Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sharing Pain

A friend recently made the comment that "No one can truly share your pain. They cannot take any of it from you." 

If we're talking physical pain, that's obviously true. Medications may mask pain, by inhibiting the nerve receptors, but they themselves do not treat the cause of pain or heal the injury. So, while another person may prescribe or administer pain relieving medicine that reduces my physical discomfort (I hated it when they described labor pains as "discomfort" rather than pain -- call a spade a spade!), they are not taking the pain upon themselves in any way. That is relief, but not healing, and certainly not sharing. When a child falls off a bicycle and hurts himself, his mother would take her child's pain away in a heartbeat if it were possible, but it's just not. She comforts him, and reduces his fear and embarrassment as much as possible, but she cannot remove the source of his pain.

With emotional pain, it's not as clear. Wikipedia's definition of empathy is "the capacity to recognize, and to some extent, share feelings that are being experienced by another person". says empathy is "the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another". Quite a difference. 

One reason I love reading is to learn how other people think, feel, and live. The Bell Jar helps me understand suicidal tendencies; All Quiet on the Western Front helps me understand the horrors of a WWI soldier; To Kill a Mockingbird helps me understand the repercussions of prejudice; autobiographies and biographies help me understand a person's journey, decisions, actions and reactions.

I can identify with the feelings of rejection, domination, or violence of a rape victim, but I am not sharing her feelings. I can have sympathy with the feelings of loss of a family member who has lost a loved one, but I am not lessening that person's pain. I can have compassion for the unfairness of prejudice, but I am not able to change the ignorant person's viewpoint.

However, even if I can't literally share in someone else's pain, I can let her know that I care and I would if I could. When I am sick or hurt, I just want to be left alone -- I don't like attention that intensifies my isolation. BUT, it is comforting to some degree to know that there are people who are willing to help, who care how I feel, and who give a rip about me. No, they can't share in my pain, any more than they can share in my happiness. We live a very individual and personal life within ourselves, an existence that only we and God truly know. Therein lies the only true answer. No one else on earth can share our sorrows and our joys. But God is beyond our relationship with other people. He knows our innermost souls. He lives in our hearts. He, too, feels emotions, and He recognizes our feelings without us having to put them into words. He understands our personal intimacy, and therefore He shares our pain.

He gets me, and He cares. And for that, I am truly grateful and truly comforted.

Monday, February 28, 2011


I am afflicted and/or blessed with chronic wanderlust. Some people have a mild case, and others have never experienced it at all. And yes, I enable myself. The more I go, the more I want to go.

For me, it's genetic. I blame my parents, specifically my mother, and her mother before her. My grandmother graduated from college as a very young woman, and rather than take a traditional teaching job in Oklahoma, she went to New Mexico to teach the Indians. Alone. And loved it.
My mother graduated from college as a young woman, and rather than take a traditional teaching job in Fort Worth, she and my father went to the Territory of Hawaii where she occasionally taught barefoot and learned to hula dance. And loved it.
I graduated from college as a young woman, and I went into business, being a landMAN in Lafayette, Louisiana, which was another world to me. Alone. And loved it.

Once I married and had children, in our poor years, we went camping. And loved it.
My parents began a yearly family trip, taking my and my brother's families on vacation. We started small, renting a rollover church van and driving to Oklahoma. Then branched out farther and farther, until we were cruising around the world. And loved it.
I've infected my own daughters with wanderlust. I also now experience solitary episodes, which are incredibly enjoyable.

What is it that drives me to leave the home I love? To venture out into unknown worlds, lands, foods, people, cultures? Partly it's curiosity, which supposedly killed the cat, but most likely won't kill me. Even so, it's an adrenaline rush to make sure I do survive. One of my mottos is "as long as I don't die, it'll be a great story later." Partly it's humility, to see how others not only live, but live happily and contentedly. To see how other countries (and even states) make choices different than what I am accustomed to living with, and do well. To see that our way is not the only way. Partly it's energizing, to be "on" 24/7, knowing each second cannot be completely expected nor will ever be repeated. To appreciate life so intensely, when I am used to taking time and life for granted. Partly it's inspiring, to see places where history actually happened; to learn to believe in the past. Partly it's encouraging, to meet people so vastly different from me, that I immediately connect with and know I could forge friendships with, given more time. Partly it's the unpredictability, to taste new things and either love exotic flavors, or attempt to swallow fast (so as to not spit it out at my host) with some semblance of a smile.

