A Memory Walk

§  I hope that others will share the idea and take up the custom of a Memory Walk for the friends and family members they have lost.  §

Last Thursday afternoon my daughter, Amanda, and I, taking little Morrigan Lynn with us, went on a Memory Walk for our late and deeply loved relative, Mary Ellen Chifos, once my mother-in-law, Amanda’s grandmother, and the great-grandmother that Morrigan will never know.

We had been planning to do this since Mary’s passing in January, 2015, but, as I have been heard to say, life sometimes gets in the way of actually living. When the weather was fine enough for this outdoor activity, tasks and necessities intervened, as did major events such as buying and moving into a new home, cancer, surgeries, kidney stones, job changes, pregnancy, birth, new motherhood…. It didn’t matter. We knew that the Memory Walk would happen eventually, precisely when it was supposed to do so. At any rate, we knew that Mary, comfortable in the next realm, understood our delay.

And now, having completed this journey, I think it was all for the best that so much time elapsed between Mary’s passing from Alzheimer’s and the day of our Memory Walk, for in the intervening years, we’d released so much grief. We were finally able to recall with pleasure the lovely and gracious, spiritual, intelligent, and broad-minded woman who was in this lifetime Mary Ellen Chifos. Mary and Sadie_20190903_0001

We went to Brown County (Nashville, Indiana) for this event. Mary, you see, passionately loved this area. She felt that the State park and its surrounding environs were a little slice of heaven, divvied out by a gracious Divinity to enhance Indiana. Decades previously, she had actually moved to the location for a brief time during a personal crisis. Gathering up her little dachshund , she’d gone to live in a small apartment there. Only the dearth of available jobs induced her to leave Nashville and move back to Indianapolis. But she would, during the next decades, return to both the small city and the park over and over again, finding there the peace her soul sought.

So it was Brown County that her granddaughter and I chose to visit while recalling our lost one. We ventured out to the shops that she loved, ate at her favorite restaurant, The Hob Nob, and searched for but failed to locate the small art gallery that recalls so much of Nashville’s bohemian past as the Brown County Art Colony, the avant-garde collective formed in the 1920s. And as we rambled, we talked about Mary and remembered her as she once was, long before Alzheimer’s robbed her of her vivacious personality. We laughed and smiled, remembering, and occasionally felt the bright sparkle of a tear.

IMG_20190905_075648497I carried with me roses in varying colors, one for each decade of Mary’s life, and handed them out to random strangers along our way. Each rose was tied with a simple strip of paper explaining that these flowers were being given to the memory of our lost loved one. Mary adored flowers and grew them by the basketful; she would have approved the gesture, seeing the smiles put on the faces of complete strangers at being the recipients of an unexpected floral gift. The 84-year-old parking attendant, receiving the first rose, related to us that, at her age, there are few contemporaries left to mourn when someone passes.  A young clerk at one of the boutiques said she would save her rose to give that night to her mother, suffering from cancer.  The lady who helped us try moccasins on Morrigan’s chubby little feet, receiving her rose, was taken with the concept of the Memory Walk and said she couldn’t wait to share the idea.

Now that we have finally completed our Memory Walk for Mary, experiencing the way in which it revives special memories, I find myself wishing that others might take up the custom, proceeding on a Memory Walk for friends and family members they have lost. Perhaps they will find some small gift,  something special and pertinent to their loved ones, to bequeath to random strangers along their way, putting a smile on faces, lifting hearts, and substituting joy in the place of sorrow, for that is a true celebration of life.

And if it should happen that someone walks for me one day, I hope they will find a park, green and growing, but also filled with playgrounds for children—someplace simply  teeming with life and joy. I hope they will carry with them my favorite pink roses, one for each decade of my life, each one tied not just with a note stating my name, but with a luscious, deep, dark chocolate, the food with which I hope the streets of Heaven are paved.

But, above all, it’s my dearest hope that they will talk: walk and talk, remembering me; remembering me with laughter. Not with tears; never tears. With laughter.

 

 

The Dinner Party

§   Jack finally tapped into the whole Evil Plot about half-way through the meal.   §

I have plans to nominate a woman for sainthood after hearing her description of the way in which she handled The Evil Plot perpetrated by her new in-laws.

My acquaintance—let’s call her Jill—met and married Jack not long after the break-up of his first marriage. Jack’s family made it clear that they viewed Jill as an interloper. Rightly or wrongly, his family blamed Jack for his divorce, and continued to keep in touch with his ex. It was an uncomfortable situation for Jill.

