Martha’s Gift

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Last year, Martha was giddy to see us. We stopped in her room and gave her a present, a fuzzy cardigan, size small. Kathy, the activities director at the Haven Nursing Home, had organized the resident wish list, and my high school students who are club members of Interact Club (an affiliate of the Rotary) each year buys gifts for the long-term residents, and we delivered them today. Armand the 99 year-old French American wanted to kiss everyone. Fred ate his chocolate bar and clutched his new collared shirt. Joe thanked us for his ball cap and started crying. Mae the nun and former school teacher clapped and said, “I’m so surprised. None of my students ever went this far to give me a present!”  Vindication! As a teacher, I frequently hear how today’s youth are self-absorbed and passive. It’s not what I see.

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The first year I visited Martha in her room, Kathy warned me that Martha was a chatterbox. She was sharp and expressive. When I asked her what was her favorite experience, she confided that at fourteen, she was waiting tables at a diner out at the end of the valley close to where they were filming a John Wayne picture. Mr. Wayne sauntered in and filled up the place with his stature and reputation. Martha was his waitress. Young and pretty, he asked if she wanted to be an extra on the set. “Of course I said yes. Who would refuse?” Her eyes moistened at the memory and her smile was delicate. What fun she had had in the dust and sunshine as one of the townsfolk on the set. She couldn’t remember the name of the film, but that was irrelevant. She made certain I knew that Mr. Wayne was a gentleman and that day’s adventure was a highlight of her life.

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The second year I visited Martha, she was at her walker, her eyes bright with anticipation of bending my ear. She had never married or had children. I asked her what she had done to earn a living, and she told me she spent her career as a WAVE.  I’m a Navy Veteran, so we hugged each other as if we had been stationed together.

Today I visited Martha. She was lying in bed gazing at the walls of her room. Kathy leaned down to her ear and asked her if she was feeling okay. She murmured she was fine, but her sadness was palpable, and I had a hard time keeping a smile on my face. Our group gave her the fuzzy cardigan and she thanked us, hoarse.

I know next year when we visit her room, it will be empty. Of course this makes me sad, but I can’t help but feel I had been given a gift — she was the fuzzy cardigan. She had inspired me. Martha’s younger self is in my current novel about a girl who gets to play an extra on the set of a movie picture. She will become a WWII heroine in the third manuscript, if I get the chance to write it.  I can’t wait to research the WACs and WAVES.

Who’d of thought this little old lady had such adventures. She didn’t tell me how trying her life had been or expounded upon her pain or failures. She remembered John Wayne and her atypical career which gave her joy and satisfaction. I willed myself to stop crying, for it hurt to see her physical and mental decay. She learned to live life without her fears stopping her. How cool is that?

Violence and Valentine’s Day

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The Accolade by Edmund Leighton, 1901

I teach U.S. History, World History, Holocaust Studies, and Recent World History. IT is heavy.  I read scholarly books and novels about it. I watch documentaries and films about it. I attend conferences, create stories, and talk to colleagues about it. With my students, we analyze it day after day, month after month, year after year. And IT has me going home after work saturated with the stain of violence and its result–despair, atrocity, and the knowledge that history repeats itself, much like my day. Sometimes it takes hours for the fog of history to dissipate.

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The Parthenon, Athens

To clarify, I love my job. I feel I owe Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Gandhi, Martin Luther, the Greeks, Cyrus the Great, the Mayans, and Lucy my best efforts to pass along their stories to each class, trying to inspire. If students explore humanity’s great achievements, they need to examine wars, dictators, and perverted power, for if they learn how to empathize and evaluate the past, history becomes important, and they won’t forget. One day history will stop repeating itself. Right?

I went home and Gone Girl greeted me right at the part when character Amy Dunne slit the throat of Desi Collings and swam in the results. I thought about her as the new psychopath, a female Hannibal Lector. I wondered if Alfred Hitchcock were alive and working today, would he like this new psycho? Would he be as gruesome as modern filmmakers who show the realism of murder, disaster, and mayhem? These were my thoughts during dinner. Next came the news. Only the horrible is reported, and I turned off the television and went to read. I opened the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist, Phillipp Meyer’s, The Son. It’s an epic western, and after a few pages of prologue, the story began with a Comanche attack of the protagonist’s homestead in Texas. Thus began the assault of the family members. Breasts were cut off, heads were scalped. The writing is fine, but the violence–after a day of IT, I threw the book across the room. It’s likely an excellent historical fiction novel. I’ve reclaimed it from the corner because as a writer, I’m interested how Meyer created the historical climate. It’s not his fault life was violent for all concerned in the 1800s. Violence is the human constant since we drew the hunt on cave walls.