Wanderlust is immediately understood by others similarly infected. They get it, this strong, innate desire to travel about, with or without a destination. Others think it's a waste of time and money. A foolhardy slap in the face of Texas, or America. Like many things, it depends on the beholder. It is almost a necessity to me; it would be rash and stupid for them. Thank God for individuality!

Sunday we sang the hymn Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing and reached the words "Prone to wander, Lord I feel it!"  I immediately felt my heart soar, as those words express exactly my heart. And then, I felt convicted, as it continued "Prone to leave the God I love." Oh, how sad that those words also express my heart too often. But finally, "Here's my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above." Amen.

Leaving home is only worth it because I get to return to the place I love most. The people I love most. Home. I pray that my wanderlust does not permeate my spiritual life as it does my physical life. There is truly no place like Home.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Senior Moments

Someone recently requested I post my Baccalaureate speech of 1998, so here 'tis.

What I want to speak to you about tonight is simple, really. I have had all year long to discuss philosophy, ethics and morals with you. I love doing that, and that is the main reason I love literature. But tonight, I want to talk about your own personal future. You have used up the last page in your spirals, turned in your public education textbooks, and cleaned out your lockers for the last time. No more laws require you to learn. You have used up all of your wide-ruled notebook paper. You are free!

So, now what? Some of you have your lives planned out for the next four years, already having been accepted to a college; some of you have committed to join the armed forces; some of you plan on attending a vocational school for two years, then working at a trade; some of you are planning on working immediately, while others of you are still struggling with these decisions.

What I want you to think about tonight has absolutely no bearing on which of these options you have chosen. Your future plans are totally irrelevant. Your future goals, regardless of great intentions, do not matter. What matters, is now: this very moment, tomorrow, and the next day. Who you are today determines who you will be tomorrow. When I see you 5, 10, or 20 years from now, what I look forward to seeing in you is not what you have become, but who you have become.

I am certainly not saying that education is unimportant, or that the decisions you are making right now are frivolous. They are most obviously consequential. However, your future has already begun: today. Think of the people you know who are truly happy. Is it their social position in life, their money, their wife or husband, or their possessions that make them happy? No. The people I know who are truly happy find their happiness within themselves. It is their ability to be content in this world, regardless of their circumstances. Henry Van Dyke said "What you possess in the world will be found at the day of your death to belong to someone else. But what you are will be yours forever."

God judges man by who he is, not by what he has accomplished, what he has achieved, or by what material success he has accumulated. I challenge you to do no less. John Luther said "Good character is more to be praised than outstanding talent. Most talents are, to some extent, a gift. Good character, by contrast, is not given to us. We have to build it piece by piece - by thought, choice, courage and determination."

Right now you are each facing a crossroads. Which road you take will indeed make all the difference. Again, I am not speaking of educational success, material success or even the American dream. I am speaking of your success as a person - how you treat others, the value of your word, the honor and respect you give God. Proverbs 23:7 says "As a man thinks in his heart, so is he." Be the person God created you to be, and you will be a success, whether you are a prominent attorney or a construction worker. This is success. This is what you should focus on today. Then tomorrow will follow accordingly. An old Japanese proverb says "Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare." God will give each of you a vision of the character He created you to be. Act on it now, and you will succeed.