However, after a few months, it seemed that Jack’s brother and his wife had begun to mellow toward Jill. Jack and Jill extended an invitation for an evening out; it was accepted, and everyone made a genuine effort to be pleasant. Even more encouraging was a return invitation to dinner at the brother’s home.

Looking back, Jill says, she should have known better. That hindsight 20/20 thing, she says.

They arrived at Jack’s brother’s home to and sat down to a home-cooked meal. That’s when it became clear that her new sister-in-law had prepared a very special meal indeed — one consisting of every single food Jill didn’t like. Including a few she absolutely loathed.

Recalling that previous get-together, Jill belatedly realized that conversation had “drifted” around to the food likes and dislikes of everyone present. Too late, Jill now realized that conversation had been carefully orchestrated.

Jill is a semi-vegetarian, eating only fish or poultry; the main dish served was not only red meat, but a highly-spiced dish which she would normally shun. Jill shares my aversion to Brussels sprouts; those, and another veggie she thoroughly dislikes, were served.

Displaying wonderful restraint, Jill decided to eat small mouthfuls of everything, fill up on bread, and make the best of a very bad deal. Meanwhile, Jack (not normally slow on the uptake), finally tapped into the whole Evil Plot about half-way through the meal as he watched his beloved smilingly take a mouthful of despised sprouts. “I thought you didn’t like Brussels sprouts,” he said wonderingly and then recoiled from her death-ray glare as she replied sweetly, “Well, it’s not my favorite veggie, but I’d be a terrible guest not to try a food when my hostess has obviously gone to so much trouble.”

The crowning blow came, though, when dessert was served: a homemade fruit compote spooned over vanilla ice cream. As Jill picked up her spoon, Jack, who had just taken a mouthful, suddenly shrieked, “No, don’t eat that!” Jill dropped her utensil and stared, slack-jawed, as her husband proceeded to yank the bowl right out from its place in front of her.

The fruit salad contained mango, to which she is allergic. Jill vividly recalled mentioning her mango allergy during that conversational night out.

Her new sister-in-law was all apologies, and returned to the kitchen to serve her a fresh bowl of plain ice cream. Dinner was concluded amiably, but the couple did not stay long after that. Upon leaving, Jill thanked her hostess for dinner, saying, “It’s obvious that you went to a lot of trouble on my behalf.”

The two couples haven’t spoken since, and no further invitations have been extended.

So, as I say, I am definitely nominating Jill for sainthood! And I’m so glad that she doesn’t carry a firearm.

The Great Paint Can Head Splash

§  Since I’ve already reproduced, I’m not a candidate for the Darwin Awards! But as I continue forging links to the chain of my days, I’ll probably find other, incredibly stupid ways to nearly do myself in.  §

Each morning before I eat breakfast, I boot up my laptop and read the news stories while sipping a cup of tea. This habit actually falls under the category of “Why, oh Why, Would I Even THINK This Was a Good Idea?”

I mean, really—consider it: news. Politics. Murders. Police brutality. Inane stories about celebrities. News story comments. Vicious name-calling and rude remarks.

Before breakfast. Every morning.

As I pointed out: Why would I even think this was a good idea?

And yet I have done and continue to do it.

But then, many things in my life fall under that category. And often, the question is not even so much why I ever thought these behaviors were a good idea, but how the hell I managed to survive them.

Take, for instance, the fact that I was, for years, in the very bad habit of waltzing out barefoot to pick up my mail from the mailbox—barefoot, or, at most, clad in stocking feet. Now, it’s just the length of the driveway from my front door to the mailbox, and my driveway is quite short. But I did this daily mail run regardless of the condition of the concrete: wet with rain; slick with whirligig seeds from the maple tree or slippery with autumn leaves; slightly glazed with ice; under pelting rain or even tiny hailstones or falling snow. Just a quick trip out to pick up the mail. No need to put on my shoes.

Only to fall on my butt. Not once, but several times. Or perhaps not fall—just find myself with arms windmilling and mail tossed every which way as I tried to stay upright.

