Looks Can Be Deceiving

The author in 1968.

            I recently came across my high school graduation photo from 1968. Granted, it was taken a long time ago, but I still recall how I felt. That time in my life was filled with confused emotions. I was excited about college, but knew nothing in my situation would change because my parents would only allow me to attend the local community college. That meant continuing to live at home, which was not an experience to look forward to.

            I’ve shared stories of what my life was like back then. Let’s suffice it to say that I was miserable. I understood that something was wrong at home, but I lacked the words or experience to understand what it was. As I aged and my knowledge base expanded, I learned the words.

            My mother smothered me and my dad terrified me. I was a middle child, close in age to an older brother who tormented, teased and at times, physically hurt me. I was many years older than a sister who commanded my mother’s attention and could manipulate mom into believing fantastical stories about the evil things I did when mom wasn’t looking.

            My sort-of-safe world was school. No one teased me there because I was invisible. My clothes were made from recycled material, pieces cut out of hand-me-down clothes. My mother chose the styles, so everything was old-fashioned and ultraconservative. I wore saddle shoes that had gone out of style years earlier but they were the only ones I was allowed to have.

            When I look at that photo I see a young woman with a forced smile. She’s showing just enough teeth to categorize it as a smile, but not enough to show joy. The woman is wearing wing-tip glasses which were in vogue back then and her hair is teased and lacquered in a somewhat popular style.

            When the photo appeared in the yearbook, anyone flipping through the pages might stop for a moment and wonder about the pearls. Would they think my family had that kind of money or that they were a gift from a relative? Or would they correctly surmise that they were a studio prop? Assuming they guess correctly that I never owned something so fine, then they might be able to see through the mask.

            I walked the high school halls as a nobody. Academics distinguished me from my peers, but in a social world, I blended into the bricks. To the best of my ability I styled my hair in a contemporary do. I was allowed to choose glass frames similar to what others wore.

            However my physical presence exacted no reaction. No smiles, nods, or words of greeting. I was alone. For four years.

            Is that loneliness reflected in my eyes? In the fake smile? The tilt of my head?

            I think it is, but then I walked in those shoes. All I wanted then was for someone to see me as a valuable human being, worthy to be called friend. Because of my poor self-esteem ingrained and reinforced at home I lacked the ability to initiate a relationship. The person would have to speak first, look my way first, nod first, wave me over first.

But who would want to do that? In high school you are who you are friends with. Anyone wanting to be known would not have called me over. You don’t invite a nobody into your social circle if you’re hoping to rise the ladder. My presence would either have knocked them down a rung or held them on the floor with one foot raised.

You didn’t know me then, so when you look at the picture you see a happy soon-to-graduate girl who’s got her hair done, a smile on her face and a glint in her eyes.

Looks can be deceiving.

He Smiled

Imagine being able to say that OJ Simpson once smiled at me!  Guess what? It really happened. This is the story of my “brush” with the famous.

When I transferred to the University of Southern California in the fall of 1968, I knew little about college football.  At the time, I was soon to discover, USC was an athletic powerhouse, thanks to a phenomenal bunch of handpicked athletes in a variety of sports. The Trojans dominated in football, men’s and women’s basketball and swimming.  Not only that, but their track and field teams were equally strong due to multisport athletes.

Football begins the season. Banners covered surfaces all across the campus. Rallies were held every day and when the teams weren’t at home, all ears were tuned to the radio. You either followed the sports or you were an outcast. It was that simple.

The athletes, no matter what sport or how great they were, dominated the social life of the campus. Partying to celebrate their successes was a nightly affair since some team played almost every day, whether at home or away. If they weren’t off playing or pratcicing, they strutted their stuff around campus, practically oozing greatness.

I quickly learned the “culture,” of partying. There was a booze-filled affair the night before a game, partying during the game, and another party after the game, all in celebration of a victory won or a record broken. And if you didn’t find what you were looking for at one party, all you had to do was stroll down fraternity row to find another. This was especially important if you didn’t like the booze being served or the music thundering out onto the street.