I decided to complete one of the many assignments I have given you, so here it is:

The Seniors of '98

This poem is for you, the Seniors of '98
For letting me see the potential in your eyes
And the world in your smiles
For reading aloud voluntarily, sometimes
For reading between the lines all the time
For honestly taking in knowledge - don't ever stop.
For showing yourselves and me the depth of your understanding
From Beowulf, to Shakespeare, to Frankenstein.
For allowing yourselves to truly learn about others through words
For allowing yourselves to truly learn about yourselves through thoughts
For your never-ending sense of humor,
From orang-och-tang to sWord.
For the fears you now have of leaving home
For the fears you now have of never leaving home.
For expressing kindnesses to those who are similar to yourself
For expressing compassion to those who are not similar to yourself
For detesting cruelty, lies, and injustice enough to refuse to participate
For desiring truth and honor enough to refuse to settle for anything less.
This poem is for you, the Seniors of 1998
For sharing yourselves with me,
For being you,
I love you.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Un-Valentine's Day

See for a smile.

No, I don't hate love, but I do hate Valentine's Day. It pressures everyone to prove to the world that they have a current love, find a new one quickly, or fake it. From elementary school Valentine's parties, we start pushing our children to fall in love, choose one person over everyone else, and feel dejected when that person invariably chooses someone else. Ugh. Yeah, we sugarcoat it with giving a Scooby Doo Valentine's card to everyone in the room, but deep inside there's always that hope that He or She will know and respond.

If you love someone, let her know every day. Flowers are special only when they are given spontaneously, not when they are mandated gifts according to florists. Candy is special only when chosen with care, not in a token heart-shaped box from Walgreen's. A card is special only when either hand-made (not coerced) or timed appropriately to meet a personal special occasion, not because Hallmark has a specially-themed card available for purchase this week only.

Yeah, encourage kids to show their love to their mothers, but wouldn't it be better to have a sincere peck on the cheek or squeeze of the hand than a dozen red carnations? And when does it become right for fathers to give romantic gifts to their daughters? That's a bit creepy in my book.

Plus, what about the inevitable gift from someone you don't like? Everyone feels awkward, and it could have easily been avoided if the susceptible nerd had just kept his place. Don't encourage stupidity.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


Yesterday, I found a new friend. How does that happen? It's like dating without the drama. But what is it exactly that determines an instant connection with someone else?

If it's someone of the opposite sex, then society usually calls it chemistry, and assumes it's flirty, sexual in nature. Can a man and a woman be just friends? Yes and no. The men in my life that have been my best friends have been just that. They get me, I can trust them, we laugh a lot together, but in the next breath can talk about matters of substance. But inevitably, problems arise. Either they, their wives/significant others, or society deems that there must be something more in the relationship than just friendship. It is so stinking frustrating! Probably, a lot of it has to do with the fact that I'm single, and that creates an assumption in many people's minds that I'm on the prowl. Yeah, right.

If it's someone of the same sex, then it's acceptable. For me, a friendship with a woman is easier in the long run, but harder up front. Maybe it's because I don't want to compete, but feel we're always sizing each other up. Maybe it's because women in general don't have the same sense of humor I do (that of either a 12-year-old boy or a sarcastic, crass old man). Maybe it's because I am self-sufficient (both because I have to be and I want to be), and I see many women flaunting their dependence on men. Maybe it's because I've heard mean, gossipy things from women, and am wary of being targeted. Maybe it's because I'm not AS interested in talking about the same things: shopping, children, animals, domesticated life.

However, once friendship with a woman is established, then it is there for the rest of my life. Miraculously. My best friend from the 4th grade attends the same church I do, and although we don't hang around together, I know that if I needed her, she'd come running. And vice versa. In July, I saw a friend of mine I hadn't seen in about 15 years, and we fell right back into being friends, although I may not see her again for as many years. In August, I got together with friends from college, some of whom hadn't seen each other for 30 years. Yet, it was incredibly easy, nice, and truly affirming to renew our friendships, regardless of the differing paths our lives have taken in the interim.

But what draws us together initially? Sometimes, it's purely experiences we go through together that create friendship. Due to difficult or even wonderful (but usually intense) exposure to the same event, a shared understanding and trust develops, sometimes immediately. But that is understandable due to the rarity of the event, and the obvious commonality between the two people.

What about meeting new people for the first time, when you just know you enjoy that person's presence? It often happens when someone is similar to us, whether it be in outward appearance, age, passion, interests, or vocation. It's easy to have much in common with someone like yourself. But that's not completely it. I often find people like me boring. I don't want to hang around with clones.