Then there was the time that, beneath the soft rays of the Super Moon, I decided to decontaminate the poisonous atmosphere created by a nasty neighbor by going out with my salt and white sage bundle to cleanse the area around my house. Again, in my stocking feet—it was chilly, so I didn’t want to walk in bare feet. Having first lovingly scattered Himalayan pink salt all about the perimeter of my home, I lit my sage bundle and paced the boundary of the house, concentrating on positive thoughts. Forgiving thoughts. A very noble and praiseworthy action…if only I’d worn shoes. Because as the sage bundle burned down, the ash scattered. Scattered straight onto my toes. Where it immediately burned right through the sock. Ooow, ooow, ooow! (Goddamned nasty neighbor, this was all his fault, I wouldn’t have been burned if he had just not been acting like an ass so that I had to go out and cleanse his spitefulness from the atmosphere….)

Why, oh why, would I have ever even thought this was a good idea?!

Also under the heading of Really Not Bright Things That I Have Done was the six-month time period in which almost daily I reminded myself, “If I don’t wiggle under this desk and snake that computer cord to the back, I’m going to fall over it.” Of course, I didn’t, and I did. It took nearly another six months for my strained tendons to heal.

Then there was the day that I decided, while cleaning my carpets, that I was fed up with crawling down the stairwell on hands and knees while using the hand attachment. When I reached the landing where the stairwell turns, I resolved to stand on the floor of my entry way, reach over the two bottom steps, and use the upright carpet cleaner on the landing. This might not have been so bad an idea had I not decided to back down those two steps to the entryway below. That’s right—step down two steps backwards in shoes (for once) that were damp from working on the carpets of the upper floor.

Of course I slipped. Of course, I fell down those two steps. And of course, I slid prone across the laminate of the entryway, the carpet cleaner machine half on top of me, and slammed my head into the wall opposite.

After awhile, having determined that all I had was a goosegg and a headache as the price of my stupidity, I finished cleaning my carpets.

But, of all the things falling under the category of Stupid Things I Have Done and Yet Survived, none of them will ever beat The Great Paint Can Head Splash.

The original owner of my condo had, shall we say, unusual tastes in décor–as in a living room done in flat khaki greens and browns, and bathrooms painted dark, dark royal purple, or dried-blood red and poison green. Needless to say, repainting was a priority. The unused spare bedroom closet seemed a logical place to store the paint cans as the final touch-ups were done…or, that is, might have been a logical place had I not decided to store the cans on the upper closet shelf.

And so it came to pass that I went to grab a can of wall paint and work on touch-ups…only to discover, as I lifted it from the shelf, that the top had not been hammered on completely when it was last used. Like Captain Kirk under the rain of tribbles, I stood there as the can tipped and poured paint all over my head, my clothes, the closet floor, my hair–my freshly-colored hair….

Later that day, as I visited my daughter, she nobly refrained from commenting on the numerous ivory-pink paint speckles liberally bespattering my hair, despite two careful washings.

I’m sure that, as I continue forging links to the chain of my days, I’ll find other, incredibly stupid ways to nearly do myself in. Since I’ve already reproduced, though, I’m not a candidate for the Darwin Awards. And, happily, although those genetic testing kits don’t include it, I suspect my intelligent offsping escaped inheriting the “Why Oh Why Would I Even Think This Was a Good Idea?!” gene. I certainly hope so, anyway.

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, neverthless, 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.

VID_20190626_114506425_Moment (2)
That wide-eyed, beaming grin…

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 just a year ago, 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. 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 by 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.

Baby Amanda (2)
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.

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 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.

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Mimsey loves you

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.

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

Once More, a Talking Stick

§  For those unfamiliar with the practice, a Talking Stick Ceremony allows survivors to speak at a memorial service without the formality of rising to address a crowd. Instead, a simple thing—a stick, a branch, a piece of wood, decorated to represent the lost individual, is passed from hand to hand, so those seated may speak a few words in kind memory. §

I have created Talking Sticks now for several friends and acquaintances who have passed: Debbe, Mary, Terry, and now Cathy. I did not create one for my mother (see the post My Mother’s Talking Stick, November 17, 2017) only because I was, as I knew I would be, the single person to speak that night. Speaking for a woman who had few mourners, though, was far more difficult than assuming the responsibility for creating a Talking Stick to be spoken through by several people who will be missing someone.

Rather than being difficult or hurtful, there is instead great beauty and release in being the person who is privileged to create another’s Talking Stick. It is a physical meditation, allowing one to think through the value of a friend or loved one’s life, and to say farewell by determining the representative talismans or totems to be included.

