A Ghost Story (Only It Isn’t a Story)

As promised, the second of my two cat-related ghost stories….

My three cats have very distinct personalities. Since their clowder alpha, poor little mink-furred Belladonna, passed away in 2020, none of the three has assumed that role. Instead, they jockey for an ever-shifting Top Cat position.

But Zoe, at 19 by far the oldest and most frail of the bunch, is definitely the most psychically tuned—the Familiar, if you will. Despite the fact that the two of us merely tolerate one another (she was my daughter’s cat, left to me when my errant offspring moved out and developed a cat fur allergy), I appreciate Zoe’s finely honed ability to sense the Other Side. Over our years together, numerous friends have witnessed this plain little striped alley cat suddenly assume meerkat sentinel stance, her frightened eyes following something unseen as it moves across the room. Occasionally, terrified by the Invisible that she has witnessed, Zoe has rushed to hide beneath the furniture, to be coaxed out only with difficulty.

Lilith, on the other hand, is the Scaredy Cat. The Growler. From the moment she was rescued as a feral kitten, she has trusted no one or nothing but me. She is my sweet baby who sprawls across me each morning, purring and bestowing tiny kisses. But the moment anyone else walks into the house—in fact, the moment that anyone even walks by the house—Lilith becomes her alter ego, The Invisible Cat. Growling, she scurries as fast as her fat little legs will take her, rushing up the stairwell to crouch at the back of the closet or under the bed.

Puffy Socks, though, is the Greeter. So friendly that he would hold a flashlight for the burglar, Puff assumes that everyone who enters our home has come to see him, and does his utmost to welcome the guest. Crawling unbidden onto laps, kissing noses and licking cheeks, Puff is ever The Cat Who Thinks He Is a Dog.

So, it was bearing these three personalities in mind that I pieced together a strange encounter on a hot, sticky night in August.

Now, Puff’s preferred nightly resting place in the summer months is the living room couch. He condescends to saunter upstairs and sleep on my bed only if the night is cool enough that I’ve opened the upstairs windows and turned on the big box fans to send cooling draughts across the room. Lilith, on the other hand, prefers sleeping in the bathroom sink. She enjoys the cool porcelain, and since I always make at least one, if not more, nocturnal runs, she can chirrup at me to be petted. Zoe, frail, as I mentioned, sleeps away both nights and days curled into the rocking chair in the corner of my bedroom.

That is why, on this very hot night, with not a window open or a breath of air stirring, I was startled as I lay in bed, reading before bedtime, when Puff rushed up the stairs and plopped himself on the foot of the bed, angling his body to look at the doorway. A moment later, Lilith, eschewing her sink, rushed in and huddled on the bed beside him. And Zoe, sound asleep on her rocker, woke to lift her head and assume an alert stance. All three stared at the apparently-empty bedroom doorway.

After a few moments, uneasy, I watched as Puff hopped off the bed, and, carefully edging out the door, proceeded to his food dish in the hall. I followed him, switching on the light, and watched as he looked upward a few times before finally eating a few munchies, arching his back as he would if I had stroked him while he ate. Then he ambled downstairs. Puzzled, I returned to my bed, but had just picked up my book again when Lilith, hunched and nervous, began to growl…to growl and glare at the doorway. And Zoe, the somnolent, jumped from the rocker and onto the foot of the bed, assuming meerkat stance as she scanned the doorway.

At that point, I’d had enough. I felt no threat, no uneasiness, but I was terribly unsettled. “I don’t know who You are or what You want,” I announced loudly, “but You’re upsetting my cats. You need to leave. Now.” Then I marched into the hallway and switched on the salt lamp. Looking over the balcony railing, I noted that Puff had not gone back to sleep, but was sitting up, attentive and watchful. From his vantage point on the hassock downstairs, he could view the whole upper hall.

Perhaps five minutes later, the whole crew suddenly relaxed. Zoe climbed back onto her rocker cushion and settled down to sleep. Lilith marched into the bathroom and hopped into her sink. And, downstairs, Puff curled up on his favorite couch cushion.

Greeter, Growler and Familiar. Each of them sensed, reacted to, something I could not see, just as they would react, individually, to any other person who entered my home.

As I said, I felt no threat, no coldness—nothing, in fact, that would usually be associated with an Otherwordly Visitation.

But I left the salt lamp burning all night, just the same.

If you liked this tale, you might also enjoy the fictionalized story of the real Ghost Kitty who has always lived in my home. You’ll find the poem, Ghost Kitty Walks, in the Archives, published October 30, 2017.

