate ladders and increasing our presence in leadership roles.  You, young ladies, grow up with the benefit of generations of trailblazing women before you who have pushed, challenged, persevered, and ultimately proven what women are capable of and how valuable our contributions can be.  Along the way, those women have opened doors for you.  You live in a time full of open doors, where a woman can do anything, where everywhere you look you will see successful women -- as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, as cutting-edge research scientists, as lawyers and judges, as doctors, as astronauts, as senators and governors, as professional athletes, as entertainers.  And, possibly, as President of the United States.  President.  A woman.  You will never understand how big this possibility is, and that's a good thing -- for you, and the women who come after you, this will seem natural and normal.  

Because this election has people thinking and talking about how women deserve to be treated.  Never before have we seen such attention paid to unacceptable locker room conversation, to how people in positions of power can talk to and about women, to the objectification of women, to inappropriate and nonconsensual touching, to double standards, to the respect that we--as women--deserve and can, indeed should, demand.  This dialogue is positive, and it will lead to a generation of stronger men, who will treat you with respect and stand up for you, just as you all stand up for yourselves and each other. 

Because this election has shown us that, despite all the grumbling, people will participate in our democracy.  More people watched the debates than ever in U.S. history.  In my county, where there's little question where our electoral votes will go, well over 90% of eligible voters registered to vote, an all-time high.  We broke the early voting record too, with over 51% of registered voters casting their ballots before Election Day.  People may be complaining about the candidates and the process, but the fact is that Americans are engaged in the electoral process.  That is because they care about your future and want to leave you with the best America possible.

Because you are the future.  This great nation will ultimately be in your hands.  And, because I know you and your friends, I can confidently say that no matter who wins the presidency, our country is in good hands.  I've seen you and your friends in Girl Scouts, book club, camps, music, sports, and school, and you constantly amaze me.  You dream big, you work hard, you help others, you have compassion and enthusiasm, you stand up for what is right and stand against what you know to be wrong.  You are learning to be critical of sources and wary of unreliable information, you care more about solutions than labels, and you are resilient, determined to learn from each challenge and obstacle.  There will be a lot to be done, to be sure, and fixing the mess that others leave for you will be no small task.  But when women can become anything they can imagine, and when you and your friends start walking through the doors that older women have opened for you, America will be stronger and better for it.

Regardless of who emerges as the victor tonight (and I pray that we know tonight!), let's celebrate America's win.  When people start talking about the beginning of America's downfall, as they surely will, let's focus on Purple rather than the red/blue divide and remember that we, as women, must be leaders and examples as we all look toward a future that, in your hands, is bright beyond measure.

Positively Purple.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The day after the 2012 presidential election, I wrote a blog post titled Think Purple in which I made the point that although we're a nation clearly and sharply divided, it's important to keep our sights on the commonalities we can find, the things that unite us and define us as Americans.  As the 2016 election nears, the debates are finally behind us, and so many of us find our inboxes and Facebook feeds littered with political commentary and propaganda, I want to take this opportunity to remind everyone that no matter who gets sworn in come January, America remains Positively Purple.

Tune in to just about any news outlet or social media, and it's clear that a great many Americans aren't particularly fond of either major candidate.  There's so much talk about character, judgment, values.  About fitness for the office, trustworthiness, likability.  There's talk of a broken political system, of media influence, of an election process that cannot be trusted.

Even if you try to look purely at the issues, there are a million articles and stories out there about obstructionism and failed policies and overreach.  There are a billion more articles and stories about problems with health care, immigration, taxes, foreign policy, and whatever else.  Lots of people who love to talk are busy talking about everything wrong with America and our place in the world, our leadership, our candidates, and even our electorate.

I pay attention to politics, but I don't live it and breathe it every moment (I'm too busy with law work, raising children, making musicvolunteering, and trying to sew a few things).  I've watched a lot of debates, followed campaigns, read a lot of analysis.  I've found my attention fine-tuned to some statewide elections, one of which could very well change the course of my career.  While I enjoy the intrigue of political strategy and the excitement of an unpredictable election cycle, I'm tired of the pervasive suggestion that America's divide is too deep and wide, America's differences too stark and sharp, to ever heal.

