Good-Bye Yellow Brick Road

I haven’t been to a concert in a very long time so I got excited when a friend from my college days secured tickets to see Elton John when he comes to Louisville as part of his farewell tour. I am not one to be all gushy or over admiring towards celebrities so as I danced around and smiled from ear to ear I had to ask myself why? What’s the big deal?

My first thought as that I grew up with Elton John songs. A more accurate description is that his songs hold over half of the spots on the playlist of my life. You could say say I grew up and grew old with these songs.

This crocodile doesn’t seem to be rocking.

The year was 1972 and I was ten-years-old and I was hopping and bopping to the Crocodile Rock. Really. My family was taking square dancing lessons, which I secretly enjoyed, but the teens had a dance to Elton’s hit and it was much more lively and fun. There was also an older boy who didn’t have a partner and he would ask me to dance when Crocodile Rock came on. I don’t recall having a crush on him but being on the floor moving to the music with the older teens made me feel like somebody.

Elton’s first Greatest Hits Album quickly joined my collection and was played over and over, all the way through, both sides. I could sing every word of Rocket Man and Honky Cat. My favorite, even though my sister laughed and said I was a dork, was Border Song. It remains in my personal top-ten Elton songs.

I had heard bits and pieces of grown up conversations about Marilyn Monroe and JFK. I knew my mother was a JFK fan but frowned on Ms. Monroe. Candle in the Wind, gave me pause at age twelve. I decided we are much more than than our mistakes and our desire to belong. Perhaps for the first time in my young life I started trying to see past the surface of people.

Soon Lucy in the Sky and The Bitch is Back were climbing the charts. I have to say they aren’t among my favorites, but at twelve years old, I could belt out the lyrics when my parents were out of earshot. I felt cosmopolitan and naughty in a way only a twelve year old can.

I was also the weird pre-teen that appreciated, Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding. It remains, although as a tie, as my all time favorite Elton tune.

Fast forward to 1985, the year I got married. The soloist sang a sweet song by Chicago for the wedding. As my husband and I drove to Florida for our honeymoon it seemed like every radio station kept playing, I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues. By the time our week was ending he looked at me and said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I think that’s our song.” I admitted I was thinking the very same thing. Despite the title, the song is romantic. It was from the Too Low for Zero album and it too was played so many times I still remember the order of the songs.

Ten years later, as the marriage ended, He told me that he now thought of me, and always would, when he listened to Cold as Christmas. I still love the songs and when I hear them now they remind me of the things that were good rather than the things that went wrong.

The other song that ties for my number one is Blessed that came out in 1995. I was a scared single mother that was determined her child would have everything he would have had without the divorce with the exception of both parents in the same house. Blessed became the mantra in my brain for raising my child.

My best friend in high school, perhaps my best friend ever, was a boy named Johnnie. Graduation night we had an argument over something that seemed important at the time and that I now know was trivial. Two weeks later he left for the Air Force and two months later I left for college. Life took us in different directions. With no Facebook or cell phones the apology never happened and we never saw one another again. I was in my mid-thirties when I learned that Johnnie had died several years prior. As I reflected on our friendship and bond during a conversation with my mom she commented how my dad had always said Johnnie wanted more than friendship. I said, No. It wasn’t like that.” In an effort to strengthen my case I stated, “I could have changed clothes in front of Johnnie.”

Who lived here? It must have been a gardener that cared a lot…

The reality crashed down on me. I didn’t know back in high school and perhaps Johnnie didn’t either, but I realized my dear friend was gay. In the days to come I would learn that I was right. It broke my heart when I learned that when he came out his entire family disowned him. My beautiful friend died from complications associated with HIV. No one from his family so much as called him. I was told he died in the arms of his long-term partner. At least he had that.

I grieved for the loss of both a friend and a friendship that ended way too soon. My heart still hurts when I imagine his pain from being cast out by his family. I still regret the support I never got to give to him. Empty Garden was written for John Lennon, but it will always bring back bitter sweet memories of my own dear Johnnie.

Another time I may just make my life’s playlist. Maybe we all should. What song(s) would be essential for your playlist and why?

Photo credit and appreciation to: Mohammd Metri, Julia Jim, Victoria Kure, Matthew Essman and Doug Kelley.

We are the People of Walmart

I am a sweaty, dirty, stinky mess from working in my yard while the brutal September sun beats down on me. I am five minutes away from completing the task and anticipating the luxury of a long shower and fresh clothes. It is at that moment that my weed-whacker runs out of line and I do not have a spare roll in the garage. I suppose lots of people would just stop and finish the task another day. For us type A folks that is not an option. I feel compelled to finish what I start. Here’s the dilemma; do I make a quick dash to Walmart, get the line and quickly finish the job or do I clean up first knowing that I will have to repeat the shower a second time after the work is done?