IMG_20190725_152444340For Cathy, who loved all things natural and green and growing, the talismans on her Talking Stick (although of necessity made mostly of non-organic substances) will be representative of those passions. A small tree branch, sanded and finished with clear lacquer, will be wound with silk vine to symbolize her history as a farmer. A packet of flower seeds called “Bee Feed” and a rubber honeybee will signify one of the last things she ever spoke about to her friends in our Monday night meditation group: that she was sick with worry over the plunging honeybee population. A copper flower will further denote her delight in the world of growing things, while a silver tree of life will stand for the hundreds of trees she planted in her lifetime. And because she rode her bike everywhere, dying just after returning from having enjoyed a ride with her biking group, a bicycle charm will be prominently displayed.

Having created it, I will once more carry the Talking Stick to a friend’s memorial service, explain its creation, and then encourage those there to pass the stick from hand to hand, each one speaking a pleasant, special, or humorous memory of our friend. I’ll remind them to begin their memory with “I remember Cathy”, because, as the ancient Egyptians believed, if our name is remembered, our soul continues; to speak lovingly or caringly, for if their relationship was rocky or difficult, this is not the time to discuss those problems—respect for the dead really being only consideration for others present who are not in a fit state to hear that sort of bitterness. I’ll mention quietly that, if they haven’t anything pleasant or kind or humorous to say about the soul who has gone on, then there is no shame in merely holding the Talking Stick silently for a moment before handing it off to the next person. Their very silence allows us to acknowledge their own special pain, and serves to remind us that we are all complex creatures; that our view of a person is not necessarily the one which is shared by all who knew her or him.

And when the memorial is completed, I will gift the Talking Stick to the person who best loved the deceased, so that they might do with it as they please: keep it, cherish it, burn it, bury it—whatever is best for them. It will have served its purpose, which is only to evoke memories to be shared, and make it easy for loved ones to recap a life; to help us say goodbye.

Four times, four times now, I have created a Talking Stick; stood to explain its significance, spoken the formal words of the Crossing Ceremony, and, after the memorial,  passed the Talking Stick on to the person who best loved the one now lost.

Someday I will be the one who is being remembered as the Talking Stick is passed from hand to hand. I wonder what talismans will be on my Talking Stick. I wonder who will create mine.

In Memory Of:

 Debbe Boswell
Mary Cole
Terry Robare
Cathy Dawson

Heavenly Weather

§   “Oh, but it’s a dry heat,” I hear you saying. Well, so is an oven, but I’m not going to stick my head in one.   §

I have lived in only two States in my lifetime. After barely three years in Charleston, South Carolina, I returned home to Indiana. There were many reasons for the return move, not the least of which was family and friends, but the weather played a role, too.

Living in Charleston was akin to living in a tropical fish tank lodged inside a sauna. It was bright, colorful, endlessly interesting–and hotter than the hinges of hell. It was step out on the sidewalk and collapse from heat stroke hot. To add insult to injury, I lived there in the years immediately following the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens. Ash in the atmosphere somehow did nothing to reduce the glaring heat of summer, but gave South Carolina some of its coldest, nastiest winters ever during the years I resided there. (Climatologists will argue this fact, but, remember, I was living there with the Rebels. I saw how shocked they were at the winters of ’80, ’81 and ’82.)

No, much as I loved other aspects of that lovely city, the weather in Charleston was hardly my idea of heaven.

My idea of divine weather is days of temperatures no higher than the low 70s—75°F is optimal—and nights in the 50°F degree range. I call this “sweatshirt weather”, and I love it. I enjoy sunlight in moderation—a sun-and-clouds variation day is delightful to me, as are soft rainshowers and even an occasional mild thunderstorm. Breezes, too, are important; a windless day is anathema. Living in Indiana means that for at least two seasons a year, spring and fall, I get plenty of these preferred days and evenings. That’s six months, sometimes seven, with numerous days, occasionally even weeks, of the type of weather I favor. I’m willing to endure Indy’s less pleasant variants–the humid heat of July and August, and the bitter temperatures and snows of January and February, for the pleasure my lovely, perfect spring and fall days, with the windows of my home thrown wide open, and with the occasional white noise of a window fan whirring softly in the background.

Almost as important to me as the temperatures, though, are those variations. As dreary as the Midwestern world might be at the end of March, with trees still stripped of leaves tossing bare limbs in strong winds, it is merely a lead-in to the incredible bursting forth of spring buds. Daffodils, crocus, tulips. Forsythia blazing out. Trees softly cloaked in green lace. Nothing satisfies a hunger of the soul like the riotous colors of early spring following the dreary end of winter. Conversely, nothing is as welcome after the humid heat of July and August as the first hint of fall chill; of autumnal color in the leaves, and their crunch beneath one’s feet as they begin to whirl down, cloaking the ground in colors brighter than Joseph’s coat.