Belladonna Night Moon

We’re approaching Halloween…All Hallows…Samhain.  So I am re-posting the tale of my lost, beloved little black cat, gone since last December.  For you see, Bella is central to the first of two true cat-related ghost stories that I am going to narrate.  On Thursday, August 3, when she had been gone for eight months, I stood downstairs in my kitchen, all three of my living cats within sight…yet heard Bella, my lost little Bella, upstairs, crying out her distinctive, hoarse little cry “Gak-gow!”.   All three of my living cats looked upward, hearing her, too; then, unconcerned, went back to doing catly things…. 

On a wall of my upstairs hallway hangs a framed poster from the 57th Annual Halloween Festival in Irvington, Indiana.

Irvington is a most unusual place.  Named for writer Washington Irving, author of  “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, the entire town is one large historical district.  Among its many claims to fame are the home where Sojourner Truth once spent a week as a guest; the building that housed a pharmacy which John Dillinger robbed; a stop along the route of the Lincoln Ghost Train; and the house where America’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes, dismembered and buried a 10-year-old child.

With these and a dozen other tales of ghosts and fame and antiquities, Irvington, with some justification, goes a little bit nuts at Halloween.  Even during pandemic, Irvington’s famed Ghost Walks were held—somewhat subdued, but ending, as always, at the Lincoln Ghost Train corner.  And each year the festival sponsors a contest for artists to design the official Halloween poster.

Poster (3)Before it, regrettably, became a banal chain pancake house, I’d eaten at Dufours, the Dillinger-robbed-pharmacy-turned-café, and seen these Halloween posters adorning the walls.  All were marvelous, but my unquestioned favorite was the almost-photographic likeness of a black cat peering out from a background of orange-red sky and leafless black trees. It caught my attention because my own cat, Belladonna Night Moon, might have modeled for the painting, so much did she resemble the cat in the poster.  I yearned to own it, but the Halloween poster prints were always of a very limited run, expensive and rarely available.

But one spring my sister-in-law declared her preference for a birthday afternoon spent combing the fascinating small shops of Irvington.  In the midst of that expedition, I came across one of the last framed posters of the black cat.  With some trepidation, I asked the price.  Forty dollars.  Forty dollars?!  How could I justify spending that much money? I didn’t even have a place to hang it! But…it looked just like Bella.  My precious Bella, my best cat ever.  And the poster was a collector’s item.  How could I not buy it?  Fighting a swiftly-losing battle with the remnants of my common sense, I slapped down my credit card.

Hauling my prize home, I discovered the perfect space waiting in my upstairs hallway, and proudly hung what I now thought of as Bella’s portrait.

The real Belladonna Night Moon had come to me as a porch rescue: a half-starved, lost kitten found by a friend one cold November BellMimi (2)night.  After some minimal arm-twisting, I agreed to take the kitten.  It was a decision I would never regret.  Although not the brightest bulb in the shed (“The only thing she knows is, My name is Bella,” my daughter joked), Bella brimmed with good nature and sweetness…unless she was angry with me.  Then she would jump up on her back feet, and, displaying ‘jazz hands’, smack me on either side of my knee and run like hell.

She was a cat who came when called; who saw me to the door in the mornings and met me there when I came home at night.  When I could not sleep, she would lay stretched out beside me, my hand gently stroking her fat little tummy, until we both drifted off to dreams.  Despite her lack of brainpower, she ruled my other three cats as alpha, and they all but bowed to her.

But as time went on, it was obvious my little black cat wasn’t completely well.  Repeated bouts of respiratory infection and pneumonia robbed her of her meow; “Gak!” was the best she could manage.  Eye infections followed, and anorexia.  At last I received a diagnosis: FHV.  Feline herpes virus.  A disease which would flare any time the animal was stressed.  A disease for which there was no treatment, and no cure.

But I was not about to give up on my best baby cat, not without a fight.  Nursing her through repeated bouts of the virus, tempting her with exotic foods for the anorexia, we struggled on together for close to 18 years.  But thyroid disease and renal failure compounded her ailments.  Time after time in the final two years of her existence, I was sure that I had lost her.  Each time, valiant, determined, she rallied to experience months, then weeks, and finally days, of seeming wellness.  But at last, her strength failing, I knew it was time to give my sweet little friend rest.

