My Last Leaf

On this the first day of the autumnal equinox, it seems the right time to reprint this post, first published in October, 2019.

When I was a young teenager, around the ages of 13 and 14, I was enamored of the stories of O’Henry. I thrilled to the surprise endings, and, being of an emotional age group, I loved the almost sappy sentimentality of many of the stories, as well as the rollicking humor. No matter how badgered and belittled O’Henry’s stories were and often still are by literary critics (all of whom probably have some type of stick up their butts), I enjoy these rare little gems to this day. If I could find somewhere a book containing all 600-some of O’Henry’s short stories, I wouldn’t jib for a minute at the cost; I’d purchase it immediately. For years I’ve found that, when my world seems dreary to the point of misery and difficult beyond bearing, I can turn to the pages of my old O’Henry books and escape to that world of 100 years ago: to love and laughter and surprise. Each year on Christmas eve, I re-read The Gift of the Magi, always feeling my throat tighten and tears sparkling behind my eyes as I reach the well-known ending.

But love The Gift of the Magi as I most certainly do, one of my favorite O’Henry stories is one less well known: The Last Leaf. If you have never read it, then I will not give away the ending; you must find it on-line somewhere and read it for yourself. Suffice it to say, though, that I have thought of that story many times in the 50-odd years since I first read it—thought of it, and of the lessons it taught my young self about surrender and survival, courage and compassion,  true talent and recognition, ultimate sacrifice, and genuine acts of love.  But The Last Leaf  wasn’t really on my mind a few weeks ago as I trotted out my front door to wander down the drive and pick up my mail from the box. I didn’t really get very far on my mission, for as I stepped down from the porch to the walk, I glanced at the ground and saw a single fallen autumn leaf.IMG_20191004_170142266

It was astonishingly beautiful. It could not have fallen from any of the nearby trees, all of which are soft maples, so it had to have been swept there on the wind—swept to just that perfect, bare patch of earth where I would glance down and see it.

I stooped and picked up the leaf, turning it gently in my hands, holding it to the soft and fading afternoon light. Had I been a Millennial, I suppose I would have just reached for my phone and snapped a photo of the leaf, posted it to various social media and picture sites, and gone on my merry way. But a Millennial I am not; I stopped for the leaf.  I picked it up and held it and admired it—communed with it, if you will. I don’t know how long I stood there, enjoying its delicate beauty and amazed by the fact that it had lain there, waiting for me, but I do know that for as long as I stood there, holding that leaf, wondering over its brilliant colors and tracing the tiny veins with my finger—for those moments, I was mindful. Truly mindful. My last leaf became a meditation of sorts.

Eventually, I continued on my way down the drive to pick up my mail…but I did not let go of my leaf. I carried it with me, brought it into my house, and finally photographed it, so that I would have not just a reminder of its beauty, but of those few moments when the world slipped away and I became genuinely one with the Spirit of Nature.

It was then that I recalled the O’Henry story The Last Leaf, and considered that this little gift from the gods and goddesses of Autumn had waited there to teach me a lesson that I–that we all–too often forget: to stop. To stop for just one moment, and be mindful. To notice. To marvel and wonder and admire, for just an instant, all the incredible, astounding and overwhelming loveliness of this world wherein we dwell. To appreciate.

To (like the heroine of the story) learn to live.

If you have never read the O’Henry story, then I will not give away the ending; you must find it on-line somewhere and read it for yourself. Suffice it to say, though, that I have thought of that story many times in the 50-odd years since I first read it.

Let Me Not Forget

If we ever get through all of this…

“What do you want to continue doing, to remember, from all you’ve learned during the pandemic?”  An acquaintance of mine posed that question to several of us.  “What’s the most important thing?  And what have you done to take care of yourself through all of this?”

For me, the answers rose steadily and quickly:  The most important lesson I have learned from months of plague and lockdown, the one thing that I want to remember always and to continue, is appreciation. And the one vital thing I’ve learned to do to take care of myself is to intentionally express gratitude.

Never again do I want to look at a calendar and say to myself, “Great.  Five family and friend birthdays this month!  I’m not going to have any money or any weekends!”  Rather, I want to think joyously, “Time to be with the ones I love, gathered together, without masks, without fear; hugging, grabbing up the little ones to lift them high into the air, jubilant to be in one another’s company.”  I no longer want my sense of astonished wonder and absolute delight to be invoked only by astounding sunsets or exquisite rainbows or rare astrological phenomena (although I certainly don’t want to relinquish those experiences, either).  But I want to retain the lesson that we, all of us, have learned and sometimes still are learning from isolation: to value the most unpretentious enjoyments of daily life; all those things we had always taken for granted and then were suddenly denied.

I want to go to that restaurant a friend prefers, the one that I’m really not crazy about, and appreciate being out, having a meal together.  I want to be humbled by the opportunity to hug my family members.  And I want to know, in humility and gratitude, what it is to sit at the bedside of a sick friend, or to bring them meals or help with their housework, or to have the privilege of holding the hand of someone who is dying.

Put most simply, I never want to forget what it has been, still is, to not have these things.

And that is the crux of the matter, isn’t it?  We humans forget so easily.  Oh, we say we will remember—that history will not repeat itself, because we shall never forget, but we do.  Life moves on; we place one foot ahead of the other and walk away from the sad, the bad, the painful and uncomfortable memories.  We forget.