None of the better-known athletes lived in the Greek houses and few had their own apartments. Instead they had their own dorm which was shielded from the peasants by locked doors and glazed windows.  It was rumored that their meal options weren’t the standard bland food that the rest of us got: instead legend had it that they feasted on huge, juicy steaks, fresh vegetables and a cornucopia of cheeses and desserts.

When they had nothing better to do they swaggered about campus in their lettermen jackets emblazoned with every type of recognition (except for a noticeable lack of academic awards). That’s not to say they weren’t capable, but at that time, achievements on the field or court were what kept them at college, not the grades received or classes taken.

With their rippling muscles, impossibly broad shoulders, and over-confident leers dished out to fawning fans, they stood far above the crowd. And they knew it.

Periodically small groups of “stars” strolled through my dining hall, snickering at the dismal fare splattered on institutional grade plates and trays.  I imagined that they had just dined on mounds of steak cooked to perfection, served with steaming mashed potatoes and crisp fresh greens.

Equality among students did not exist and there was no pretense of leveling the playing field, because the athletes were, literally, the bread and butter of university funding.  The stronger the athletes, the more likely the university would rack up victories, which then correlated to increased donations from alumni.

If I hadn’t been awed by their very presence, I should have despised the athletes for they were the epitome of all that I was not.  My family was low income which qualified me for a rather generous “pity” scholarship from the state of California. Without that gift I would not have been at such a prestigious college as USC.  But, like the vast majority of students, I didn’t hate the arrogant athletes, but rather worshipped the ground they walked on.

One evening, in a rather unusual move for me, I got as dressed up as I could and went downstairs where a dance was being held in the cafeteria.  I am not sure what possessed me to go as I was a horrific dancer.  I was also painfully shy and so operated solo the vast majority of the time, in classes as well as while on campus.

I did have friends, academics like me, but more extreme for their heads dwelt more in the clouds than in reality.  None of them were what I considered marriageable as they were more interested in finding a spouse to complete a given responsibility than having a relationship of equals. But, like any teenager, I yearned to have a boyfriend.  The dance “called” my name, speaking to me of an opportunity to meet, greet and date and so I went.

The dining hall had been transformed, as much as possible, into a disco dance hall.  With lights down low, revolving points of light danced across the walls, creating an eerie spectacle of glowing, gyrating bodies.  It wasn’t Halloween, but the bizarre lighting gave off the same feel.

The music was ear-shattering making it impossible to do more than look at all the beautiful people.  I meandered about the perimeter of the room with a plastic smile glued to my face, hoping that just one person would nod kindly in my direction. Once my circuit was completed with no takers found, I wanted nothing more but to leave this place of loneliness among confusion.

I headed toward the door, but just as I got within sight of the doorjamb, the crowd parted as miraculously as the Red Sea.  In walked none other than OJ Simpson, flanked by two humongous football players.

OJ was an incredibly handsome man with an earthy skin tone that spoke of roots, faithfulness, integrity, and family.  His eyes sparkled and a shy smile gave a sensuous lift to his lips.  I saw no semblance of arrogance, but warmth.

Like the rest of the crowd, I stood transfixed, enjoying simply being in the presence of greatness.  This was OJ’s year, the year he earned the Heisman Trophy, broke a number of records, and was first pick in the professional football draft.  Everyone knew that he was bound for the record halls and that his name would be spoken around the world.

As the trio neared me I was shoved back into the crowd.  I didn’t mind, for I intrinsically knew that these men were well beyond my social reach.  What I didn’t expect or count on was being seen.

As O’s greatness neared me, his eyes glanced in my direction and he smiled.  Not an I-want-to-talk-to-you smile, but one that recognized me as a fellow human being.  Since the contact was short-lived, I realized that there was the possibility that the greeting wasn’t even meant for me.  I acknowledged that OJ was simply flashing his famous smile at everyone, sort of like the priest sprinkling Holy Water over the congregation in a quick pass down the aisle.