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I was one of those who scoffed at Valentine’s Day. The isles of pink and red. Ugly balloons and cards with expectations one must romance and love. Today.

But now, I’m starting to reconsider Valentine’s Day. I find I do need to be prodded to be extra-sweet to those I care about. I want to crack the unsentimental shell hardened by my daily dose of history. I need to let the gooey-goodness of life spill out.  I bought my students heart-shaped doughnuts, and they became well-behaved angels. We continued our discussion whether FDR’s New Deal was a conservative or radical experiment. They wanted to rush on to the exciting stuff–World War II.  Oh boy. Total War. Won’t that be fun. 

On Valentine’s Day, I vow to take a break from IT.  I will watch charming films, count my blessings, and pray for world peace.

Good Works, works

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I confess, unless I’m forced, I rarely volunteer. I’m selfish with my time, and find I resent the pit-stops and delays that interfere. I’m grumbling inside, rushing the conversation, rushing the event, rushing until I’m in charge of my time again. This stinginess is a foible I fight. What’s my solution? I force myself to commit. If I volunteer to read at Mass, I’ll go to church. If I sponsor a community service club, I will volunteer my time. It’s the theory of causality.

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Creating habits of good works fosters more good works. Like compound interest, the rewards are tremendous. Here’s an example:

Because I’m reluctant to give up my precious time, I agreed to be the sponsor of an international/community service club at my high school. I oversee teenagers doing good works in the community. Right now we are preparing a visit to a nearby nursing home and give them gifts of clothing and treats. Listen to this “wish list” given to me by the Director of Activities:

Robert, Rm. 203-1  Robert struggles with just about everything due to his health. WWII veteran. He does go to the dining room for meals, but is in his room the rest of the time.  Perhaps a nice long sleeved winter shirt or sweats would be nice for him.

Armand , Rm. 204-1 is a very elderly gentleman with no family left, no visitors, he speaks French and gets around the facility quite adequately.  He is alone most of the time due to his deafness.  He enjoys sweets, cookies and candy,and wears nice sweaters.

Howard, rm. 205.  Howard is a recluse, rarely comes out of his room. Watches old movies on his T,V. all day.  He is quite alert and not too old.  I would recommend munchies, he loves cheese puffs, cookies, etc.  He is definitely a junk food junkie

Evelyn- Rm. 207-1  Evelyn has no family. Army nurse from Korean War. She is a lovely woman who is bedridden most of the time due to health.  She is an avid reader, reads her bible daily, likes mystery stories, enjoys putting together crossword puzzles.

Muriel,  Rm. 207-2 has no family.  She recently tried returning to her home but was unable to stay due to health concerns.  She also is an avid reader, loves mysteries, works crossword puzzles daily and enjoys candy!!

Virginia, Rm. 208-1 no family.  Very active in facility, Hard of Hearing, enjoys snacking, needs perhaps a new sweater, size large, new slip over long sleeved shirt, loves candy without nuts

Victoria, Rm. 208-2 no family.  Desperately needs sweats, size medium, likes blue, black or green, avid reader, mysteries.

Bessie, Rm. 210-1, Native American woman, family far away and do not visit her.  She used to enjoy beading, wears long dresses and sweaters, size medium

Francis, Rm. 217-1, no family.  Works crossword puzzles in her room, likes chocolate candy, no nuts, wears white sweaters, size medium

Sandra, Rm. 216-1, no family.  Wears sweats, usually pink or light purple, enjoys snack food, wears caps due to hair loss

Morgan, Rm. 218-2-no family, never married. Vietnam veteran and junk food junky.  Watches T.V. and reads.  Has a Nook Book.  Needs large print books, mysteries.  Stuffed animals (raccoons)

Katherine-family is far away.  Younger woman, loves to read Nora Roberts and Daniel Steele books

Helen, Rm. 109-2 has little family involvement.  She wears blue sweaters, size large. 

Brian, Rm. 118-1 homeless, young man, very kind and gentle.  Probably could use clothes, wears tee shirts, maybe needs sweatshirt or light jacket.  Wears blues, mild colors.  Also snacks is an option.  Loves movies too.  Only 52 years old.

