Archive for the ‘reflections’ Category

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Remembering Those Who Served

November 11, 2016

 

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Today is Veterans’ Day, a commemorative holiday that should be of great significance to us all. But I wonder about the emotional connection that seems to be missing for far too many Americans.

I believe several factors have contributed to this. The mood of the nation has soured on military involvement abroad. More significantly, the advent of the all-volunteer army has insulated the vast majority of Americans from those who now are put in the position of fighting in our name. We all seem to forget when it is somebody else’s parent or sibling or child who is in harm’s way.

But for some Americans, this is a day that cannot be ignored. These Americans are the ones who have served in war. They are the fathers and mothers, the sisters and brothers, the husbands and wives, and the sons and daughters of those vets. This day is a time to acknowledge the sacrifices they have made, something in my opinion that should be done at every opportunity, not just on one day.

Since its institution as a holiday in 1919 to commemorate the November 11, 1918, cessation of fighting during World War I — supposedly the “war to end all wars” — there have been numerous occasions for American soldiers to be called upon to take up arms. World War II. The Korean War (or Korean Conflict for those who like to overlook reality). The Vietnam War. The Gulf War. The Iraq War. The War in Afghanistan. And if history is any indicator, there will be others yet to come.

We need to pay tribute to these Americans who have heeded that call even if we are not one of them. We need to think about those who went to war and returned forever affected by their experience. We owe them that much.

If you are not a veteran of war, if you have not been sent away from your home and friends and family to a strange and hostile far-off land, then you can’t know what it’s really like. You have not had to experience the often random and brutal death and destruction that is part of war. That is understandable. But you can do something to open your eyes to the realities that others have lived through on your behalf.

Read what those veterans who have served have written about these realities. They wrote what they did to try to get you to understand — at least a little bit — what it was like to be there, and what it is like to carry the scars, both physical and emotional, back home again. Read the poems of Yusef Komunyakaa about the soldiers’ perilous life in the jungles of Vietnam or those of Brian Turner who writes with such insight about the trials of serving in the Iraqi desert or the accounts of Owen West in The Snake Eaters, of Nathaniel Fitch in One Bullet Away, of Donovan Campbell in Joker One. The time and location may differ from war to war, but the essence of the experience remains the same. Whether you agree or not with these or any other wars, the people who are sent and who must make the sacrifices deserve your attention.

Talk to a veteran, at the very least to express thanks for his or her service. Talk to their family members to perhaps gain some perspective on the situation in which they have found themselves. Do something positive to aid a vet who is in need, or contribute in some way to those organizations which are already doing so. Check out their websites. Help in whatever way you can, even if it’s making a small donation.

So today on this Veterans Day, recognize the veterans who are undoubtedly around you. Pay attention to their stories in whatever form they present themselves. Remember their stories on normal days as well because their normal days in many cases have been forever changed. Though it is, I believe, our obligation to do so, I believe we should once again look at it as a privilege to remember and honor those who have served.

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This Land Is Your Land

August 25, 2016
Great Arch, Arches National Park, Utah

Great Arch, Arches National Park, Utah

One hundred years ago this day, an act signed by President Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service. The monumental task of protecting the existing 35 national parks and monuments as well as any future additions fell to this new federal bureau. The current system of National Parks and Monuments covers more than 84 million acres in all 50 states and several territories.

These national parks have been called by some our country’s greatest treasure, and I would find that statement hard to argue with. The fact that these irreplaceable areas of natural beauty have been set aside and preserved from the rampant and often irresponsible overdevelopment by private interests that has plagued so much of our landscape is a credit to the foresight of those who led the preservation movement. And that is as it should be, for as Woody Guthrie sang, “This land was made for you and me.”

Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts

Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts

Some ask why we should care about setting aside these natural areas. The answer seems clear to me. That we can still find pristine beaches along which to walk, lakes and rivers yet unsullied by pollution, mountain ranges that haven’t been ravaged by mining companies, and forests still abundant with the flora and fauna native to this great land should be of comfort to all who take pride in this country. These places manifest the very soul of our nation. Even if everyone can’t see these parks in person, just knowing they exist can provide a kind of spiritual satisfaction.

Yosemite

Yosemite, California

In the excellent documentary series entitled Our Nation’s Best Idea, Ken Burns retells the story of the parks and the people who were so vital in their establishment and protection, some well-known and some unheralded: John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, Stephen Mather, Charles Young, Harold Ickes, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Along with many ordinary unsung heroes, they often had to battle against those who sought to gain individual control or personal wealth. It took time and persistence, but the result of their staunch efforts and great vision is available for all to appreciate, for these park lands belong to us. They are part of our American heritage to be entrusted to each successive generation as living proof of the glory of this land.