And it is for that reason that, every day that I am still privileged to go on walking this weary world, to breathe and live, I want to remember what it was to spend days in continual isolation while intentionally expressing gratitude.

I recall the long hours of lockdown, and the anguished, unbearable loneliness, as I recounted in “Surviving the Lockdown” (April 8, 2020).  As I waited vainly for an occasional e-mail, text or phone call from friends and family who did not, as I do, live alone; who did not even comprehend how desperately I needed communication, human contact of any type, I realized I had to find some way to make myself care about whether I survived.  And that way, it turned out to be, was not just to find, each day, something for which I was grateful, but to intentionally mark that gratitude in verbal or written form.

And so I found myself being grateful for all the time I had to catch up on long-neglected chores.  Without the excuse of social interaction to distract me, many of the things I’d been meaning to do forever, such as washing all the crystal in my china cabinet—those things were done at last.  On the rare occasions when I had to drive somewhere for necessary groceries or to care for an elderly family member, I was grateful for the lack of traffic.  A nervous driver always, tooling along roads that were almost empty was heaven to me!  I was grateful for my pets, as talking to and petting them sometimes kept me sane—and I told them so, sometimes weeping my loneliness into their furry coats.  These and so many other aspects of my life during lockdown I learned not to merely think about with gratitude, but to speak that gratitude aloud, or write it down; note it, with intention.  “I am grateful; I am grateful…”  Gratitude, I discovered, was a bridge from depression and angst to acceptance and peace.

And now, almost daily, I remind myself: Let me not forget.  Let me not forget appreciation and intentional gratitude.  Let these be the lessons that I take from the long and fearful months of isolation and anxiety.  Let me remember, always, what it has been and sometimes still it to not  have the simplest pleasures of daily life; to not have contact and communication with other human beings.  And let me now, having those things once more, be fully sensible of them, completely appreciative, and forever intentionally grateful.

If something in this post appealed to you, you might also enjoy “Three Things”, which you can locate by scrolling down to the Archives below.  You find it listed May 20, 2020.

 

A History of Queen Anne’s Lace

In response to the recent action by the State of Texas to ban abortions after six weeks, I reprint this post from May 22, 2019.

Years ago, I was watching an educational TV show during which the narrator discussed plants that were not native to the Americas but which are now common. As an example, the speaker mentioned Queen Anne’s Lace, commenting that the seeds of this non-native plant were inadvertently carried to these shores, hitchhiking in blankets and caught on the clothing of European settlers.

I could not stop laughing at such blatant ignorance. I was well aware that the seeds of Queen Anne’s Lace, taken as a morning-after tea, were the most effective of all the early forms of birth control–at least since silphium was hunted to extinction by Roman and Egyptian women desperate to prevent conception.Queen-Annes-Lace11  The seeds of Queen Anne’s Lace weren’t ferried to the Americas accidentally, hitchhiking on property, but quite purposefully, by women who preferred not to be worn out or die due to too-frequent childbearing.

For centuries, knowledgeable midwives instructed the women they served in the lore of birth control—difficult, and not totally reliable, but not completely impossible in the centuries before the development of the diaphragm and the contraceptive pill. And, yes, their knowledge also included methods of abortion, customarily using herbs. Compounded from celery root and seed, hedge hyssop, cotton root, Cretan dittany and spruce hemlock, mistletoe leaves and horseradish, cinchona bark, ashwagandha and saffron, wooly ragwort, castor oil, blue and black cohosh, evening primrose, and even the remarkably dangerous pennyroyal and tansy and ergot of rye, herbal abortions were common when contraception failed. Though those recipes have been lost to time, the concoctions were so prevalent that ads for patent medicines to cure “delayed menstruation” were common in women’s magazines throughout the 1800s—that is, until the passage of the Comstock Act in 1873  (both written and passed by men, of course) criminalized even the possession of information on birth control.

The world has turned many times since the Comstock Act, through the invention of the contraceptive pill, to the self-help clinics of the late 1960s that instructed women in the practice of menstrual extraction, through Roe vs. Wade. The morning-after and abortion pills were introduced, a chemical solution at last replacing that centuries-old use of abortifacient herbs.

I absolutely do not, will not, debate the wrongness or rightness of any of this, from Queen Anne’s Lace to the present day. To me, decisions regarding birth control and abortion remain always a choice best made by the woman involved, in accordance with her conscience and personal situation. But what struck me most forcefully in reading up on the history of contraception and abortion was that, step by step, women have been conditioned to believe that choosing to control their own reproductive process, even to the decision to prevent conception, was at best immoral, or at worst, criminal.

We think of the Middle Ages as a time of great ignorance, yet it was then that midwives—wisewomen–practiced, sharing their expertise and knowledge with the female population at large, easing the pain of childbirth and preventing many maternal deaths by their skill. And it was then, too, that such women were hunted down, burned and tortured and hung as witches, effectively silencing their knowledge for generations. Women were left in the hands of male doctors who, shrugging, pronounced, “Maternity is eternity”, reconciling countless numbers of women and infants to easily-preventable deaths as babies were delivered in filthy conditions with unwashed hands.