I am not a fan of wasted time so I opt for a very focused, very brief trip to the store. I enter through the garden department avoiding eye contact. I am a woman on a mission in stealth mode. Find string, buy string and not be seen by anyone that I have ever met in my entire life. In my imagination it played out easy and I was in the store less than three minutes. Ha!

“Where is the weed whacker string?” my mind screams as my eyes dart around what used to be the lawn and garden department but is now 80% full of Christmas trees and ginormous inflatable snow globes and Santa Clauses.

I spot an employee, let’s call him Waldo, that is also attempting to be in stealth mode. Waldo tries to pretend he has not heard me ask for help. Good luck with that sucker! I cut him off at the intersection of wrapping paper and and strings of LED icicles. “Yeah,” he mumbles, “I think we have some but it has been moved over near hardware. I’ll show you.”

Waldo, an underpaid hourly employee slowly meanders through what seems like twenty aisles The longer it takes to get to the weed-whacker string the fewer heavy boxes of artificial trees he will have to put on the shelves. During our journey to hardware I have no less than four people greet me and call me by name. Busted!

After a slow methodical search, Waldo finds the string that fits my particular brand and model of weed-whacker. I take off power walking towards the register only to find that it is closed forcing me to walk to the front of the store to pay for the string.

Before I make it back to my car I see at least 6 more people that recognize me and call me by name. I don’t like that I am still easy to recognize wearing my old Eagles concert t-shirt that has had the sleeves amputated, shorts, shorter than what I would normally ever wear on any property I don’t own, and old athletic shoes stained green from grass clippings. That is when reality slaps me in the face. Yup, I am a person of Wal-mart.

Many years prior, just out of college and living in my first apartment I had to visit a laundry-mat to wash my clothes. This wasn’t totally foreign to me since for financial reasons I had lived in a dormitory throughout college. Students used the laundry mat located in the basement of each building. The main difference, that I didn’t appreciate at that time, was that we were all students, all women and while I occasionally heard about someone having clothing stolen, such reports were the exception not the rule.

The real world laundry mat had a more diverse population. Going to the laundry mat for many was a family outing. Smart phone and tablets wouldn’t be invented for years so with the absence of technology moms and dads talked or argued loudly about that things that should have remained private. Toddlers ran around the machines their bare feet slapping the dirty tile. Most wearing only a disposable diaper. Older kids played demolition derby with the laundry carts while munching on Twinkies.

It was loud and stuffy and I learned quickly to take a book and pretend to read. That didn’t stop others from trying to engage me in conversation but it helped a little. I know it sounds snobby, I apologize, but some of the folks were really creepy. I once had a man compliment my panties as I was moving items from the washing machine to the dryer. Eeewww! He went so far as to peer through the glass door of the dryer as my undies flipped around and then he turned and smiled at me!

I called my mom later in the day and she asked what I had done that morning. “I did my laundry. Mom, I don’t like the people I see at the laundry mat.” I griped. My mother has always had a knack for getting straight to the point and putting me in my place. “Well sweetheart,” she replied, “You may not like them but you are one of them.”

We can be a little (or a lot) judgmental at times so let’s remember that unless you never (never ever) go to Walmart, then just like me, you are a person of Walmart!

Starfish, Sand and Ripples

 Many of the little things we do to show kindness and caring to others go unnoticed and even more are quickly forgotten.  For the most part, it isn’t a big deal; we are guilty too. Two days ago, I needed a special, hard to find bolt for a home project. I finally found it at an independent local store (Dal R’s) where they refused payment since it was such an inexpensive item.  Despite being very touched by their kindness, I also admit that if I saw the clerk again today I wouldn’t remember his face.

  Early in my career when I was still a newbie to the counseling profession, I found that I was struggling with the fact that not every student that came to me for guidance or therapy walked out with the knowledge, skill or mindset to improve their circumstances.  I had become a counselor to help others and when I failed it troubled me.

   I remember one young man in particular named James. He was a self-referred sixth-grader. Back in the early 90’s it wasn’t common for upper elementary boys to self-refer.  I don’t recall what was happening in his life that prompted him to ask for weekly sessions; what I recall is my feelings. My best efforts didn’t seem to be enough; I wasn’t able to help him get where he wanted to go, or so I thought.

This went on for several weeks, perhaps months. I couldn’t refer James to another counselor because I was the only one assigned to the small rural school. Referring him to a community counselor was also out of the question because he had made it clear that he didn’t want his parents to know he was talking to me about his problems. I didn’t give up on James but perhaps more importantly, he didn’t give up on me.