I knelt beside her as, at the hands of an experienced and kind veterinarian, Bella went ever so gently across the Bridge. To the Ancient Egyptian afterworld of Amenti, I whispered to her, stroking her mink-soft fur; to the great Golden City of the Cats, Bubastis, where she would rest at the feet of the Goddess Bastet.

The next morning, heartbroken, I stood before my familiar Irvington Halloween poster and, perhaps for the first time, noted the date at the bottom of the print.  October 25, 2003.  Fifteen days before a starving kitten struggled onto a friend’s porch, and so into my life.  Perhaps the very day that she became lost—or went in search of me.

For any animal lover, there is always that one special pet who holds our heart cupped within their little paws.  On my wall, then, painted by the hand of an artist who never knew her, hangs a portrait of my little soul-mate cat, Bella.  Belladonna Night Moon, who sits at the feet of Goddess Bastet in the everlasting grainfields of Amenti.

Belladonna Night Moon
2003 – 2020

I invite everyone to tell me in the Comments section
about their own contact with beloved pets on the Other Side.  And read next week’s post for the second of my True Ghost Stories.

A Time for Tears

In Minimizing Is Not a Bra I remarked, “But that’s a subject for another blog post.”  Well, here it is.

A man I once worked with, a strong, proud Vietnam vet, had married an Asian woman he’d met during his tour of duty.  They’d had a long and (at least according to his side of the story) happy marriage, successfully raising well-adjusted, responsible children and living normal, middle-class American lives.

Mr. Veteran attributed the success of their marriage to the fact that his wife never made excessive emotional demands upon him.  His marriage was free, he once commented, of  “emotional instability”.  “I’ll tell you this,” he would say, chin raised high and lips thinned in a proud smirk, “In 40 years of marriage, I have never seen her cry.”

The looks he received at this remark from female coworkers were usually either disbelieving or simply aghast.  I was certainly unimpressed.  But after the third or fourth time he made this statement, a woman far more forceful than I am spoke up and said what we were all thinking.

“The operative word in your sentence is ‘seen’,” she said firmly. “Tell yourself anything you want; that woman has cried, and cried plenty—all alone.  She knows she doesn’t dare display her feelings in front of you.  She wouldn’t get any compassion or comfort.  You’d never put your arms around her and hold her while she cried.  You’d just walk away or get angry.”

Mr. Veteran scoffed, but we women nodded and agreed with our gutsy coworker.  And I don’t believe any of us ever heard him dare make that reprehensible remark again.

The memory of this incident, though, came sharply to mind recently when a male member of a group I’m involved with intentionally belittled an emotional remark I made.  I recognized his bullying and responded to it; I snapped right back at him.  But experiencing his attempted intimidation in response to the feelings I displayed, and recollecting Mr. Veteran’s remarks, made me wonder why and how it is that women are still considered by many in Western society to be excessively emotional; why, in fact, the expression of feelings, especially sadness, continues to be considered, by society in general and males in particular, to be a “bad” thing.

I recalled an article written by a man describing his viewpoint of the male reaction to women’s tears: men were, he explained, very disturbed by any evidence of sadness, any weeping, because it might keep happening. And, he expounded, men just didn’t want to feel called upon to provide comfort by even acknowledging a woman’s sadness.  They simply didn’t want to deal with it.  Men, the author claimed, preferred a stiff upper lip to distress, no matter what was happening and in spite of every provocation.

This writer’s explanation sounded shockingly similar to the 1950s marital advice provided in women’s magazines, in which a wife was encouraged to make her home an oasis of perfection and quiet, ensuring that her spouse was undisturbed by any domestic problems.  It flabbergasted me to realize that, 70-odd years after that era, a good many men are still expecting the same thing.

That led me to consider just how many books (many of them bestsellers) had been written, by men, for women, explaining to females just how they needed to treat their men to keep them happy.  At least three-quarters of the “relationship books” of the past 50 or 60 years, I realized, were written in this vein.  Why wasn’t the converse true, I wondered belatedly? Why weren’t the bestseller lists studded with books written by women, for men, advising them on how to make their female partners happy?  Why was it assumed that the success of a relationship was predicated upon a woman doing all she could to make her male partner’s life a paradise: bending to his every whim; understanding his every requirement; meeting his every need?

With sudden and startling illumination, I belatedly realized why my misogynistic coworker had always made it a point to state that his wife was Asian.  The shameful myth that Asian women are docile, subservient and submissive was part of his worldview.  Sadly, his wife, transported following a brutal war from a country in tatters to life in what was nearly another world; dependent on him; feeling it incumbent to keep her marriage intact for her own and her children’s’ survival, fell in line with his demands, even to the point of suppressing her every emotional need–not because she was Asian, but because she, like so many women of all nationalities, everywhere, had been taught to caretake the needs of men to the detriment of her own.