Circle the world a few times on its axis, and enter the 1900s, when horrific deaths by botched back alley abortions were common. Young and desperate women bled to death or died horribly of septicemia. Circle again, and information on contraception was readily available, along with new forms of birth control. Contraceptive creams and condoms were sold over the counter. Legal abortion gave a measure of safety to the procedure. The morning after pill became available for those who had either been careless or experienced the horrors of rape.

History, they say, always repeats itself. And so as society swings perilously close once more to the era of illegal and back alley abortions, so it may also oscillate to women who reclaim the ancient knowledge that gave them power over their own reproductive processes: to the natural methods that provided women a way to make their decisions in accordance with their conscience.

The morality of these decisions is not truly the question, for no matter what is legislated, women will continue to fight for and gain absolute control over their own bodies. They will continue to make their personal choices regarding reproduction. The Pendulum of Queen Anne’s Lace, you might call it. History will, genuinely, always repeat itself.

If you found something to like in this essay, you might also appreciate “MURDER”, the story of my 1985 miscarriage and the vicious accusations hurled several of us at my workplace who were grieving a pregnancy loss. You will find it in the Archives below, from June 19, 2019.

No Pleasure In Being Right

Saying, or at least thinking, “I told you so!” is usually one of life’s evil but genuine little pleasures.

I’ve seen the words written, heard them said, time and time again. “Believe me,” they always begin. “Believe me, I take no pleasure at all in being right.”

Bull puckey, I’ve always thought. Saying, or at least thinking, “I told you so!” is usually one of life’s evil but genuine little pleasures. It is vindication, justification, and smug certainty all wrapped up in one self-satisfied and self-righteous package, and it feels great. Absolutely great. I rarely actually say those words, but I have been known to think them loudly. Very, very loudly. And never so much as with the Covid-19 pandemic.

From the first whispers of news about the virus, I felt concern. This could be, I told myself, every bit as bad as Ebola, and quite possibly worse. I mentioned this to a few acquaintances, who accused me of fearmongering.

Predictably, those same acquaintances never referred back to that conversation once the pandemic was underway, but I had the grim satisfaction of knowing my worries had been justified.

Next came the photos smuggled out of Wuhan showing hospitals beleaguered: dead bodies lining hallways where the still-living sick awaited treatment. Having learned my lesson, I said nothing to anyone, but told myself, “This is going to be worse than bad.” Again, sadly, I was right.

The newswires hummed with the first officially recorded U.S. case of Covid. I shuddered; I knew what was coming. A few weeks later, Trump announced that the virus would “…go away in April”. I rolled my eyes so hard they almost lodged in my hairline.

Deaths attributable to the virus began to soar, and I held one hand to my aching head—sadly, again correct.

I compared my own experience with a mystery respiratory illness, and those of family and friends, to the officially-recorded arrival of Covid-19 in the U.S., and disbelieved the official timeline. Months later, my supposition was proven right as postmortems and testing of blood bank contributions confirmed that the virus had been circulating much earlier than originally thought.

As each new stage of the pandemic was encountered, I questioned the endorsed stance. I should have been placing bets; I would have raked in the cash! We don’t need to wear masks. (“Yes, we do.”) Ah, we DO need to wear masks, but it won’t be necessary to lock down the city, the state, the country… (“Yes, it will, and it’s going to happen.”)

Then, blessedly, the vaccine was developed. Though breathing a sigh of relief, I continued to worry. After all, I was admittedly not a fan of the way children’s vaccinations are administered, considering some of them to be poorly-tested, and a few even outright dangerous. Would everyone accept the necessity of being vaccinated for Covid? I doubted so. Again, sadly, I was correct.

The CDC made the startling announcement that those who were fully vaccinated need no longer wear masks in public situations. “That’s insane!” I remarked to myself. “An honor system? Are they crazy?” Well, yes. It quickly became clear that this strategy had failed just as badly as their initial, “no need to wear masks” policy.

Meanwhile, in those states where both vaccination and mask mandates lagged, case counts began to mount, overwhelming local ICUs with the sick and dying. Once again, unhappily, I had been right.

As each of these missteps and errors and failures to take the virus seriously mounted up, my satisfaction in being right became ever more bitter. Each step of the way, I had accurately predicted a terrible outcome; each time, I had been proven correct.

It was awful.

Finally came the recent August afternoon when I, watching an Indy auto race with my Dad, was horrified as the camera swept over a packed infield: wall-to-wall people, and no masks at all. No social distancing, no masks. It was the second of three races being held in Indy that day, my Dad commented casually, and I felt my heart skip a beat.

Superspreader.

The vaccination rate in our county was less than 50%.

Assured that I was, as I had been all along, on track to a correct conclusion, I dared send an e-mail to several contacts considering the possibility that these auto races would prove to be a superspreader event. I was quickly and roundly lectured by one relative, who deviated from my actual question to soapbox about individual freedoms, pronouncing didacticly, “We can’t lock down the country again!” Another derided my concerns, noting that the Indy 500 in May (which had been held with both a mask mandate and social distancing requirement) had not proven to be a superspreader.

Less than two weeks later, by August 23, the New York Times reported that Marion County, Indiana’s Covid case rate had soared by a terrifying 79%.

I did not bother remarking on this predictable outcome to those who had disputed my remarks.

But I finally–genuinely, sorrowfully–understood the truth of that old saying which I had always disparaged. I took no pleasure whatever, none at all, in once more being right.