  I finally asked Alan, another counselor that I had become friends with during graduate school, if he had ever had a student that he just couldn’t reach.  He admitted to having the same experience from time to time. “How do you deal with it?” I asked.

No matter how tightly you grasp sand, some of it will slip through your fingers.

   Alan told me that counseling our students was, in some ways, like grasping a handful of sand.  No matter how hard you try, some of the grains of sand will slip through your fingers. You can use all of your energy to worry about those or you can focus on the ones still in your hand; the ones you can still touch.

   I accepted that theory and it helped me.  It was spring and when school let out for summer vacation, James stopped by for one final session.  He would start middle school across town when the summer break ended. He didn’t get emotional but asked if there was any chance I would be willing to change jobs when school resumed. It was a high compliment; still, I told him it wasn’t likely.

   Summer break, short as always, ended and school resumed.  The middle school students, my former “kids”, rode buses back to their previous elementary school, where they switched buses to ride in the ones that would deliver them to their homes. I had hall duty rather than bus duty so I didn’t get to see James or my other former students during those brief moments of transition. From time to time I would think about James and hope that he was okay.

   Two years passed, I no longer had hall duty at the end of the day. Typically I used that time to finish up notes and straighten my office for the next day.  I was at my desk with my back to the hall when I heard a voice asking, “You don’t remember me do you?”

  I turned around and saw a much more mature version of the student I had worked with when he was a sixth grader. “Of course I remember you, James!”  I was happy that he thought of me and took the time to say hello.

  He gave me a sheepish smile and admitted that he had told the busdriver he needed to use the bathroom as an excuse to come into the building and quickly try to locate me before the buses left again.  “Do you remember when I used to come talk to you?” I said I did and to my surprise, James very sincerely stated, “I probably never told you, but it really helped me.” He didn’t have time to say more and dashed out the door just in time to load the waiting bus.  I have never seen James again.

   All the time that I thought I wasn’t helping him, thinking I was failing him, I was wrong.  In that moment, knowing I had been wrong was the best thing that had happened to me in a very long time.

   The sand analogy, while pretty cool, may not be the best one for those of us that make our living in one of the helping professions.  Instead, our work may be more like the story of a man that is walking along a beach that is heavily littered with stranded starfish. As he walks, he picks them up one at time, tossing them back into the ocean.  When his companion tells him it is impossible to save them all, that his efforts are futile, he responds by tossing yet another starfish back into the sea and remarking, “Yes, but I saved that one.”

   Some of our good intentions go unnoticed and sometimes our best efforts fail.  There is another angle to keep in mind. James gave me a gift. He made me realize that we don’t always get to see the fruits of our good works but that doesn’t diminish the sweetness to those that reap the harvest. I venture to say that, James has no idea that in thanking me for helping him, he helped me.

  I am challenging myself to be mindful off this, especially when others treat me with disrespect or are intentionally hurtful. If I can see past their behavior in the moment, to where perhaps a broken spirit resides, then I might just be able to choose a reaction that doesn’t further break them. 

  As we go about our lives this week, I hope you will join me on this quest;  the quest of the ripple effect brought on from human interactions. We help or we hurt and most of the time we have no idea how far our ripple travels and how many lives are touched. I set off a small ripple for James and it returned to me as a wave. That is why I want to try harder to be a helper instead of a hurter. The difference I make might be compared to giving first aid rather than a cure but isn’t that better than twisting the knife sticking out of someone’s back?

Be well, my friends. If you enjoy my blog, please pass it on to your friends.

Photo credit to the following: Deepak Mahajan, Ian Dooley, Pedro Lastra and Amy Humphries.

The Truth

 I don’t claim to be an artist so go ahead and laugh at the little sketch I have posted.  I am tough like that. I will use it to tell a story that I think you will enjoy and perhaps you will even share it with your children or grandchildren since it teaches or reminds us of something we all need to know.

 Question 1.  What is this thing that I have attempted to draw?  If you answered a sheep or lamb you are correct and just became a prized pupil for you wisdom and willingness to give an answer.  If you said it is a poodle or some other kind of dog I will also count that as correct since, as I already stated, I’m not an artist.

 Now how many legs does this creature have?  Grab a scrap of paper and jot down your answer.  If other family, friends or coworkers are nearby at this time you may ask them also and record their answers just to add to the fun.

 Did you say four?  Tomorrow is April Fool’s Day but this really is not a trick question.  The answer is four.