That this has been the way of the world for centuries is appalling.  That a marriage of such inequality could have been contracted in the 20th century is unspeakable.

But that such attitudes continue to exist is enough to make one weep.

If you’d like to read the prequel to this essay, you’ll find “Minimizing Is Not a Bra” by scrolling down to the Archives link below, and checking the post of June 9, 2021.

One Size Just Doesn’t Fit All

The roast of life needs a lot more spicy individuality!

I was describing to a friend my process for cooking a corned beef roast, and she asked curiously, “Don’t you use the little packet of seasoning that comes with it?”  “Sure,” I told her. “But think about it.  No matter how large or small a cut of corned beef you’ve purchased, the little seasoning packet that comes with it is the same size.  If you don’t add in other spices and seasonings, the finished product is going to be pretty pallid.”

That is my philosophy for most things in life: With the possible exception of a caftan, perhaps, one size fits all just doesn’t.  Even when corrected to “One Size Fits Most”, the maxim still doesn’t work.

A humorous example of this is a friend who rhapsodized about a technique she’d begun practicing: a way to start her day with a feeling of accomplishment.  It was so simple, she shared with several of us. She just made her bed as soon as she got up.

I could not help laughing. My actions upon rising each morning are predicated upon the demands of my insistent felines.  I first change their litterboxes, rinse and refresh each of the water bowls, and give them their canned food breakfast—all to the tune of insistent yowls and meows and the “cat food!” dance winding about my feet and attempting to trip me.  (As an aside, I don’t know why trying to injure or kill the hand that feeds them by sending that hand plummeting to the floor is a valuable activity, but that’s what they do, nonetheless.)  While all this is happening, I’ve also put the kettle on to boil for my morning cup of tea. Occasionally, as I wait for it to boil, I put some dry dishes from the drainer into the cupboard. When I finally sit down to drink that tea, 20 to 25 minutes have passed and my bed is still very much unmade—but I know I’ve accomplished something!  Quite a number of somethings.

That, I think, is often the problem with every self-help book ever written: the techniques lauded by the author(s) apply only to specific situations and/or people, and mostly to the authors themselves.  I don’t recommend my “accomplishment” method to anyone, but I’m sure there are a few cat owners who will have nodded along with the paragraph above, in sympathy, if nothing else.

As I’ve pointed out previously in this blog, and probably at nauseating length, we are, each of us, heavily invested in making everyone else on the face of the planet think, and behave, exactly like us.  With the exception of attempting to acquire (land, wealth, power), this is probably the basis for every war, pogrom, or purge throughout history right up to the present day, as well as simple misunderstandings between individuals worldwide.  The difficulty does not lie in the act of making the suggestion (“Do this for that result”), but in our insistence upon the precept that this is the only way. When faced with a response that says, “It’s a good idea, but it wouldn’t work for my personal situation”, our reaction is rarely, “Hmm. Well, what do you think would work?”  Instead, we attempt to force the square peg into the round hole, hammering out our viewpoint with unnecessary force: “Oh, but, if you will just…”  “Try it, you’ll like it.”  “Do it this way!  I know what I’m talking about!”

That last phrase is, perhaps, key to understanding why we try to make one size fit all: we feel that our judgement is being questioned.  It works!  Our idea, our method, our viewpoint works… for us!  Therefore, it must be the right way!  It must be the best way!  Snap that piece into the jigsaw puzzle, regardless of whether it fits or not.

But in a world of 7.9 billion people, there is no one right way.  There is no one true faith, no best form of government, no single way to raise a child (each one of whom is any individual, anyway), nor a single perfect manner to instruct them.

Just as there is no right way to get out of bed and start one’s day, there is no particular way to live one’s life.  One size will never fit all, nor even most.  We are each of us a peg of a different size, shape, and color; each of us searching for the corresponding, life-size hole that we might slide into easily: our perfect fit.

Perhaps some marvelous day we’ll all stop trying to push each other into a space and place that just doesn’t match, realize that the roast of life needs a lot more spicy individuality, and enjoy the tasty result.

If you found this essay entertaining, you might also appreciate “Roses of the Soul” from December 16, 2017.  Scroll down to the Archives link to locate it.

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.

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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