Mt. Denali, Alaska

Mt. Denali, Denali National Park, Alaska

The desire on the part of some to violate the compact made to uphold these grounds as untouchable doggedly persists, though. Proposals of logging, mining, and drilling are a constant threat. I am among the many who hope that those who seek to intrude upon the sanctity of these areas in the name of exploitation of “needed” resources can be kept at bay. These shortsighted actions purportedly for our benefit need to be blocked because once the incursion is made, the damage done will be irreparable. We as a people deserve better than that.

Grand Teton

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Another concern is accommodating the increasing numbers of visitors. That requires a delicate balance that must be struck between the desired mass access to these areas and restrictions imposed to help retain the character of the parks. Those who have experienced the overcrowding during Old Faithful’s scheduled eruptions or bumper to bumper traffic on the Cades Cove Loop through Great Smoky Mountain understand this quandary. However, no prospective visitor should let the possible crowds dissuade him or her from visiting, for simply pulling over to park at one of the many trailheads will provide a portal just a short walk away from the throngs into the wonders of the land.

Zion, Utah

Zion National Park, Utah

I have been fortunate enough over the years to be able to spend time in many of our National Parks and Monuments. Their size and diversity are nothing short of staggering: the vast chasm of Grand Canyon, the incredible stone structures of Arches in Utah, the raw coastal grandeur of Acadia in Maine, the primal power of Volcano in Hawaii, the majestic peaks rising in the wilderness of Denali in Alaska, the serene other-worldly expanse of White Sands. Each has a character and beauty of its own. Every time I go, my spirit is restored as I reflect upon and appreciate the wonders of this land and all its natural splendor, and I am grateful to be a part of this grand American enterprise.

White Sands, New Mexico

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

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Nurse

May 6, 2016

 

I am not a nurse. But I do know quite a bit about the life of a nurse, for I am married to one. Not just any one, but a very special one, in my opinion. And that one is Bernadette.

Bernadette’s journey in this nurse’s life was a long one. Forty years long, to be exact. It was the summer of 1972 that Bernadette entered the world of NYU Medical Center as a staff nurse, at first in urology — which lasted for two weeks — and then in pediatrics, which lasted the remainder of her career. Many of her recent colleagues had not even entered the world yet.

Quite a bit happened in those 40 years. There were eight presidents and four wars. Elvis Presley died. Justin Beiber was born. Gone are the Soviet Union, the Berlin Wall, the eight track tape, and disco. We since have gotten home computers, smart phones, Facebook, and the Kardashians.

The nurse’s life can take up quite a lot of time, as those who are involved in it well know. I spent many an hour waiting for Bernadette to come home, at first outside Penn Station in Newark in the days before cell phones where I’d park myself at what I assumed would be the appointed hour and then mark papers until she arrived. I probably could have written the great American novel in the time that I waited there. Advances in communication technology eased this process as did the advent of the Midtown Express train, but since I knew that Bernadette was delayed in the course of doing this most valuable vocation, it was but a small sacrifice to make.

I also have seen first-hand the effects of the many extra hours and late arrivals home, of working nights and weekends and holidays, of the constant stress of what is surely one of the most difficult and unappreciated jobs in the world. I have witnessed the many tears that have fallen over children who have suffered and died and their parents who had to bear this inconceivable burden. I have felt the sorrow and the pain of personal losses that befell staff members over the years . And through it all, I saw Bernadette’s faith and inner strength emerge to help deal with each crisis as it arose.

I am not alone in recognizing this. I have saved the many cards and notes from parents Bernadette aided in their time of need and nurses who worked alongside her. Though I am in awe of the great impact she has made, I am not surprised, for this is who she is. She has been called devoted, compassionate, understanding, selfless, and kind. She has been thanked for her encouragement, advice, fairness, support, guidance, and inspiration. Many have learned from her, vented to her, cried with her, and most of all shared in the love and passion which arise from this noble endeavor. I believe Bernadette has touched the hearts of more people than she will ever know.

Yes, I know well this caring and nurturing and deep compassion, for I have not only seen it in Bernadette’s life as a nurse but experience it every day of our lives together. For that I am blessed, and I truly believe that is also so for the unit to which Bernadette had so tirelessly devoted her time and energy and body and soul all those years. Albert Einstein once said, “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.” Those who know Bernadette also know this is so.

It has been four years since she arrived at what many characterized as the end of a chapter. In actuality, it was many chapters with a constantly changing cast of characters and multiple plots with unpredictable twists and turns and not one single climax and resolution but innumerable ones, some joyful and some tragic. However, there was but a single theme, that of helping others in whatever way help could be given. And there is also a moral to the story: inherent in this impossible job is its own reward, the seeds sown through the caring for and nurturing of others in their worst of times that blossom in heartfelt gratitude, sometimes unexpressed and often out of sight, but there nonetheless. And despite the many pitfalls and hardships, the memories of care and kindness given will be carried in grateful hearts forever, and that is as it should be.