While candidates and commentators are fixated on shades of red and shades and blue, I'm choosing to focus on Purple.  In workplaces, churches, schools, cafes and shops, I see people who are working hard to make good lives for themselves and their loved ones.  While television, radio, and Internet are overrun with talk of government dysfunction and an angry electorate, I see people smiling at babies, helping others, and out enjoying life.  While our system relies on red and blue, and on strong convictions among our citizens, I think that what we all need right now is more of the good stuff that comes from red and blue mixing -- Purple.  After all, it's not the red and blue that define us as Americans.  Purple does.

What is Purple?  It's the willingness, even the desire, to come together.  It's our shared optimism and hope that, despite America's shortcomings, better days are ahead.  It's the belief that, regardless of who wins the election, our nation will survive and, ultimately, thrive.  It's the desire to help fellow Americans, humans even, who are suffering.  It's the drive to do and be better, individually and collectively.  It's respect for hard work, ingenuity, and inspiration.  It's passion for ideas and process.  It's respectful discussion and respectful disagreement.  It's working together, finding common ground and mutual interests.  It's helping hands and neighborly hearts.  It's the celebration of progress and achievement.  It's accepting and celebrating differences among us, secure in the knowledge that we all share important fundamentals.  These are the things that make America work, and we must not lose sight of them.

I invite you to join me in looking for Positive Purple.  Look for the fundamentals that we all share, our common values, the things we can all agree on.  Look for Purple, and I promise you will find it.

You'll find Purple in all our nation's respect for red, white, and blue, for the flag that reminds us that we live in a great democracy, where citizens have the right to participate in our political process and cast a vote for our leaders.

You'll find Purple when you see people pushing themselves outside their comfort zones, trying something new, taking on life's challenges with energy and enthusiasm.

You'll find Purple in generations coming together, in traditions passed down through families and cultures, in being lifelong teachers and students.

You'll find Purple in America's volunteers and philanthropists, who are giving their time and money to help others.  And nowhere is Purple more obvious that in America's youngest volunteers who learn the importance of community and giving back, from their earliest days.

You'll find Purple in a sunset that takes your breath away and, for one brief moment, has you thinking of nothing but how good it is to be alive.

You'll find Purple in people's commitment and determination to learn new skills, to expand their capabilities.  

You'll find Purple in America's families, in the power of love, acceptance, and forgiveness that binds us.

You'll find Purple in parents who are juggling many obligations and making many sacrifices to give their children every opportunity possible.

You'll find Purple in the promise of new life and the innocent joy of babies.

You'll find Purple in the real-life superheroes who inspire you, the people who are out there finding solutions, taking risks, making the world a better place for all of us.

You'll find Purple in the teachers who spark our children's imaginations and fuel their desire to learn, and in the young people who are so eagerly and diligently learning to be tomorrow's leaders.

You'll find Purple in silliness, in laughter, in the things that make us smile.

You'll find Purple in the appreciation for natural resources around us, the beautiful oceans, forests, mountains, deserts that make America so grand.  

You'll find Purple in the soul-stirring power of music and the arts, in how our communities embrace the arts, in the artists who share their talents with us.

You'll find Purple in positive news stories that deliver messages of hope and encouragement (have you heard that giant pandas are no longer on the endangered species list?!).  

You'll find Purple in toughness and grit, in perseverance and resilience. 

And this is only the beginning.  Purple is all around us.  I encourage you to tune into it.

Allow it to lift you up, to help you see past political conflict, divisive labels, polarizing rhetoric.  Set an example for our leaders who sometimes seem incapable of seeing Purple; show them that red and blue do indeed mix and that we are all better off when they do.  Let our common ground and shared love for this great country guide us.  Let's build the Purple Mountain Majesties and show our leaders, and the world, what it means to be America the Beautiful.  

Saying goodbye.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

My father passed away recently, unexpectedly.  I've been thinking a lot about the importance of goodbyes, both in life and after a loved one has died.  I think we, as humans, need to know that we have conveyed our respect and goodwill when parting.  The need is especially strong after a loved one has passed, and even more so when there wasn't a significant or adequate goodbye beforehand.  I'm no psychologist, so I can't begin to explain exactly why we need this.  I suspect it has something to do with accepting the major change that has occurred, allowing ourselves to acknowledge the blessings of a shared life despite the grief of loss, and giving ourselves permission to carry on with a life that can, indeed must, involve some joys.  And, of course, it has everything to do with recognizing and honoring strong bonds between people.