That is why when a dear friend moved recently to Sun City, Arizona, I wished her well and godspeed, but declined even the faintest notion that I might ever be visiting there. A city where the mean temperature in the summer months is 104°F is, I explained to her, quite seriously akin to my idea of Hell.  (“Oh, but it’s a dry heat,” I hear you saying. Yeah, well, so is an oven, but I’m not going to stick my head in one.) And please, please, PLEASE don’t give me that, “Oh, but in the winter…” nonsense, either. Yes, temperatures in midwinter might (emphasize might) drop to my preferred range for a month, perhaps even two, but by very early spring they are going to spiral back up into the 80s. The only thing temps in the 80s are good for, in my estimation, is hanging out at the pool…and I’m not one to hang out at the pool. Leaving entirely aside the un-pretty sight of me in a swimsuit, chlorinated water just isn’t my thing. Oh, I like to jump in and splash around a bit with the kids of the family, but, as I am prone to sunburn (as in, I step outside, say, “Hello, Sun!” and walk back into the house having turned the approximate shade of a boiled lobster), a sunworshipper I am not.

I know without question that my beloved “big sis” is having a glorious time in her chosen environment, but, nope-nope-nope! It’s just not for me. Barring, of course, a total backflip of that whole desert environment montage due to global warming!

 

The Benefit of the Doubt

Lest I be accused of maligning him, let me state firmly that I don’t think my acquaintance is alone in this sort of behavior; we all—every last living one of us—make assumptions and speak of them as truth. 

A friend who is that rare bird, a married gay Trump supporter, attended the Indy Pride festival as a vendor. The following Monday when our group met for our weekly meditation and discussion, he told us that his own vendor booth was quartered directly alongside a “Love” booth. Now, I wasn’t entirely clear, from his description, what this “Love” booth was about: Learning to love and accept the LGBTQ individual in your family, perhaps? Hugs for those who needed them? Methods for the community to demonstrate love and acceptance? His description was vague, and I was a little unclear on that detail as a result.

The point he was making to us, though, was that he wondered at the time, and was still wondering: Had he strolled over to that booth, wearing his MAGA hat, and explained to them his adamant view that Trump is “our greatest President ever”, would the people manning that booth have considered him loveable? He was extremely doubtful, he said, that love would have been their reaction.

Since this comment was not really in line with our group’s purpose and objectives, I didn’t engage with him on his remarks, but they set me to thinking. And although another group member and I used his question as a springboard to open a valuable discussion about what love itself is, and what constitutes unconditional love, I was still bothered by those original remarks.

It took me some days following his comments to tease out from my subconscious what I found distressing in my fellow group member’s original statement, and when I did so, it had nothing at all to do with my feelings about President Trump.  It was twofold: first, that (although, either through a sense of good taste or perhaps self-preservation), my friend wasn’t actually wearing his MAGA hat at the Pride event, he failed to follow through with his idea and actually speak with the people manning that Love booth: state his views, and give them the opportunity to respond. He assumed their likely response. But was he correct? Would they have rejected him outright? Might some of the participants have done so, but not others? Would they have said (as I have been known to do), “I don’t have to like someone to love them. I don’t have to approve of a person’s views to love the person. I don’t have to agree with someone to acknowledge that they are a child of the Divine.”

The second factor that bothered me was that, having not given these people the opportunity to prove their point, to demonstrate that they were living up to the ideals they promulgated, he then spoke of them to us when they weren’t present to defend themselves; making all of us doubt them and their good intentions.

Now, lest I be accused myself of disparaging my friend, let me point out that I don’t think he is alone in this sort of behavior, either; we all—every last living one of us—do this sort of thing.

And it’s wrong.

When we have doubts regarding the genuine intentions of another, or the likelihood that an individual will follow through on their stated good intentions; when we are cynical of their motives, or hesitant of their integrity, we have not just the choice, but the perhaps the responsibility, to bring our suspicions into the light of their attention, and provide them the opportunity to respond. We have the responsibility to give them the benefit of the doubt, for that demonstrates our own integrity. And should we fail to give people the chance to prove themselves to us, then we really have no right to speak badly of them, especially if they aren’t present to defend themselves.