If you can stand yet one more article or essay about the restrictions of Covid-19, you might also like reading “When Life Was Simple (Sigh)”, which you can locate in the Archives from February 24, 2021.

The Subtlety of Verbal Abuse

Verbal abusers are sly…

I was once in a relationship with a man who suffered from misophonia (also called selective sound sensitivity syndrome). I lightly apply the term “suffered” to his personal experience with the disorder. Although the condition undoubtedly caused him distress, it was the people around him who truly suffered. As an individual who had never learned the value of self-control in any aspect of his life, his misophonia was simply one more excuse for him to demonstrate uncontrolled and abusive behavior.

That comment may seem harsh, but is supported by countless events I experienced in his company, of which examples abound. Passengers in his car quickly learned that to gasp at a near-miss with another auto was reason for him bellow, not at the other driver, but at his fellow traveler. The give-and-take of normal conversation would send him stomping off to sulk in some quiet corner, demanding that the other person cease speaking. Those unfortunate enough to sneeze in his presence learned that the result was not “Bless you!”, but invective hurled at the miscreant.

I finally divined the hard truth that lurked behind his diagnosis of misophonia: he used the condition, applying it as a way to rage other people, and most often at women. Natural noise, I came to understand, even the most irritating dissonance, had very little effect upon Mr. Misophonia. The racket of annual cicadas, for instance, did not faze him. Disagreeable mechanical sounds, scraping or clattering, never bothered him. The voice of any male person he admired did not annoy him, yet he reviled women’s voices, and the sound of children’s laughter made him visibly quiver with distaste. Yet the crash of items that he threw in anger did not discommode him.

After three years in his presence I came to understand that much of his claim to suffering misophonia was no more than a method for exerting power over the people in his life. The disorder provided him an easy escape from either exercising control over his own behavior or apologizing for inappropriate conduct. Misophonia simply compounded his unremitting attacks of verbal abuse.

That it took me three years to reach this conclusion isn’t really surprising. Countless scholarly articles discuss the subtlety of emotional/verbal abuse; how it snakes, constrictor-like, about its victims, gradually divesting them of all sense of self-worth or even the will to defend themselves. It’s my belief that most of us who have, as adults, found ourselves enmeshed in a relationship with an emotional abuser also have a background containing some form of trauma, often from a very early age when we had few resources with which to defend ourselves. Our sense of dignity has already been deeply wounded.

Verbal abusers play upon that victimhood. They are sly. They have an uncanny ability to determine, using non-verbal clues, those among their acquaintance who feel that their very existence is taking up too much space in the room. With that knowledge in hand, it’s a quick leap to deep, penetrating conversations: discussions which falsely indicate a sense of interest in the other person, but which unveil someone’s personal triggers and touch buttons. Then begins the cunning work of further undermining that individual’s already-shaky sense of self-worth. Verbal abusers easily breach someone’s defenses, breaking down barriers that would have been firmly placed in a healthier, normal ego. Verbal abusers are both shrewd and skilled in their malevolence.

And often, like Mr. Misophonia, they exploit actual problems or illness to further manipulate their victims: “Pity poor me, I have this disease, this difficulty, this impediment, and I cannot help or amend the behavior that accompanies it. Because of this, I bear no responsibility for my conduct. YOU are the problem, for you lack empathy and understanding. YOU must work harder to support me in my struggles.”

Looking back from the distance of years, I’m a bit amazed that I was somehow able to wrest myself from this destructive relationship and re-establish myself as a whole person. Perhaps some spark of soul, some deeply-rooted hint of self-esteem finally rose up in me, rejecting his attempts to paralyze me into a vision of worthlessness. More likely, though, my enlightenment began when, helpfully educating myself about misophonia in an attempt to be supportive, I realized that there were sufferers who spent nearly their every waking moment exerting enormous self-discipline to control their painful reactions to sound triggers, trying to prevent outbursts that would distress the people around them.

My abuser, I realized, had never done that. Rather, he gloried in the effect his flaring temper had to quell and subdue the people in his orbit. He was less a misophonic, I came to understand, than a manipulator. A subtle, malicious manipulator. With that knowledge came the ability to remove myself at last from that terribly unhealthy relationship.

There are genuine misophonics who suffer dreadfully from a poorly-understood medical condition. But my abuser was not one of them.

If this essay appealed to you, you might also enjoy “The Day the Vacuum Cleaner Rose Up to Smite Me”, from October 27, 2017. Scroll down to the Archives link to locate it.

Mimsey’s Vow

If a newborn can’t smile, how is it that she could, dreaming, laugh?

Newborn babies can’t really smile. All the parenting books and articles, all the pediatricians and obstetricians, assure us of that fact. Oh, babies “smile”, even in utero, they explain, but it means nothing. No, no, it’s not gas—that explanation is old hat; after all, do you smile when you feel gassy? Heavens no—you grimace. But, nevertheless, for a newborn, it’s not a smile; it’s just a reflex; just “testing the equipment”, as it were.

And, of course, all new mothers and fathers know this is absolute, total hogwash.

IMG_20210430_104722463_BURST000_COVER_TOP (3)VID_20190626_114506425_Moment (2)A newborn’s smile may not be that wide-eyed grin, the delighted beaming countenance that it will be in just a few months, but it is, unquestionably, a smile.