Even though I knew that the encounter meant nothing to OJ, I stood a little taller and felt a tad more important than I had before.  It was a moment that I will never forget.

What is a Friend?

A true friend is a gift from God.

No more, no less.

 

Ears, eyes, heart

finely tuned

to every thought

action

need

 

A friend seeks balance,

craving only that which

is offered

and not one drop more

 

Giving, sharing

even the smallest things.

A warm hug,

kiss, smile

 

A friend knows when

to step up

and when to step down.

Never pushing or demanding

 

Reaching fingers

with open palm.

Electric energy pulsing

across the gap,

joining two strangers

into one compact unit.

 

A friend asks for nothing,

but is grateful

when something

drips into the heart,

warming the soul’s

ties.

 

Prayers offered

and heard.

Thanks given

for the smallest

of gestures

 

A friend is all

and more.

      Radiant Vision

The sun arose and filled my eyes

With heavenly glory personified

 

Tears down my face did solemnly pour

I stood transfixed, and begged for more

 

Golden rays lit up the new morn sky

With brilliant spectacle for the eye

 

With mouth agape I did profoundly stare

And wonder what God’s doing up there

 

To me He gave such wondrous gift

That my poor spirit felt tremendous lift

 

To my knees I should have promptly fallen

But I did not: though I heard Him callin’

 

Frozen in place with feet on the soil

I praised the Lord’s amazing toil

 

For humankind: to free our souls

From worries: to give us lofty goals

 

Reaching deeply into my empty purse

I feared God’s wrath, or maybe worse

 

Instead my heart did nearly burst

With joy: I knew I was not cursed

 

The sun arose and filled my eyes

With heavenly glory personified

 

 

Born to Shine

Imagine how different the world would be if every child, no matter how rich or poor, heard those words on a regular basis. Think about how special they would feel after their guardian tucked them in at night and spoke those words.

There might be no bullies because, if you feel worthy, you have no need to belittle others. No one would be afraid of trying new things, of being rejected, of being pushed aside.

What a beautiful place the world would be!

As a child I never felt special in any positive way. What if my mom had told me that I was born to shine? Would I have been a different child? Would my attitude toward school have been different? My grades better? When meeting people, would I have been more outgoing because that confidence sat on my shoulders?

I know that I never said those words to my children. I wish I had. I did, however, sign them up for classes and swim lessons and sports hoping that they would discover something that they could enjoy for the rest of their lives. I helped with schoolwork and met with some of their teachers. I volunteered at their schools, as a team mom in little league, as a scorekeeper in baseball and as a soccer coach and referee. I did these things because I wanted to share those experiences with them, but also because I enjoyed it.

Born to Shine. Powerful words. My children grew up to be wonderful adults. They all contribute to society in different ways, yes, but they are helping future generations shine.

If I could go back in time, instead of reading books aloud as I cradled my kids, I would tell them that they were born to shine. As I watched them struggle in sports or academics, I’d say those words and then watch the effect they had.

Even though I don’t recall a single word of praise or encouragement, I told myself that I was born to shine. Perhaps not in those exact words, but the message was the same. Often I thought I was lying to myself, but I persevered nonetheless. When I was feeling inferior to my siblings, I’d think of the things that I could do better than them.

For example, I was the better athlete at a time when girls played few sports. I picked up languages quite quickly and enjoyed learning about different places and cultures. I was an excellent math student, so good that I got a full-ride scholarship.

But I also struggled with self-esteem and self-confidence. What if my dad had told me I was born to shine? Those words would have meant more to me than a bucket of gold. I would have known that he saw something valuable in me. My self-esteem would have risen. I wold have liked myself better.

Born to shine. I wish that every parent would say those words to their kids, no matter how old. Over and over, look them in the eye and say born to shine. Pat them on the back, give them a hug, turn it into a song. Say the words weekly, daily, hour by hour.

Slowly, ever so slowly the world would change.