 Now, look at the next picture.  See where I added an arrow pointing to the appendage over the sheep’s fluffy little butt?  If I call that a leg, how many legs does the sheep have now? Jot down you answer and if you have engaged others in this little exercise ask them as well and record their answers.  Resist having a discussion for the moment, we’ll come back to that in a few minutes.

  Let’s talk about something else for a few minutes.

 If  you enjoy rumors, half truths and false news either raise your hand or shout out Amen!  Imagine the teacher, scanning the room right now looking for hands or listening for exclamations.  No one?

 Some highly honest student might say, ” It depends.”  If the rumor or half truth is about someone we do not like then we might feel a touch glib and savor the nastiness. We may believe that our adversary deserves for the world to know about their shortcomings or crimes.

 Some other less judgmental listeners might choose to neither believe nor disbelieve the rumor and assume a, let’s wait and see attitude.  Maybe you are part of this group and if so, good for you for not jumping to conclusions.

 What if you hear the same information again from someone else the next day.  Perhaps you keep hearing it from various sources. What if some of those sources are people you know and trust?  Perhaps you hear it from your spouse, parent or an esteemed member from your church, maybe your best friend? What if you read it in a newspaper or it is put on social media and/or television by a major news source?

 Imagine that you keep hearing and reading this and you do not hear anyone voicing an opposing opinion?  If everyone you know says it is fact do you accept it as fact?

 Most of you probably see where I am going with this.  I used this same little sketch in years past with third graders to teach a lesson.  Do you want to know how it played out?

 Most of the time the kids, anywhere from 22 to 30 in a class would agree that the drawing was a sheep.  If one or two wanted to argue that it was a poodle they quickly changed their minds when a classmate pointed out that the creature has hooves and dogs do not.

 I would guess that over the years I probably taught this lesson 40-50 times, maybe more.  I never had a child disagree, when I first asked how many legs the sheep had. Every time the answer four was unanimous for the entire class.  After that things sometimes changed a little, but not often.

 When I pointed to the tail and asked, “If I call this a leg, how many legs does the the sheep have now?”  Almost every time the kids would quickly and with great delight answer, “Five!” They felt like my questions were really easy compared to their other third grade questions they did not shy away from answering.  I could tell they were feeling very confident.

 Out of the 40 to 50 times I presented the lesson, 3 to 4 times, a student would continue to say the sheep only had four legs.  At that point I would ask them if they were sure. I never told them they were wrong, instead, I would point to each leg in the sketch and ask everyone to count with me.  “One, two, three, four”, then I would again point at the creature’s poofy appendage just over it’s little butt and I would repeat, “If I call this a leg, how many legs does it have now?”  Almost always the child caved under the pressure and said that the sheep had five legs. If they didn’t I would ask another student to explain why they said five, (Note, I never said five was correct).

 Only twice in all those lessons did I have a student that stuck with saying the sheep only had four legs. Two kids out of approximately 1,250.

 Be honest, what answer did you write down? Did you write 4 or 5?

If you said 3, 6 or any other number I can recommend a good therapist, tutor or both. Many years ago when I taught seventh and eighth grade math my favorite joke (that I could tell at school) was; There are three kinds of people in the world, those that can do math and those that can’t.  If you don’t get it, it will probably hit you ten minutes from now, or if it doesn’t just accept that you are not mathematically gifted.

 The answer is four and the lesson is not about math.  Even if I, as the teacher, call a tail a leg that does not change it.  It is still a tail. If everyone in the class calls it a leg, it is still a tail.  If your mom, dad, favorite news source or the candidate you voted for calls it a leg, it doesn’t change anything.  It is a tail.

 The truth is not determined by popular vote, the number of retweets or even by what your family and friends believe.  W. Clement Stone said, “The truth will always be the truth, regardless of lack of understanding, disbelief, or ignorance.  He’s right.

 The kids loved this lesson and I always asked them to go home and reteach it to their families.  I knew that if they did they would remember it for a much longer period of time. Some years when the kids were 5th graders, their last year in elementary school, I would ask if they had a favorite lesson that I had taught to them during our six years together.  The sheep lesson and the the tail that I tried to call a leg was always mentioned as one they enjoyed and remembered.

 Even now that I am retired, sometimes when I read or hear information that is questionable I remind myself of the lesson and I do my homework to try to dig out the truth.

 Winston Churchill said this, “The truth is inconvertible.  Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, There it is.”

 As always thank you for reading and following.  Share the sheep lesson with someone and please comment so I know how it turns out for you.

Photos provided by yours truly, sam-carter-11916, antoine – dautry -428776 and luke-stackpole-698661 on unsplash.com