When my first grandchild was born, I remembered and hunted down the newborn photo of her mother, my own daughter. Thirty-three years ago, there wasn’t a camera living in everyone’s pocket; photos required posing, planning, film.

Baby Amanda (2)
And so on the day the two of us left the hospital, I dressed my two-day-old daughter in a white dress and shoes sprinkled with tiny pink rosebuds and handed her over to a nurse who carried her down the hall for her very first “official” photograph. Returning her a few minutes later, the nurse laughingly explained that she’d done her best to make my little one not stick her tongue out at the camera, tapping her mouth gently and exclaiming, “We don’t do tongues!” It hadn’t worked. But when I picked up the photo package later, I could not help but smile myself: tongue or not, that baby was smiling.

Everyone who saw the picture exclaimed over that fact. “I think she is happy to be here,” her Grandma Mary explained.

I myself, by the way, didn’t plan to be “Grandma”. Because of family divorces and remarriages, my lucky little granddaughter was going to have a plethora of grandparents. The titles Nana and Mamaaw had already been co-opted, while being called the old-fashioned “Grandma” just didn’t appeal to me. But choosing my moniker turned out to be easy, because I’d already come up with it. My “extra daughters”—young women who my daughter had grown up with–all called me either Mom 2 or sometimes Mimi’sMom, jumbling the two words into one. For their children, we’d run the syllables of “Mimi’sMom” into a further sliding scale, creating a fresh version for my almost-grandchildren: Mimsey. So for my own grandchild, also, I would be proudly a Mimsey.

002

So Mimsey I was, sitting there in the hospital an evening three days after Morrigan’s birth, as my daughter endured her prolonged recovery from a difficult, fruitless labor and eventual C-section. An old friend had dropped by to see our perfect new miniature human, and was holding the little one as she quite obviously dreamed; we both remarked on it as we marveled, watching her tiny eyelids twitching and moving in REM sleep. Not wanting to wake her, we adults spoke quietly together…quietly enough so that we all heard it when this three-day old, tiny person chuckled in her sleep. That’s correct: chuckled. Laughed. Chortled. Our eyes rounding, we stared at one another before all bursting out, our words tumbling over each other’s, “Did she just laugh?!” “Did you hear that?!” “Was that her ?!”

If a newborn can’t smile, how is it that she could, dreaming, laugh? Laugh in her sleep?

But then, I had no reason to doubt the laugh, even if there had not been three of us to hear it. After all, I already knew from raising my own daughter that the “newborns can’t really smile” presumption was utter nonsense. Even had I not known it, though; even if this sleeping newborn child had not just laughed in the presence of three witnessing adults, I would have known the “can’t really smile” theory was utter bunkum because of what had already happened on the very first morning of Morrigan’s life.

As my daughter and son-in-law each slept the deep, healing sleep of exhausted new parents, I held that ever-so-small, magnificent child in my arms, whispering to her of all the wonderful things I hoped awaited her in this lifetime; blessing her; speaking not just to her tiny, listening ears, but, I hoped, directly to her soul. Her little eyes remained closed while she slept and I murmured, until I finally made my solemn promise to her: “I am your Mimsey, and it’s my job in this lifetime to protect you. I vow to you that I will do anything to achieve that, even to giving my life for yours.”

And she smiled.

Once again, I send
Birthday Blessings and So Much Joy to You, Morrigan Lynn
Great Queen of the Water
Mermaid Queen with the Heart of a Dragon
From Your Mimsey
Who Loves You Beyond Life Itself

The Body I Inhabit

The body I inhabit, beautiful or not, aging or youthful, is worth my attention.

An acquaintance was, as the slang saying goes, ragging on me for the fact that, at age 67, I still regularly color my hair the same red-gold shade that I’ve used for 19 years. I didn’t respond to her banter, merely shrugging and saying that when the effort of coloring became more trouble than the results were worth, I’d give it up.

The truth, though, is a lot more complex than I alluded to her. I’ve colored my hair off and on throughout most of my adult lifetime, and it has become almost a sacrosanct ritual of self-care. Disliking my dishwater-blond natural color, I bleached it to a lighter shade throughout my teenage years. In my early 20s, following a disastrous haircut, I ceased bleaching and dyed my locks back to my natural shade in order to keep it strong as it grew out. For the next several decades, the non-chemical lightening methods of chamomile and lemon sufficed to keep my hair brighter. But finally, at age 45, succumbing to vanity as I noticed the first of what would soon be a deluge of whitening strands, I returned to dyeing my hair once more. I was at the time newly divorced. Despondent and depressed during the final months of my failing marriage, I hadn’t really been taking great care with my personal appearance. Coloring my hair was a self-affirming action.

It still is. And while I suspect that someday, in the not-too-far future, I will at last make the decision to let my hair reassume its now-white natural shade, today is not that day. Not by a long shot. If nothing else, I appreciate the compliments I frequently receive from total strangers, remarking on the lovely color (to which, by the way, I answer in perfect honesty, “Oh, that’s L’Oréal.” The company should pay me a premium for the number of customers I’ve sent their way!)