The tricky part of this is the how -- while I have come to believe that the goodbye is very important for all of us, it is also clear to me that our needs as to the type and form of goodbye are extremely different.  Some people want to say goodbye in a church, where ritual and tradition run deep.  Some want to say goodbye in the company of others who also loved, admired, cared for the one who has passed.  Some want to say goodbye out in nature, where the air is fresh and the sounds pure.  Some want to say goodbye privately, where they cannot be seen or heard.  I'm not sure how we can know what our needs are at such a difficult time, but I do know that it's an important question to ask ourselves.

Because I've been thinking about goodbyes, I want to share a story that I wrote many years ago.  My sweet aunt reminded me about this story at my dad's memorial service.  I hunted high and low for weeks and finally found it.

Goodbye, Grammie.

My Grammie was my father’s mother.  She taught me that freckles are angel kisses and red hair is beautiful.  She bought me Easter dresses, took me to the zoo, sought out the city's finest chalupas for our dinners out, and let me sleep in her bed when I was young.  She cooked delicious meals of squash casserole, fried okra, cornbread, and macaroni and cheese.  She sneaked me Cokes when my dad wasn’t around, and she never told him that I liked them.  More importantly, though, as I got older and began to visit her when no other family was around, she became my friend.  We talked for hours about life, love, politics, religion, and family.  I got to know my Grammie as a person, as a woman who had experienced heartbreak and loss, who had learned self-reliance and perseverance, who loved life.  This is my Grammie and me at her 80th birthday party, right after the mariachis serenaded her:

My Grammie was proud and strong-willed, feisty, opinionated.  She had to be – she lost her husband (my grandfather) when she was a young woman, and she was left to raise four children on her own.  She worked as a secretary at an army hospital, assisting hard-to-please generals.  My Grammie was an old-school secretary who typed 90+ words per minute on outdated, clunky typewriters and took authentic shorthand.  I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that my Grammie was very much in charge behind the scenes, but she let her bosses believe that they were calling the shots.  Until she retired years after she hit 65, she wore pantyhose, heels, and business suits to work everyday.  She wore bright colors and big clip-on earrings.   Why bother with neutral colors and boring work clothes, she thought, when you can wear clothes that announce, “I am here.”  So she chose to wear gold pumps and emerald green suits, bangle bracelets, and necklaces that couldn’t be missed.  It wasn’t everybody’s taste, but she looked put-together and proud, and she was noticed when she walked into a room.

There’s so much to say about my Grammie, but the point I want to emphasize is that she made the most of every day and every situation, and she lived without regrets.  I realize this about her more and more as I get older and face my own life struggles.  My Grammie loved to laugh.  She enjoyed sports and could recite statistics for most of the players of the local NBA team.  She organized groups to go to dinner and the theater.  After she retired, she took classes at the local college.  She didn’t mess around either; she took tai chi, Shakespearean literature, art appreciation, and classes about writing an autobiography.  She continued learning and growing, experiencing new things, as long as it was possible.

In early 2001, my Grammie began to slow down.  Her heart was weak, and she was not getting around as well as before.  This troubled her greatly because she was one to do and go and see, not one to sit and watch.  There were many doctors and many medications, but her health was deteriorating.  Though in increasing pain, she remained stubborn and fought for the life that she loved.  I saw her around May or June of that year, and she was a shadow of the woman I had come to know as my friend.  She was pale and thin, she lacked strength in her body and her voice.  But, in true Grammie style, she wore bright red that said loudly, “I am here.”  We talked about many things that day, including a trip to Europe (my first trip abroad!), that my boyfriend and I had planned for July.  I think she was as excited about the trip as I was, and she encouraged me to enjoy every moment of that experience.  Before I left her house, my Grammie told me that she loved me, that she was immensely proud of me, and that she knew I was happy.  She said that I would marry that boy who was taking me to Europe (she was right, I did!).  She told me that she had lived a full and rich life, and she wanted me to know that she had no regrets at all.