I don't have the answer, but I sure am grateful for whatever it is. That spark of potential intimacy known as friendship is an unexpected windfall, a hope for more.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Howard is my second brother. He moved onto our suburban Houston block when we were in elementary school, and soon thereafter became my older brother's best friend. Howard was the smallest of all the neighborhood guys, eventually standing at about 5'7" compared to their 6'+, but he never let that be an issue. He was pound-for-pound stronger than most of them, and had the fight to back up his talk. 

I've never known anyone like Howard, so the name "Howard" defines his personality to me. His face never shows any fear, almost always a half-grin, and always eyes that say "let's do it!" no matter what "it" is. He had my back just as much as my brother did, even as an adult. I could count on him for anything, even just a laugh.

While teaching high school, I would fill empty minutes in class with "crazy Howard" stories, all of which seem unbelievable, but all of which are true. Or as true as my telling of his adventures could be. 

Pranks, like when he and my brother put skunks in the basement dryer of the boys' dorm, turned on the heat, and let the aroma spread.

Like when they collected fingernail and toenail clippings for weeks on end, then let me watch while one distracted the cafeteria lady and the other mixed them in the cottage cheese. What a memorable lunchroom experience.

Like when he ran through the girls' dorm wearing only an old man mask and his undies, causing unknown excitement in the Baptist haven and me to be questioned by the police. I informed them I couldn't identify Howard, as I didn't recognize him in his underwear.

Like when I took my teenage daughters to meet him, and he offered to sell us to a skanky old man in the next pickup at the red light.

Animal encounters, like when he went swimming in the river while at college in San Marcos, caught a baby alligator barehanded, and kept it in his bathtub for a week. He later donated it to the zoo.

Like when he was on a mission trip to a tiny village in Tibet(?) and tracked a wild lynx which had been eating the local chickens. He followed it into a lean-to with no exit, and finding himself stuck in the small area with the cat, grabbed it by its hind legs and swung it to death against the walls. I assumed he'd been offered the local chief's daughter as a gift of gratitude, but evidently not.

Like when he grabbed a snake by its tail, and popped it so hard that the mouse it had eaten flew out.

Like when he shot local farmers' prairie dogs with a high-powered rifle, killing two birds with one stone by ridding them of the pests, and fine-tuning his (in)famous shooting prowess.

Protective scenarios, like when he was on another mission trip overseas' return flight home, and a drunk man was bothering a teenage girl from their church. Howard politely told the man to quit, but the drunk persisted. Howard returned to his seat and waited until the man went to the lavatory, where he beat some semblance of respect into him. Upon landing, the stewardesses vouched for Howard, and he avoided arrest.

Howard lives and loves his life intensely. He exudes enthusiasm and passion for life. He gives God credit for every good thing, and every grace he has ever experienced. He loves people as a natural extension of his love for God, and people respond enthusiastically.

I saw Howard Sunday, as he nears death due to cancer invading his body. In less than a year, he has been all over the world, getting the latest treatments, allowing himself to fight this cruel disease with the same intensity with which he lives. Now the end is near; he is close to seeing Jesus, and he is ready. 

As a testimony to his sincere witness, the sheer number of people who have lovingly responded to his physical crisis is amazing. And every single person has a powerfully personal relationship with him. That's just Howard. His life truly glorifies God.

His eyes say "let's do it!" as he anticipates heaven.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Monsters Unincorporated

Remember when you were a kid and used to be afraid of monsters under your bed or in the closet? Even though you'd never actually seen one in person, and even though your parents promised you they didn't exist, you knew enough to be scared. When your parents looked in the closet for you and checked under the bed, you weren't really reassured; you only had no other recourse but to accept that the monsters were not there for the moment, and hope you'd fall asleep before that moment passed.

Now grown, our monsters often still exist just as strongly. The old ones of unimaginable ugliness, size and stealth are gone, but we've created new ones just as formidable. The adult monsters I often hear described are fears of a different nature. Fears of: global warming, a recession comparable to the Great Depression, a nuclear holocaust, a tyrannical or uncaring government, the destruction of Earth. Or on a more personal level, fears of: losing a job, losing a loved one, failure, retirement, loneliness, financial ruin.