Perhaps that’s why, reading any number of articles and personal essays during Covid-19, I found it bewildering that so many people blithely discussed their total disregard for personal grooming standards while in lockdown. I simply don’t get it. Hair color compliments aside (and though they are appreciated) I’m not doing this, or any other of my self-care routines, for anyone else; I’m doing them for myself. Pride in my appearance circumvents my readily-acknowledged innate plainness and basic ineptitude with makeup and fashion.

Since I always keep a couple of spare boxes of colorant on hand, I still treated my hair throughout lockdown; trimmed it, as well, keeping my bangs in check and the ends neat; washed and conditioned it regularly. I shaved my legs on my usual schedule. The few times I left the house for necessities—groceries, and the like—I eschewed only lip gloss, since my lips were covered by the mask, but brushed on mascara and a touch of shadow and liner and eyebrow pencil, and dabbed essential oil on my wrists. I continued my weekly self-facials and plucked my eyebrows, trimmed and shaped my fingernails and treated the cuticles, and gave myself pedicures. I may have lounged in my PJs until the late morning, but I got dressed, properly dressed, every day. I skipped none of my self-grooming rituals.

Then, recently, others of my aging acquaintances mentioned that self-care routines, even daily showering, often felt like a time-consuming nuisance; a lot of bother. The remarks made me shudder. “Smells like old ladies” was a frequently-voiced insult during my youth, and it established in me a determination that I would never, ever, be the smelly old woman shunned by those around her. Until I am either too weak or too feeble-minded to do so, daily bathing will certainly not be too much trouble; if I have anything to do with it, my granddaughter will never associate any smells with me except those of wisteria and lilac; rose or lavender.

Looking back now on the years I’ve spent caring for and about my appearance, I understand that, as a young woman, I latched onto grooming rituals in an effort to be something I was not: beautiful, attractive, desirable. But, over time, that desire has melded into a healthier attitude. Caring for my appearance is a healthy form of pride. Each stroke of the hairbrush, each splash of scent, every scrape of the emery board across a broken nail, says to me that the body I inhabit, beautiful or not, aging or youthful, is worth my attention. I am a divine soul having a human experience, and the body in which I dwell, like any temple, needs an occasional lick of paint.

And so as I spend those few hours each month coloring my hair, I remind myself that I am, despite every appearance to the contrary, a Goddess.

Clickbait

When did mockery become an accepted standard of behavior?

When I was a young woman, both my grandmothers wore little cotton housedresses and soft leather shoes.  If they wore hosiery at all it was when they attended Sunday church services; most of the time, their veined legs, evidence of their years of childbearing and hard work, were bare. 

It never occurred to me to question or mock their “style” choices.  They were elderly women, wearing what they found comfortable.  That I didn’t find their clothing attractive or fashionable was not an issue; I respected them.  They’d lived through world wars and Spanish Flu; through the Great Depression and Richard Nixon and innumerable personal disasters,  both of them surviving it all with an intact sense of humor.  They deserved the right to dress and do as they pleased, without criticism.

Turn the world a few thousand times on its axis: I am now the old woman.  But the world has turned; respectful behavior towards one’s elders is no longer a given.  Those who have spent lifetimes working, paying their taxes, raising their young to adulthood and funding their educations, possibly doing military service, and generally being upright citizens and decent human beings are all too often the subject of contempt and impudence, with never this behavior more rampant than on the Net.

So it was with a sense of both trepidation and scorn that I have, a few times recently, tapped  on one of those “about Boomers” clickbaits. (Oddly, I have never seen a corresponding clickbait about Millennials, or Gens X/Y/Z—or, again, perhaps not odd, since they are the people writing this ludicrous material.  Their time will come, though.)

I have to admit, a few, if not more, of the “OMG!  They do/dress/eat/behave” complaints were spot on for me—guilty as charged, and not in the least regretful to admit it.  I do, for instance, still write in cursive rather than “normal” writing.  I shall continue to eschew the kindergarten printing and write as an adult, too.  So sorry you’re not educated enough to read it, youngsters.  Tell me, how do you read the signatures at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence, hmmmm?

In the most recent clickbait I so masochistically read, though, no fewer than half the remarks were geared toward clothing choices.  Virtually none of them applied to me, and the rest, well, my automatic response was, “Who cares?!  Why is this non-issue even being remarked upon?” Yes, I do find white socks with sandals to be rather an odd choice (if your feet are cold or you don’t like the feeling of sand, don’t wear the sandals), but it’s not really any of my business.  It’s their feet, after all.   

Footwear seemed to occupy the minds of the younger generation to an excessive degree. But then, those who have stood upon their own  metatarsals for only perhaps 25 to 30 years are probably unaware of the extraordinary pressure their bodies are exerting on that support system.  Given twice or more that length of time, they, too, will find that their footwear choices extend to comfort, not fashion, and that arthritic fingers find Velcro tabs so much easier to manipulate than laces.

The funniest entries regarded food, the most hilarious of which was, “They eat TOAST”.  Apparently, it did not occur to the youthful writers that their alternate breakfast suggestions–waffles, for instance–have also been available to those of my generation throughout our own and our parents’ and grandparents’, ad infinitum, lifetimes.  Toast is quick and easy to prepare, lends itself to an infinite variety of toppings, and is an excellent way to use up stale bread, not to mention tasty.  Why on earth do these blockheaded kids think it was invented, after all?