As planned, I traveled to Europe that July with the boyfriend, who is now my husband.  After a short stop in London, we flew to Trieste, Italy and took a bus to Slovenia.  On our second or third day in Slovenia, we walked up the coast of the Adriatic Sea to Piran, a tiny fishing village with narrow cobblestone streets, ancient walls around the city, Venetian architecture, and Mediterranean charm.  We were drawn to the Church of St. George, whose bell tower stands guard over all the rooftops of Piran.  On the way up the hill to the church, in a little alley of a street, we stopped to photograph this above the door to a home:

I knew at that moment that our trip to the Church of St. George would be special and meaningful.  The outside of the church is plain and unadorned, boring even:

But the inside, while cozy and simple, contains an exquisite combination of Renaissance and Baroque artwork in vibrant colors:

Photo courtesy of Sailing Choices.

As I studied the paintings, I thought of my Grammie and how much she would love that church.  Although I have never been a very religious person, I lit a candle for her at the altar and said a prayer thanking God for my Grammie and all that she gave to those around her, and I asked Him to take away her pain.  After we left the church, and all that day, my mind kept returning to my Grammie and her fight against a weakening body. 

From Slovenia, we traveled north to Austria.  We found a wonderful little inn in Salzburg called Hotel am Dom, which was steps from the Residenzplatz in the center of the Old City.  From the inn, we could see twin green domes of the Salzburg Cathedral, or “der Dom.”

We went into the church, with its intricately carved columns and carefully painted archways.  Where the Slovenia church was intimate and warm, this church was grand and ornate, a magnificent and impressive example of  Baroque architecture.  Mozart was baptized at that cathedral and played organ there for two years. 

As I looked around the Salzburg Cathedral, my heart grew heavy with thoughts of my Grammie.  I lit a candle and prayed for her.  It was a vague prayer asking God to watch over her, to take care of her and make sure that she was okay.  After wiping away a few tears, I sat under the main dome of the cathedral and looked up.  This is what I saw:

What does not appear in this photo are the gorgeous paintings and windows that line the inside of the dome.  But at that moment, as I sat there thinking about my Grammie, all I saw was the dove at the top of the dome.  The dove of the Holy Spirit.  It took my breath away.  I meditated on that dove for a good long while before moving on to explore other parts of Salzburg and later Munich.

The day we returned Europe, my father called to tell me that my Grammie had passed away while we were gone.  Although I knew when I left that there was a possibility that could happen, nobody thought that her health would deteriorate so quickly.  Once I got over the initial shock, I asked my father for details.  I learned that she died the day that I visited the colorful little church in Slovenia, the day that I asked God to take away her pain.  She was buried on the day that I visited the Salzburg Cathedral, the day that I sat entranced by the dove of the Holy Spirit who rose in a beautiful golden display at the top of the dome, the day that I asked God to take care of my Grammie and watch over her.  

In her last days, as her health was failing, my Grammie made certain wishes known to the family.  She wanted a simple funeral without much ceremony, she wanted family to be together, and she wanted me to play Amazing Grace on my flute.  I wasn’t there to fulfill her wish, and I cried countless tears about it for years.

I miss my Grammie.  I miss our talks and her stories.  I miss the way her sheets and towels smelled, and I miss her perfume.  I miss her big hugs.  I even miss her sharp little comments about how I should do something different with my hair.  I cried at my wedding when an aunt told me that my Grammie was there with me and again when a cousin gave me one of my Grammie's bangle bracelets.  I still cry when I think about the fact that she was not able to see me marry the man she somehow knew I would marry.

Three years after she passed, my husband and I went to visit my Grammie’s grave.  Although I knew exactly how to get to the cemetery, I previously had not been able to face her headstone and the guilt I felt for not being with the family when she was buried.  I guess I grieved and mourned in my own ways, which did not involve a cemetery.  But, years later, I was hit hard with an undeniable desire to visit.

So, years after lighting a candle in Slovenia and watching a dove rise in Austria, I finally played Amazing Grace for my grandmother.

I fought tears and played a pitiful sounding first verse.  After a deep breath and a pause, I took it up an octave and played the second verse loudly and with gusto.  I played it for my Grammie, for her bright colors and gold shoes, for her "I am here" spirit.

That was the goodbye I needed.  As I look back now, I realize that I was also playing for me, so that I could let go of the guilt.  So that I could heal.