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Peculiar People

January 10, 2016

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There are many unusual celebratory days in January (Fruitcake Toss Day, Bean Day, Houseplant Appreciation Day, Blame Someone Else Day, Penguin Awareness Day, and Measure Your Feet Day to name a few), but my favorite has always been today, Peculiar People Day.

The most interesting people I know, have known, or know about certainly fall into this category. This is not in any way a derogatory assessment in my view. After all, just what does “peculiar” mean?

Various dictionaries offer the following synonyms: unusual, eccentric, odd, curious. I, for one, do not consider those adjectives to necessarily be problematic. Being someone who departs from the ordinary is, after all, so often considered to be a good thing.

Think about it. Some of the icons of our society who are most revered are, well, peculiar. Unusual. Eccentric. Odd. The list is both long and varied, populated by individuals in all walks of life, people such as Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Oscar Wilde, Salvador Dali, Albert Einstein, Bjork, and Elon Musk. They share certain common characteristics like being creative, intelligent, intensely curious, and most of all nonconformist. Often we love them, sometimes we may not, but in either case, they are hard to ignore.

Why then are so many made to suffer for their peculiarities? It is ironic that in a country that purports to be the champion of individual freedom and respect for others that such a high premium is placed on conformity. Those amongst us who are different either by nature or by choice provide the diversity which most, in theory, accept as desirable. In practice, however, too often it is scorn and mockery that is their reward.

So perhaps this day might be the impetus to reconsider your thoughts about all the peculiar people in our midst. Maybe you will find something peculiar about yourself if you look hard enough. Even if you can’t, it might be time to acknowledge and appreciate your quirkier friends, acquaintances, coworkers, or family members. That is, of course, if they’re not off somewhere celebrating Measure Your Feet Day.

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Letting Go

December 29, 2015

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I carefully glued the gold-rimmed glass wing back onto one of the eagles that festooned the old serving dish. This is not the first time I have repaired it, but still it is important that I do so. It is the kind of item one might find in a second-hand store or rummage sale, something kept for years by its owner and later lovingly preserved by the family as a keepsake. Eventually, however, the time comes to let it go, and it finds itself in the hands of strangers.

But that is not the case with this one; not yet, at least.

This particular serving dish has also been lovingly kept, for it once belonged to the matriarch of my wife’s family, her grandmother. It is one of the few things that remain of her other than a few photos and the memories. The memories are clearly more important, but somehow we invest some part of the person in the cherished object, and it becomes hallowed. And that makes it hard to let go.

Many such things can be found in our house, small remnants of someone dear to us. Most are not functional or even displayed. However, just possessing them somehow retains a connection to that past existence.

There are the tools that belonged to my father, old wrenches, rusty saws, hammers with split handles, a rake with bent and broken tines. Though I have tools of my own, I can’t bring myself to part with these relics.

There is the sewing box of my mother, still filled with buttons of assorted sizes, shapes, and colors and the needles, thread, and thimbles with which to reattach them to long-gone apparel.

There are a few pieces of handiwork made by my nephew — a photo he took of High Point of which he was so proud, a now-faded layered sand painting in a cylindrical glass jar.

There is the heavy old black cast iron pan of my mother-in-law, well-worn from her many years as master of her kitchen, the diamond ring she bought at an auction in Atlantic City after she stepped into the auction hall just to get out of the heat.

And the serving dish with the eagles, broken wing now repaired.

As difficult as it is to let go of these things we hold onto, it is even more difficult to let go of that which is more abstract — the idea of who we were as age forces us to lose those transient qualities and abilities we once possessed, the very presence of others who have left the impermanence of this existence.

I have been thinking about this problem of letting go for several reasons. It is the closing of the year, this month in which the year itself meets its end. December can be for many a month of both joyful celebration as well as bittersweet nostalgia. It is the month that too many people special to me have departed this life: my young nephew, my mother, my wife’s mother. It is a time of nostalgia, a time of longing for what once was but is no more.

And though this is a reality we know we must accept, we are not immune to this ache that arrives unannounced and shrouds our hearts. So we hold on to what we can and grieve for the loss of what we can’t. We eventually let go little by little as time goes by, and perhaps that is the only way in which we finally make our peace.

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The Hourglass

October 19, 2015

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“The more sand that has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.” ― Jean-Paul Sartre

Seeing one’s life clearly is never an easy task, even as the passing years mount. I have entered a period of deep reflection brought on by the startling deaths of two friends and furthered by my recent birthday. Both of these heightened my awareness of mortality, and both prompted thoughts about my own life.

So today on this Evaluate Your Life Day, I shall attempt to do that in some small way.

My life has been that of a teacher. It has been my calling and passion for as long as I can remember and my reality since I have been an adult. But when I look back, I dwell on my shortcomings, and I am often filled with regret by thoughts of my failures and disappointment over what I should have done differently or better, even if those things were in actuality beyond my ability to change.