Rarely do adults admit to fear. Rather, we mask them in political palaver, adamant condemnations of others, and call them "concerns."

But these concerns seem awfully similar to the childhood monsters that lived under the bed. Never actualized, never clarified, never truly conquered, always stifling peace and joy.  Our adult monsters are much worse than any childish monsters, because we are now responsible for our own safety. No longer can anyone else allay our fears, it's up to us to do it ourselves (with God's help). And most people don't want to face their monsters.

I choose to fight. Early in my adult life, I began to learn that if something scared me, then I'd better do it or face it, because the not knowing was my real fear. I found I had to look under the bed in order to sleep. So, I applied for jobs I had no skills for, not knowing if I could succeed (I did). I married, not knowing if it would last (it didn't). I had children, not knowing if I could raise them well (I did). I acted in a play, not knowing if I could act (I couldn't). I sang in public, not thinking I could sing well (I can't). I encouraged my girls to be independent, not knowing if they would be safe (I redefined safe). I taught English, not knowing if I could teach (I could). I backpacked in Alaska, not knowing if I was prepared (I wasn't). I participated on mock trial teams, not knowing if I would win (I won and I lost). I am opening a restaurant, not knowing anything about the business (it will be fun, whether it works or not).

I hope to fight my fears as long as I live, because that's how I grow. That's how I have peace. I find it much easier to fight now, because I have faith that even the worst possible result is bearable. Failure is not indicative of being a loser; not even trying is. "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" said FDR. Bully that!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Born Free?

Last night, PBS aired "Elsa's Legacy: The Born Free Story," an interesting documentary on the real lives of Joy and George Adamson and their work with African predator cats. A comment struck me, that before the Adamsons, no one viewed wild animals as having personalities and being individualistic in their natures (paraphrased). One of their greatest achievements was demonstrating that humans and wild animals can connect with one another, and can love one another, thus giving validity to universal worth of life.

Yes and no. 

Yes, all mammals should be appreciated and treated with respect. Yes, animals are incredibly complex and (like humans) can often be trained with love, calmed with music, manipulated with kindness, especially from infancy. Yes, we can feel intense love, awe, protectiveness, and loss in regard to our relationship with animals, whether they be our old tabby house cat or a wild leopard.

Both the documentary and the movie Born Free evoke intense jealousy in me, as I watch the Adamsons and the actors interact with the big cats, playing, petting, and tussling with them. I believe the film was so popular because we all dream of having that intimate relationship with a huge and powerful kitten; once that fantasy has been fueled, then we can transfer our affection to caring for cats in the wild, even if we are not the ones that actually get to do it. Nothing wrong with that at all. We must always personally identify with something or someone to truly desire to help; compassion and empathy require some level of love.

But no, perfect harmony between humans and wild animals does not currently exist, partly due to their (and our) natures. Humans' survival instinct is usually manifested through power, whether it be war, violence, competition, or merely a snide remark. Wild animals' survival instinct is almost always manifested through violence, specifically killing and eating. Yes, there are wild animals that survive as herbivores and some that are like us humans and are omnivores, but the ones that fascinate us are the carnivores. We are enthralled by their apparent indiscriminate ability to kill at will. Watching "Wild Kingdom" as a kid was always much more exciting when Jim fought to stay alive while Marlin Perkins calmly described the attack. National Geographic's nature shows always made us cringe when we saw the cheetah attack the young wildebeest, pulling it down. But we never changed the channel. We humans consider ourselves civilized, so our killing is either justified or condemned, but never neutral.

The documentary told what the movie did and could not. A later lion George attempted to rehabilitate to the wild attacked a child and later killed a man, requiring the lion to be put down.