Born to shine. Power.

I am More than a Body

Look beneath the sunny smile

And stay awhile.

What do you see?

The real me.

 

Dig under my nails and skin

To find the soul within.

What do you see?

Lonely me.

 

Reach for the hidden being

Well beyond seeing.

What do you see?

Tearful me.

 

Wipe away the measured words

That belie fluttering birds.

What do you see?

Worried me.

 

Remove the tightly wound bars

To give my wondrous stars

So I can be

Truly free.

 

Spring the trap that binds.

Unloose the tie that winds.

What do you see?

Ecstatic me.

  Sing Today

Music calls me

To fly with angels

In an azure sky

With gossamer wings

And crowns of golden filigree

 

Cymbals, harps, and lutes

Create magical tunes

Giving glory to God

And all His mighty works

Music of the soul

Heavenly prayers

 

Voices lift in harmony

Filling God’s ears with

Sound rejoicing

Blending, splitting, lifting

Toward heaven in

Wondrous rapture

 

Joining in mysterious

Psalms choruses praise

God day and night

Filling my soul

With delight

 

Praise God all ye peoples

Of the earth

Join in perfect harmony

Sing with me today

Alleluia!  Alleluia!

      Mountains of Dreams

Majestic mountains with snow-capped peaks

touch a baby-blue sky dotted with puffy clouds

like fingers brushing God’s eyes, cleansing air.

White dusted pines march up and down slopes

erect as soldiers, as still as statues bearing arms,

free from smoky campfires and slow-moving cars.

Half-frozen lakes rimmed with white ice,

idle now from summer’s pleasures,

enjoying peaceful rest and rehabilitation.

Winter-tolerant birds call quietly, snug in nests

hidden in tall trees, protected from wind’s chill blasts.

Fragile-boned winter-thinned deer huddle under low branches

ever watchful, ever dreaming of green fields and sunny days.

Bright white hares frozen in place, noses twitching, on alert.

 

Silence broken by crunching footsteps marking time,

clapping gloved hands, and occasional muffled words.

Breath steams, creating human-bred clouds that rise

to greet the day, the mountains, life-giving air,

giving substance to dreams that otherwise vaporize

into nothingness, dispelling fears and chasing away

omens of ills that might come to the unwary.

Blessed mountains with snow-capped peaks

reminders of the glory, the majesty, the grandeur

of the world entrusted to our hands to keep, to protect,

to save for generations and generations to come.

The Car

Driving home, the freeway jammed

Even the diamond land crammed.

Cruise ships seeking safe repose,

Passengers fighting off woes.

 

Fingers white around the wheel.

Hearts forgetting how to feel.

Tunnels permanently blocked.

Wooden doors steadfastly locked.

 

Hopeless, dreamless,zombie-like

Pounding in the golden spike

Absolute sincerity

Wallows in simplicity.

 

Disaster looms up ahead.

Patterns melt the tangled thread.

Revolutionaries sway

Blinkers indicate the way.

 

Arterial trends emerge.

Widens an expansive urge.

Switching lanes has come too fast.

Now forgetting all the past.

 

Exit sign soon arises

Throwing off all disguises.

Speeding in direction shown

Indicates a welcome home.

 

My Plea for Help

In the humdrum sameness

of my everyday life,

as teacher, mother,

sister, and wife

words have fled

causing undo strife,

piercing my heart like

an unsharpened knife

Oh, please, someone

come and rescue me.

Open my eyes that

I soon may see.

Fill my soul with

words: set me free

that I may write

what’s meant to be.

Why have the words

all flown away?

What did I do

to them betray

my inmost thoughts,

my flight from fray.

Come back to me,

without delay

Like a wee small child

I scream and shout.

throw all my pens

and toss about

long empty pages

lines, words without

hoping that soon

I’ll merit clout.

Tell me, please,

how to live again

with words and rhymes

flowing free like rain.

Send down a storm

to complete my brain.

I need you now.

That much is plain.