I think back to my Peace Corps days in the Philippines walking through the abject poverty of the slums of Manila and the outstretched needy hands I walked by, the total destruction of the typhoons that swept through the islands with little help forthcoming while I had a safe place to be and food to eat, the bare schoolhouses in the barrios filled with children who lived with no electricity or running water that I was supposed to be helping. I walked through the village in which I lived knowing that my $75 a month salary made me the richest person there. I should have done more.

I think of my early years teaching in Newark, thirty-five kids before me in the classroom with a dearth of materials, an idealistic young teacher knowing the bleak path that lay before so many of those wide-eyed youngsters living in tenements where often several children slept in the same bed, no desk at which to study, no books on a shelf to read, surrounded by alcohol, drugs, and violence. I found myself in a war against disadvantage and poverty. I should have battled longer.

I think of those students in Rutherford who I did not reach, the athletes on the teams I coached that I failed to help, the colleagues with whom I worked that I might have done more for. I think of the times I could have shown more patience, better judgment, a cooler head, or simple kindness but did not. I should have tried harder.

I feel the weight of each person I let down, and I am ashamed.

But in the wake of the recent death of my good friend and on the day of my birthday I received some wonderful messages from former students. I am grateful to them for their kind words for they lifted my spirits at a time when I needed it, and they filled my heart. I think they helped give me a perspective of my own life in a way that I could never do on my own.

One of them spoke of the common phenomenon of carrying things unsaid inside and how it sometimes takes drastic circumstances to finally articulate them. I understand this, for I have done it far too often myself.

On the occasion of my retirement, I wrote a letter in which I did articulate many of the unsaid things I kept within me through all my years of teaching. I repeat them now for they remain true, and though they may not be the evaluation I find so difficult to make even as the sand continues to escape my hourglass, they lay bare my ideals and the standards I held for myself. I can only hope I lived up to them at least some of the time.

Here is what I had — and still have — to say:

I have always felt unable to evaluate myself as a teacher or what I had or had not accomplished. I don’t know for sure what I did, but I do know what I wanted.

In my classroom I wanted to be Hendrix, Coltrane, Picasso. I wanted to be Holden Caulfield protecting children from harm as they wandered in their reverie too close to the edge of the cliff, to protect the vulnerable and the innocent and relieve the pain that circumstance so often has inflicted upon them. I wanted to disperse the tenderness of those who give comfort in times of need.

I wanted my students to recognize the power, the beauty, the joy, the mystery of language. I wanted them to understand that those weren’t just words on a page, the drudgery of the school kid’s routine, but were the wisdom, the experience, the heart and spirit of another human being and that somewhere out there exists a story or poem or novel or play that will reach into them and shake their very souls. I wanted them to know that the sometimes seemingly futile search is worth it.

I wanted them to be exposed to writing of all sizes, shapes, and origins beyond those contained within school books, to know that there is a sea of possibility beyond the horizon they are used to. I wanted them to meet and come to know Atticus and Jem and Scout, Romeo and Juliet, Buddy and his dear old cousin not just as answers to trivia questions but as beings that exist within them.

I wanted those who sat before me to open their eyes, see the world as it was, as it is, as it might be. I wanted them to recognize that improving one’s own skills in the art of using our wonderful, wacky language will contribute to the ability to express the unique and invaluable perspectives of what they see.

I wanted school not to be fear and boredom, but enlightenment, acceptance, and in those best of times, magic. I wanted to be of service to others, to be useful, to make some kind of difference in this life.

And I still do.

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A World Without

October 5, 2015

There is the world, and then there are our worlds. The world is populated by billions of people. Our worlds are populated by a number vastly smaller, and a smaller number still who are essential to us, people it would be hard to imagine being without.

Now we are without Tony. And the feeling is numbing.

How could this possibly be?

Tony was an unforgettable teacher who I had the great privilege of working with for over two decades, a master director of plays and purveyor of literature for countless fortunate students. He was a valuable mentor who shared insights about this delicate art called teaching. He was a loving husband and father and grandfather.

And Tony was my friend. How could all of us who shared in his life be without him?

I think of all those stories told and retold over lunch at school, the always-ready wit that rang of truth, the common everyday conversations about work and family and life that replay in my mind with such clarity in spite of the time gone by. And I miss these now even more in this world without.

The world goes on as it always has done and always will. Even our own worlds go on, but never quite the same, for though these endings are an inevitable part of our existence that must be accepted, the pain and sorrow of our world without is hard to endure.

But endure we will, and through our fond remembrances we honor him. All of those whose lives have been made better for having known Tony — and that number is great indeed — now feel such intense loss. However, though we are left in a world without, our memories of Tony are his lasting gifts to each of us whose life he touched, and for that we should remain forever grateful.

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