My trip to Kenya affected me more than I can yet comprehend. It was the closest to both heaven and hell that I've ever encountered traveling. I stood (in a Range Rover) not 15 feet from 5 lionesses and their 10 cubs, lounging under the sun, grooming and playing with each other. Pure beauty, love, trust and happiness in the moment. 
I saw grown lions walking calmly by elephants, neither bothered by the other. I saw giraffe mothers watching their young playing amongst zebra. 
Yet, I also witnessed crocodiles tearing down wildebeest as they crossed a river, terrified, struggling to get away with broken legs, bleeding while others crushed by. 
I literally cried when I watched a hungry baboon eating a baby gazelle alive, with absolutely no compunction whatsoever, totally unmoved by its death cries. 
We were not created to be enemies toward each other, yet due to our own actions and choices, the world suffers. Enmity between man and snakes, the concept of eating meat, the fear between men and animals, have all been the result of our own selfishness. But, one day, harmony will truly exist again.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear, 
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the ole of the cobra, 
and the young child put his hand into the viper's next.
They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Isaiah 11:6-9

Friday, January 7, 2011

Touch Moments

Moments I've (been) touched:

  • a death row inmate's embrace
  • a boa constrictor wrapping itself around my forearm
  • the first flutter of movement in my womb
  • a campfire's warmth on my backside
  • the freshly burred head of a young boy
  • petting a moray eel in Moorea
  • tree sap on my fingers, legs, hair
  • a child's trusting hand in mine
  • dolphins propelling me through the water
  • plucking fragile cicada shells from trees with my grandmother
  • the merest brush with a potential lover
  • the contrast between the softness right above a dog's nose and the nose itself
  • black sand between my toes
  • a patient cow's teat in my hand
  • an icicle on my tongue
  • cradling a mewing baby white tiger in my arms
  • stones brilliantly pieced together by the Inca
  • living coral beneath the sea
  • my baby nursing contentedly 
  • bitingly cold air in my lungs
  • my blind grandfather's hand on my arm
  • the sun's heat on my face
  • gingerly holding a blowfish in my hands
The ability to feel makes life meaningful and memorable.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Miracle Music

Color Blind: In 1972, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus and several other black jazz musicians went to Yale University to play and raise money for aspiring black musicians. During one performance, a bomb threat was called in, and police rushed to move the musicians to safety. Mingus refused to quit playing, saying "Racism planted that bomb, but racism ain't strong enough to kill this music."

Beth Ullman, an incredible jazz singer, wrote "Charlie's Last Stand" about this story.  She sang this song New Year's Eve at a small concert in her home: a gift to us, a perfect way to end 2010 and begin 2011. 

In Keith Richards' bio Life, he says "I didn't know Chuck Berry was black for two years after I first heard his music....and for ages I didn't know Jerry Lee Lewis was white....It was hardly important. It was the sound that was important."

Soulful: Music touches everyone, even the rhythm-deficient and the tone deaf. In fact, it may mean even more to those of us with very little musical talent, because we need music as a saguaro cactus needs water. I can't produce music, but I need it.

I haven't understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it. [Igor Stravinsky]

Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without. [Confucius]

Universal: We've all heard the stories of a lone violin or piano playing in the midst of war, yet calming both sides. We've all heard music from different cultures, yet we feel a kinship to the musicians. We've all heard music in languages we don't understand, yet we understand the song. 

As an adult, I was initially drawn to classical music and European opera precisely because there are no coherent words to engage my mind; I can just revel in the pure enjoyment of the notes.

Musical compositions, it should be remembered, do not inhabit certain countries, certain museums, like paintings and statues. The Mozart Quintet is not shut up in Salzburg; I have it in my pocket. [Henri Rabaud]

Music is the literature of the heart; it commences where speech ends. [Alphonse de Lamartine]

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent. [Victor Hugo]

Beyond Man: In my opinion, music is "of man," yet is "beyond any one man." Angels sing. The miracle of music transcends humanity, drawing us to one another, while simultaneously drawing us to a higher level of being, and a better us.

If I can write the songs of the nations, I don't care who writes the laws. [Plato]

Music cleanses the understanding, inspires it, and lifts it into a realm which it would not reach if it were left to itself. [Henry Ward Beecher]

It is incontestable that music indues in us a sense of the infinite and the contemplation of the invisible. [Victor de LaPrade]

Play on.