Our student officers have organized the school fundraiser, our members will help shop, wrap the gifts, and deliver the items to the nursing home in a couple weeks. They will spend the morning talking with the residents. One could look at our club and see the practical reasons for doing this community gesture: it is a prerequisite of our school to complete 25 hours of community service in order to graduate. Some members are in National Honor Society, and they must complete 50 hours during a school year. I receive a small stipend. Students’ high school resumes look good as they compete for admission to college.

There’s more to it than the practical reasons. Look at that list! I see veterans, people without families, people alone at the end of their lives with candy as a companion. When we listen to them, it feels good. They cry and we cry when we say goodbye. What happens next? We come back to our meetings and think of other projects to do.  

The officers brainstorm and the group completes a year’s worth of international and community service projects. Sometimes we box meals to send to refugee camps or to those who have suffered from a Tsunami or hurricane. We work with Doctors without Borders  and raise money to buy chlorination kits for impoverished communities. The result is the same. Giving feels good.   

As an individual, giving my time is difficult, but within a group, the synergy makes giving easy.   

 

A Raisin in the Sun

Lorraine Hansberry was only 29 when she created great lines and characters for her play, A Raisin in the Sun in 1959. Inspired by childhood events, when the Hansberry’s refused to move out of an all-white neighborhood, they were sued. The case Hansberry v. Lee went to the Illinois State Supreme Court and ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court which overturned the state’s decision making it illegal to push African-Americans out of neighborhoods. You can read the complete history behind this play from Broadway.com here: Evolution of Raisin in the Sun.

Whether on the stage or the screen, the wisdom of the characters is the strength of the play. It highlights race conflict, specifically desegregation at the height of the Civil Rights movement in America; however, the heart of the tale transcends color-lines and focuses on relationships within the Younger family. Raisin in the Sun is a universal story about pride, unfulfilled dreams, motivations for sin, and redemption. Set in the early 60s in the slums of Chicago, the members of the Younger family are passionate and stubborn. Mama Younger is the queenly matriarch who imposes her will and stifles the growth of her son, Walter Lee. Beneatha, an intellectual feminist who aspires to become a doctor, constantly argues with her brother, Walter Lee. Ruth, the wife of Walter Lee, is an unappreciated wife and mother to their only child, Travis. Exhausted with the hardships of life, when Ruth discovers she is pregnant, she considers abortion. Side plots include two suitors who vie for the affections of Beneatha. The men represent a cultural awakening during the 1960s featuring George Murchison, a new Negro, as the pompous, educated, wealthy, assimilationist. His foil is Asagai, the wise Nigerian who inspires Beneatha to get in touch with her ancestral roots.

Walter Lee Younger  “Why can’t I buy pearls for my wife?”
Act I, scene ii

It’s easy to dislike him. He bellows and has temper tantrums and is irresponsible. When you think about it, he dreams of a fancy lifestyle for his family. Don’t many of us? For Walter, money brings freedom and pride because materialism is a measurement of success. Seeing his wife overworked and unresponsive only exaggerates his damaged ego. Ruth makes Walter feel like a failure. His dream of financial independence is the motivation behind his foolhardy decisions.

Mama: Oh – So now it’s life. Money is life. Once upon a time freedom used to be life – now it’s money. I guess the world really do change . . .
Walter: No – it was always money, Mama. We just didn’t know about it.
Mama: No . . . something has changed. You something new, boy. In my time we was worried about not being lynched and getting to the North if we could and how to stay alive and still have a pinch of dignity too . . .

Walter will learn from his mother that pride is not attached to a dollar, but pride comes from living out one’s life with integrity. Have you seen the 1961 classic starring Sidney Poitier? Ruby Dee won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Ruth, the haggard wife to Walter Lee.

Asagai “I live in the answer!”

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In Act III, Beneatha, cries on the shoulder of her suitor, Asagai the Nigerian, a leader of his people attempting to gain independence from British colonization. He fell in love with Beneatha at the University where she attends college to become a physician. She is bitter and bemoans the catastrophe of her brother’s infamous mistake on her life. She feels the financial setback has ruined her and wishes Walter Lee were dead. There’s a wonderful philosophy explained about the progress and evolution of society. The history of humanity is cyclical according to Beneatha. Violence and wars reign; humanity does not seem capable of improving over time. Asagai, however, sees human progression as a linear journey, an infinite line where progress transpires in starts and stops. Setbacks always happen; one must learn how to move on. She points out that if his Nigerian revolution occurs and his village achieves independence, it won’t erase violence or death. Instead of a British soldier who takes his life, it will be one of his own countryman.