Another remark that sent me into gales of laughter was the complaint about Boomers buying their bread off the grocery shelves when “artisanal bread” was so much more delicious and enticing.  There speaks a person who is not yet a parent with three hungry kids needing sandwiches slapped together as quickly and inexpensively as possible!  Granted, I gave up spongy white Wonder bread along with my early childhood, but I’d like to see the average financially struggling parent try to fund “artisanal bread” enough for a houseful of famished children wanting lunch.

The clickbait criticized hairstyles, vacation choices (face it, kids, the reason some Boomers choose cruises is because, unlike your frenzied, financially precarious existence, they have the time and the money.  Jealous, much?) and countless other petty, ludicrous minutiae until I finally grew tired of waiting for all the ads to finish loading before I could click “Next” and exited the link.

But, in the end, I wasn’t left laughing, but with a sense of discouragement.  Why, I wondered, did any of this even matter?  Who were these individuals, the writers who took such glee in contempt and disdain, in derision and scorn, of other people?  Is the fate of our future world truly being placed in such pettish hands?

Sighing now, I think I will close this essay.  It’s time for breakfast, so I shall wander downstairs and pull the last two slices of non-artisanal oatmeal bread from the frig, where I will pop them into the toaster, and then smother them, perhaps with butter and blackberry jelly, or cream cheese and raspberry jam, or cinnamon sugar….

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Mindless Headlines”, which you can locate in the Archives, published June 5, 2018.  

Pandemic “Logic”

Hammering my head against a brick wall has never, for some unfathomable reason, been my favorite activity. Yet I seem to have done a lot of it since March, 2020.

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have been engaged in a battle of wits, with, no, not an unarmed person, but one who continually brings a knife to a gun fight.

At the first whisper of the approaching pandemic, I voiced my concerns. My apprehension elicited a reaction amounting to a big shrug and a long lecture. After all, I was informed, the SARS epidemic of 2002 did not reach pandemic proportions; ditto, bird flu. MERS never even amounted to epidemic, let alone pandemic proportions. The most serious outbreaks of Ebola, although devastating to other countries, resulted in very few cases reaching the U.S.

Of course, my disputant quite ignored the fact that, during those years, from 2002 to 2016, the US was governed by administrations in which Presidents were actually literate and capable of reading their daily briefings, all the while maintaining cordial, informative relationships with the WHO and CDC. Unfortunately for America (and fortunately for the novel coronavirus), 2020 found us governed by an orangutan who couldn’t have located his own backside using both hands and a proctologist. (I apologize to orangutans, who are actually very intelligent creatures.)

My plaints fell on deaf ears. As both case counts and deaths began to accumulate, I was assured by the Font of All Wisdom that Covid-19 was no worse than any other annual influenza. “Really?” I dared question. “I don’t ever recall seeing plague pits and mass burials during previous winter flu epidemics.” But the photos I displayed of the distressing Hart Island burials were dismissed with a wave of the hand.

Then worldwide death tolls spiraled upward. Nationwide mask mandates and lockdowns were initiated (to which I reacted with a nod to necessity while hunkering down for the duration). Meanwhile, I was sent information regarding Sweden’s herd immunity experiment and copies of the so-called Great Barrington Declaration.

“Hmmm,” I responded, watching Sweden’s death toll pile up countless times higher than any of its neighboring Nordic countries, decimating its elderly population and leaving thousands suffering the lingering effects of long-haul symptoms. “Hmmm. Isn’t it odd that no world population anywhere managed, over all the centuries of recorded civilization, to achieve herd immunity to viral illnesses such as chickenpox or smallpox? Nope, the darned viruses just managed to keep on inflicting illness and injury and death until vaccines were invented.”

“And how,” I wondered idly, “does anyone, anywhere, propose to ‘shield’ medically-vulnerable populations—elderly and infants, immunocompromised, and those undergoing various medical treatments such as chemotherapy? How does one even begin to accomplish that, when the very people working with those at-risk populations are bopping about, unmasked and not socially-distanced, going to work or attending school, socializing and gathering at sports arenas and Trump rallies?”

I received no answer to these very Spockian-logical questions.

And, “Isn’t it amazing,” I recently noted, as the increasing spread of the more-contagious Delta variant became endlessly newsworthy, “that the authors and signatories of that Great Barrington Declaration never even considered that the damned virus might mutate?! That all those living bodies hosting and incubating the virus might be nothing more, after all, than petri dishes for an increasingly vital, transmuting monster, desperate to survive despite all the mitigations of lockdowns, masks, hand sanitizers, social distancing and vaccines?”

Ignoring these remarks, and responding only to my statement that I was still, and planned to continue, wearing my mask while in public, I was informed that masks only protect others from me; they provide no protection to the wearer. I sighed tiredly and referenced a web page produced by the renowned Mayo Clinic stating that masks and eye protection serve to protect the wearer from inhaling or encountering respiratory droplets released by others. I doubted the page would be read, but I felt a masochistic compulsion to send it, nonetheless. Partnered with that compulsion was an act of simple insanity on my part when I further confessed to still wearing disposable gloves in certain situations, such as while pumping gas or touching ATM or elevator buttons.