There are exceptions to this general rule, of course. Public figures, celebrities, well-known speakers and teachers, often promulgate positions to which many of us respond with a disparaging, “Yeah, right, sure”.  We then state our opinions that their stances are, to put it bluntly, a crock. That is sometimes the price of being in the public eye: you have to take the heat of the kitchen.  Being doubted or criticized, unfairly or not, is a requirement of fame.  The question then becomes not so much one of our having stated our views about a public figure’s supposed lack of integrity, but whether, if they later prove themselves, we ourselves have the moral fiber to willingly admit, “I was wrong. They honestly did believe, behave, as they said they would. I’m sorry I doubted them.”

Personally, having swung on the pendulum from being quite naïve to somewhat cynical, I now must admit that I’ve been especially bad about this sort of behavior.  Recognizing it from my friend’s remarks has been a wake-up call to myself. It’s time for me to begin living up to my own standards, and giving others not just the benefit of the doubt, but the opportunity to prove me wrong in my suppositions about their behavior and beliefs.

I’ll always wonder now about how the workers manning that “Love” both might have reacted to my acquaintance, had he followed through on his notion and approached them with his views. I’d like to think that some of them, at least, would have shrugged and said, “Hey, you’re entitled to your opinions. It doesn’t mean that we can’t love you.”

After all, I don’t agree with his beliefs, either, but I still love him.

Cathy’s Roses

§  The week that Cathy lay in a coma on life support in the hospital, I walked out on my patio one morning, and there before me were my rosebushes, astonishingly covered in buds.  §

A friend passed away a few weeks ago, dying suddenly and unexpectedly as a result of an auto accident. Saddest of all to those of us who knew Cathy from our Monday night meditation group was the fact that we heard too late about all of it: the accident, her hospitalization, and her passing. We learned of the tragedy only on the evening after it had all ended. Her family, burdened and dealing as best they could with unbearable stress and sorrow, perhaps not even knowing how to contact Cathy’s friends, hadn’t been able to reach out to us.  That was tragic, for we, the members of her spiritual family, would have been there to sit at the bedside and give them respite; to hold hands and gently rub tense backs; to bring cups of coffee and meals; to pray with them; and, at the end, to stand beside them as the terrible decision to remove life support had to be made.

It was mere coincidence that one of our number, stopping by to visit Cathy at home, had been told by a neighbor of the accident. Hurrying to the hospital, he arrived just a few hours after her passing. Instead of seeing her one last time, he, shocked and grieving, had to carry the dreadful news to us that night at our gathering.

That shock echoed within me for days. As I commented once when I had been spared a severe auto accident (The Sunflower Rescue, August 21, 2018), life often hangs in the balance on very slender threads.

But this time it was roses, not sunflowers, which caught my attention.

Cathy, you see, was an amazing gardener. A farmer for much of her life, she’d once planted 6,000 trees on her land. She often brought seedlings to share with us on Monday nights; just a few weeks prior to her death, she’d given me a half-dozen tiny coleus starts. I’d gone out in the rain that same evening to plant them in my flowerbed—and only a few days later, bitterly discovered that little brown bunnies had dug up every one of them and eaten the roots! (Damn you, little brown bunnies!)

The week just prior to her fatal accident, Cathy had been lamenting the vanishing honeybee colonies, agonizing about the fate of the planet as we destroyed our pollinators. Veering from that thread, I’d fussed about the condition of my beloved roses.

Unlike the talent Cathy had, I myself have absolutely no green thumb. I can grow only a few plants: roses, morning glories, coleus, violas. All the others take one look at me, turn up their toes, and die on the spot. I’d spent way too much money buying two small rock geranium seedlings in the spring, I mentioned to her, planting them around my mailbox; only one survived, and that by the skin of its little flowery teeth. But my poor Knockout roses….   Damaged by a polar vortex a few winters previous, they had never really recovered. Pollinators or no, they simply wouldn’t bloom. In the past two summers, my three plants had produced a total of seven blooms.

I tried everything. I fed them multiple brands of rose food. I aerated the roots. I watered them. I used insect control. I pruned them, talked to them, praised them, sang to them, prayed over them, gave them Reiki. Finally, I threatened them. Nothing worked; the bushes leafed out, but refused to bloom. The abundant rainfall of the spring had ended, anyway, and hot, dry weather had begun; I knew the bushes would go dormant, and be unlikely to bud again until the fall, if then. I doubted that my roses would ever bloom again after all this time.