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How do you see history? Linear or cyclical?

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“In my Mother’s house there is still God.” Amen for that.

Lena Younger is a colossal woman filled with virtue and piety who tries to hold the strong personalities of her family together. She illuminates the simple truths of life. She is a role model for her family and for the audience. Tribulations are a part of life, and that’s a fact. How do you survive with dignity? How do you change your attitude toward those who have hurt you? In Act III, Mama advises Beneatha:

“Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain’t through learning – because that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ‘cause the world done whipped him so!”

This call for compassion is a start toward healing and a great life lesson. What happens when our dreams won’t come true? Perhaps the answer is to try another dream.

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Four Life Principles: Thanks, Eleanor Roosevelt


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At the request of my school, I gave a speech today. My audience included parents, students, and community members at an assembly, and Eleanor Roosevelt stood by my side and helped me through it. Are you are feeling lowly today? Maybe a reminder is all you need. Let her wisdom lift you. Here was what I said:

Thank you, school board members, administrators, students, and the faculty for whom I represent for allowing me to address you today. I’d like to begin with a quote given by First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, who advocated for human rights and became an essential advisor for her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

She said, “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.”

Whenever I face an anxious situation, like speaking on this stage in front of you, I like to pretend Eleanor is standing next to me. Her maxims are great ideas, life principles to follow, and there are four I’d like to share.

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1. Goal Oriented 

“I am what I am today because of the choices I made yesterday.”

Come up with a strategy. Then try it. Students, today you are commended for improving your grade point average over the course of a semester or a year. You are here today because you tried. Creating a goal is the first step. To execute the strategy requires focus. Remember, you are not competing against the person next to you. You are in a marathon race with yourself and your success first depends on a course of action.

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2. Self-Reflection

“Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t possibly make them all yourself.”

How did your strategy work? What can I do differently to achieve a better result? Life is about tweaking, modifying, and scheduling your time. If you manage your time well, efficiency will catapult your goals and results easier to achieve. Ever notice how true experts, athletes, and artists make it look so easy? It’s because they are efficient, focused, and tweaked their “performance” over time.

You change. Don’t be passive. Don’t wait for someone to suggest what you should do. This is your education, your life. Decide what worked and what didn’t; create a new strategy and try again. It is all about you.

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3. Be Positive

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

This is the hardest principle to live by and it truly makes all the difference, for it is a choice, happiness, and it starts with positive thinking.

Insecurity. Fear. Labels others give you. Mountains to climb, Hardships. Loneliness. These are your companions for the rest of your life. What helps you achieve your goals, your dreams, is your attitude. Avoid succumbing to the negative by discovering strategies for dealing with these sap-sucking companions. People surround you who want to help you bypass your obstacles. Seek out the advice from those who have succeeded. You are never alone. A positive attitude takes practice, it is akin to hope, and worth the effort.

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“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

How do you acquire strong self-esteem? How do you become confident? Self-reliant? Surround yourself with people who are positive. Allow them to fill the hours of your day and you will gain courage to face all those who only see the negative–the whiners, the complainers–those who want you to be miserable with them. Can’t find anyone positive? Then be your own best friend. Let the positive people from the past be your inspiration and your friends. Like Eleanor Roosevelt. They will give you courage. Let them be your teachers.

4. Reinvent Yourself

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 There’s an old film I’ve made a personal connection with and that’s Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. Here was a story about a negative, obnoxious man who, stuck in a time glitch, relived his day over and over. He disgusts the girl of his dreams and can’t figure out why she doesn’t like him. Every day he learned something new. He discarded selfishness and cultivated a positive attitude. He became philanthropic. He became a leader in the community and devoted his time to learn something new, motivated to win the love of his dream girl. What if every day was the same day and you chose to reinvent yourself? What an opportunity! What would you do? What if you were the leader and positive role model for someone else? What do you think would happen to you? Give it a try.

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Practice. Try. Read all about it. Imitate. and remember a Cindy Bruchman adage: “Follow the Good, and lead yourself.” Thank you. No, thank you, Eleanor. It’s easy to be wise when you adopt the wisdom of others.

Five Shots: Sweet Seattle

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Which of these five shots in Seattle is the sweetest?

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Chocolate shoppes everywhere!

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The sweet fragrance of fresh cut flowers?

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a healthy granddaughter?

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Or a happy Mom and baby? A very sweet vacation, indeed.

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