Now, it isn’t really possible to hear scathing laughter over the electronic pathways of e-mail, yet I swore I could catch it tumbling down the wires in response to my admission. There was NO possibility, I was informed from the lofty heights of Mt. Know-It-Allus, that one could contract Covid-19 from surface contact—no, not even if one hopped into the car picking one’s nose after pumping that gas! Once more, I exhaled gustily, rolled my eyes, and replied with simple truth: “Have you ever SEEN a report of exactly what bacteria and viruses contaminate those surfaces?! The only thing missing is bubonic plague!”

I may be wearing those disposable gloves until the end of time, let alone the demise of Covid-19.

Hammering my head against a brick wall has never, for some unfathomable reason, been my favorite activity, and yet I seem to have done a lot of it since March, 2020. No matter. I’m vaccinated, masked, gloved, hand-washed and sanitized, socially distanced and surface-disinfected, and have so far been Covid-free. And if apprehension, information, caution, and just plain common sense can keep me that way, then that’s the plan.

If you enjoyed this essay, you might also like “To Wash or Not to Wash: No Question”, last published July 8, 2020, or “Handshake, Schmandshake”, from April 18, 2020.

December 26, 2019

I am horrified now to realize that I might have spent a full day carrying and spreading a potentially fatal illness

On December 26, 2019, at two o’clock in the morning, I woke with a dry cough. Sitting up on the edge of my bed, coughing steadily, I blamed the roughness in my lungs on the unhealthy combination of my asthma and all the ghastly cigarette smoke I’d been forced to inhale at a relative’s house on Christmas Eve.

Since I was due at a medical lab at an ungodly early hour that morning for blood tests (note to self: Never ever, never again schedule an annual checkup following a month of overindulgence between Thanksgiving and Christmas!), I piled my pillows high to breathe more comfortably in an upright position, and slept a little longer before rising for my appointment.

Later, minus six vials of blood, I hurried to break my fasting status (more junk food, before I had to face the awful results!) and then dropped by my favorite discount store to load up on post-holiday sale merchandise. But my cough worsened as I piloted my cart through the store, so I checked out with very few purchases and drove home, planning to use my nebulizer to clear the ongoing asthma attack.

Good intentions, road to hell… I arrived home to find a message on my house phone (why, oh why, did he not call my cell?!) from my father, saying he was heading to the ER with breathing difficulties. Of course, he neglected to mention the ER of WHAT HOSPITAL??! Since he never actually turns his own cell phone on, precious time was wasted in tracking him down before I rushed off to the hospital. I remained there most of the day until Dad, made more comfortable, was admitted in the late afternoon and settled into a room. Then I drove to his house to care for his lonely little cat, check his home security system, and haul in his Christmas gifts, still sitting in his car.

Yet even as I’d remained at Dad’s side throughout the afternoon, I’d struggled to suppress my ongoing cough. I couldn’t in good conscience abandon my father, yet I was uneasy. A full day of wheezing? Could this really be no more than a reaction to cigarette smoke? But I had no other symptoms, not then, and years of asthma have made me blasé about the condition. I told myself that I just needed that nebulizer treatment.

But as I drove to Dad’s house, a tidal wave of illness crashed over me. My head began to swim; every muscle began to ache. Arriving at his home, I seriously considered just collapsing there and sleeping on the couch. But I knew my own pets were probably waving protest placards and chanting unpleasant slogans regarding my failure to provide dinner. So, despite a quickly rising temperature, I drove home. Half-hallucinating, I was actually startled when I automatically raised my garage door and drove in, for I remembered nothing of my route home but feverish dreams.

I cared for my pets and collapsed into my favorite armchair. I would remain there for the better part of the next four days, aching, chilling, headachy, feverish and coughing; actually unable to walk up the stairwell of my own home to my bedroom. Although the worst of my illness seemed, at least initially, to be over within a week, I suffered a relapse on New Year’s Day, and continued feeling absolutely dreadful for weeks, coughing continually long after my fever lowered.

My brother, who had taken over with Dad when I dropped, fell ill next; his wife followed, all of us sharing similar symptoms. Meanwhile, a friend living in another state who is usually healthy suddenly fell seriously ill of pneumonia; one of her acquaintances then lost her spouse to pneumonia. And if all this sounds like possible cases of Covid-19, well, then, so it does. But on the day I fell ill, the epidemic in China was still carefully under wraps; their first coronavirus death had not even been acknowledged until December 8.

Long months later, I would read about random blood samples collected during that December which were found to exhibit Covid-19 antibodies, proving the disease had been infecting people throughout the U.S. far earlier than initially known. So I’ve since given much thought to the undefined illness my family and friends experienced that winter, and the horrifying reality that I might easily have spent a full day carrying and spreading a potentially fatal illness, all the while thinking it was nothing more than a totally-undeserved smoker’s cough bequeathed me by others’ cigarettes. That realization overwhelms me with guilt.

I remind myself that none of us living had ever experienced pandemic, and that when I fell ill even the medical community was unaware that Covid-19 had already begun to spread. But whether we suffered Covid-19 or not, and as the victims and fatalities from the Delta variant mount up, I hope that none of us who’ve survived these turbulent and painful months will, in the future, ever again take lightly even the hint of communicable illness.

At this spot, I usually refer readers to an earlier blog post–but there is nothing in the Archives of my past blogs that in any way relates to this essay. Of course, with the possible exception of those who endured Ebola, none of us living in the late 20th and early 21st centuries had ever experienced a plague! Pray heaven we never do so again.