“Come the fall,” I told Cathy, “I’m going to dig them all up.  I’ll plant new roses next spring.”

But the week that Cathy lay in a coma on life support in the hospital, before any of us her friends even knew what had happened, I walked out on my patio one morning, and there before me were my rosebushes,  astonishingly covered in buds. Buds on every branch. Even the sickest of the three bushes, the little one that had barely come back into leaf that spring, was budding.

I had been out to work on the roses only two days prior, and had seen no buds at all. But now my roses were literally singing with new life.

And on the day Cathy died, those buds burst into bloom.IMG_20190714_212144993 (2) Heavy, thick, rich blooms opened everywhere. Branches weighty with blooms and buds and new leaves threw out crazy, joyous arms in a dance of ecstasy beneath the sunlight.

Two weeks after Cathy’s passing, my roses were still blooming—still budding, still blooming even in the hot, dry weather. I strolled about my rosebed, praising them and thanking them.

As I told this story to the other members of my Monday night group, we all agreed: Cathy’s gardener spirit, wandering free of her damaged body, went walkabout; decided to heal my rosebushes; had paced around them, reviving them and stirring them into renewed life.

“After all,” one of our members laughed, with the tight, sad smile one pastes on while recalling humorous moments from the life of a lost friend, “Cathy never could sit still!”

True Friends

∼  If you want to know who your true friends are—the people who genuinely care about you—just get really, really sick. 

I have one former friend who is probably still puzzling over the demise of a relationship that spanned several years, surviving not a few misunderstandings and rough times.

But on my part, deciding to calling quits to the friendship was obvious: I was abandoned when seriously ill.

If you want to know who your true friends are—the people who genuinely care about you—just get really, really sick. Not a pleasant path to discovery, I admit, but one that is certain and true. The responses of your family members and friends will provide every clue to their genuine feelings for you.

Now, it’s easy to assume that family will help to provide your care: it is, after all, their responsibility. Spouses, especially, are supposed to look after one another; ditto, parents, their children, and children, their elderly parents.

Sadly, that doesn’t always happen–or, having happened, it is made all too clear to us that we are being cared for, not out of love, but obligation.

It’s really unpleasant being someone’s virtuous obligation. The “long-suffering-but-noble” stance and facial expressions of our carers, the occasional veiled but insensitive remark about things they could be doing, if only they didn’t have to look after us, the sighs and airs of self-sacrifice—even the slipshod methods employed to our care—yes, it would be almost better to struggle and risk harm to care for ourselves rather than be someone’s noble obligation.

Yet for those of us who are not natural malingerers, it’s almost as difficult experience to be cared for out of love. Most of us with dignity and conscience do not want to be a burden to others, taking up their scarce free time, making more work for those we love. Yes, there are those people who consider it their due to be looked after, even coddled—but those same people have probably spent most of their lives behaving in that manner, not just when they are ill or incapacitated.

But being cared for out of love, no matter how uncomfortable an affair for those who are independent and resourceful, provides a new perspective of relationships. And, heartbreakingly, a failure of care does, also.

When I was seriously ill, people whom I had not been in contact with for weeks, months, even years, seemingly flew out of the woodwork. They provided me with every service imaginable: meals, transportation, housework—even just sitting with me, mindlessly watching TV, when I was at my lowest point. Well over a year later, the warm glow of those acts of loving kindness lingers with me still. They reached out to me in my darkest hour, sending cards and letters and e-mails and texts. They put my name on prayer requests, and made certain I knew those prayers were being said. They made phone calls, or simply showed up on the doorstep. And, above all, they listened. They listened to my fears, spoken and, yes, unspoken, listening with their hearts as well as their ears. When I was at my lowest points, they walked with me through the valley of the shadow; they held my hands, figuratively and literally, through my dark night of the soul.

And others did not.

As I say, there is one former friend who is probably still puzzling over the demise of our years-long relationship.   When told that I had cancer, she assured me that she would include me in prayer at the next worship service. After that, although I kept her updated on my scheduled treatment plan and surgeries and the expectation of a lengthy recovery, I heard nothing: no cards, no phone calls, no texts, no e-mails, no letters. There were no visits, no casseroles, no assistance with housework during the dreary and long months of my illness.

As I always, naively, anticipate the best of people, especially friends, I was wounded. Most dismaying of all was the fact that, just a year earlier, I had been the person to provide her transportation to a minor outpatient surgery and wait with her through a long morning, drive her to pick up prescriptions and see her home afterward, bring her a get-well basket, call to check on her and send her one or two cheerful e-mails during her brief recovery.

I discovered, though, that I didn’t have time to waste worrying over her unexpected disappearing act during my serious illness. Having recovered myself, I became heavily involved with looking after another friend who had also become seriously ill. Giving the same service that I had been given was a way for me to repay the Universe for the kindness and care that had been shown to me.

Months later, my one-time friend suggested we might get together for dinner…so that I could meet her new boyfriend.

I declined.

Charity Begins

  True charity, true giving,  requires so much more of us than just sending a check or pulling used clothes from a closet. 

I clearly remember when I became aware of the need and responsibility to alleviate poverty and to give of my own resources: I was a preteen when our class at school decided to sponsor a needy family for Christmas. I will never forget the look on the face of the mother of that little family as we children and our teacher trooped in, singing carols and carrying boxes of food and wrapped gifts into a bare, cold house. “Well, I got them a tree,” she told us, her voice breaking, “but I didn’t know if there would be anything under it.” That day brought home to me, as nothing else could have done, how very blessed I was—rich, in fact—and the responsibility of sharing my blessings.

The lesson stayed with me, right up to adulthood. Even in those years when I barely had enough money to meet my bills, I saved a small—sometimes tiny– amount to contribute to charitable causes. During some years, that meant no more than my leftover pocket change dropped into a jar at the end of the week, and finally wrapped and rolled at year’s end.  The coin rolls were taken to the bank and deposited into my account before being distributed by check to a charity I deemed important. That, and buying a few small gifts for a needy child from an ‘Angel Tree’ at the holiday season, comprised my charitable giving during the lean years of my life.

As my income rose, so did my distributions. I was never one to believe in tithing to a single organization, but instead selected multiple causes in which I believed and contributed my funds there: environmental foundations, disaster relief, animal shelters, children’s charities. I gave as I felt moved, or the need arose. I donated my used goods and clothing to charity thrift shops, and purchased from them, as well, so that my money could do more for needy community. When someone at the office lost a loved one, I always offered a memorial contribution from coworkers as an option to the traditional and wasteful flowers; when my own mother passed away, Dad and I did the same, requesting contributions to her favorite animal shelter. Then we packed up her lovely clothing and shoes, and I contacted a local women’s shelter so we could contribute the items where they were most needed.

Despite my personal altruism, I was often in trouble during my working years for my refusal to participate in the office-sanctioned big-name charitable concern. A few times, knowing that my job hung by a thread, anyway, I committed to the bare-bones minimum of donating a dollar a week to the giant organization. But I gritted my teeth as I did so, suspecting that what I was actually subsidizing was some CEO’s high roller lifestyle. Nevertheless, when asked in later years to arrange office-wide silent auctions from coworkers’ donated goods, with the proceeds going to the big-name charity, I did so willingly, telling myself that at least people were receiving something tangible in return for their money.

But something happened, as time has sped by, to alter my preteen comprehension of the value of giving. Slowly but inevitably I’ve learned (and it would be a sad thing if we did not spend our lifetimes growing and learning) to fully grasp the meaning of the old maxim, “Charity begins at home”. True charity, true giving, I have finally come to understand, requires so much more of us than just sending a check or pulling used clothes from a closet.

True charity is the kindness that visits, not just to bring a casserole, but to spend time with a sick friend; to care for their pets and do their household chores.  It feeds the homeless, hungry animal that arrives on the porch, and finds the poor creature a home. Genuine altruism invites the lonely person without family to a holiday dinner, or cancels long-anticipated plans when another’s emergency arises and help is needed. It contributes time and compassion, sitting in the hospital room with family members as they deal with the anguish of a loved one’s illness. True charity looks at the neighbor’s overgrown, unmowed lawn and doesn’t register a complaint with the homeowner’s association, but stops by to find out if sickness or crisis has prevented them from caring for their home, and offers help. Authentic generosity arrives on the doorstep with concrete ways to help rather than muttering the worn-out and unmeant platitude, “Please let me know if there is anything I can do”. It cleans the house, drives the children to their activities, does the laundry, or simply sits with the person in pain. True charity uses the funds that would have gone to one of those hundreds of foundations, and instead buys groceries or pays a bill for friends or family members who are down on their luck.

I will never stop providing funds to the causes in which I wholeheartedly believe. But, although it has taken a lifetime, I’ve learned, finally, to give in the ways that really matter