A Work in Progress

In my path to healing old emotional wounds, I spent a lot of time attending groups such as Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics, as well as an excellent but now-defunct journaling group called SEAS.  In the long run, I did derive some good from each of the meetings I attended. But in many cases I was not what one might call an optimal member.  In fact, with one exception, most of the groups I graced with my presence were probably really glad to see the back of me when I finally decided to pull out.

Let me say it without shame: I could never stand what I considered the time-wasting and nit-picking traditions of so many of these associations.  There were minutes to be reported and treasurer’s statements to be announced and chapters to be read aloud, often by people who could barely read, and altogether too much nonsense that bore no relation whatever to the stated reason for everyone’s presence: recovery.   The plethora of formalities seemed just an extrapolation of the burden carried by every codependent; that is, the need to control, due to having lived in uncontrollable situations.

I grew tired of the repetitive and downright silly statement required of each member prior to speaking: “Hi! I’m Whatshername, and I’m a co-dependent!”  To be followed, of course, by a cheery group chorus of,  “Hi, Whatshername!”  After one or two meetings, everyone knew who Whatshername was, up to and including some of those vague people who barely seemed certain of their own names.  And we all knew we were co-dependents or an associate thereof, or we wouldn’t have been there in the first place.  Not to mention that repeating the statement prior to every single word one uttered  was time-wasting overkill.  But never will I forget the tongue-lashing I took from a group leader when I side-stepped all the silliness and announced, “Hey, you all know me now and we all know why I’m here.”  Everyone laughed, several members nodded, but Group Leader puffed up like an adder about to strike. After heaping scathing verbal abuse upon my unbowed head, she ordered me out unless I was prepared to “take tradition seriously!” I gathered up my purse and left,  suddenly realizing that, although still in need of recovery, I was actually a bit more mentally healthy than a lot of these people (Group Leader being one of them).  When I dared return the following week, that same Group Leader failed to show, and the rest of us ran a meeting totally free of tradition, hunkering down to essentials in open and free discussion so thoroughly that we overran our allotted time by an hour.

Control issues aside, however, my greatest problem with the groups I attended was their insistence that I say such terrible things of myself. “I am a co-dependent”.  “I am the adult child of an alcoholic”.  Oh, it wasn’t that the names themselves weren’t the truth—the problem I had with the phrase was in its way of diminishing me.

“I am that I am”.  That was the name given by God in answer to Moses’ question.  The church I attended for many years taught that to say “I am” was to recognize the spark of divinity within that made one a child of God.  Therefore, one never diminished oneself by adding a negative to the words “I am”.

I learned not to say, “I am angry”, but “I feel angry.”  Depressed, bitter, frightened, ugly, a bad person…  I learned not to connect negatives with the Divine within me.  So I simply could not say, “I am a co-dependent”.  I could rephrase my truth and say, “I am currently expressing co-dependence”— “I have learned co-dependence and am trying to heal”–“I demonstrate the effects of growing up in an alcoholic’s household”.  But I simply could not state the required phrase about myself by attaching a negative label to my acknowledgement of the Divine within me.  And that fact brought me into conflict with one recovery group after another, usually after only a few meetings.  So I would take whatever good I had gleaned from yet another disappointment and move on.

And, in the end, moving on was precisely the right choice for me, for I’d learned essential truths about myself from those disappointments: that I was my own best judge of what was necessary for my healing and recovery, and that I was willing to do that hard work, even if I had to do it completely alone.

I’m still a work in progress. But I’ll get there.

Lessons in the Thimble

I’ve read quite a number of self-help articles and books in my time, and what I’ve learned from all of them, taken together, could be aptly described by the very old country adage, “Shake it all together and stuff it in a thimble and blow it in a bed-bug’s eye.”

Oh, this isn’t to say that I learned nothing from dozens of manuscripts purporting to reveal the mysteries of life and/or the best way to live, for I did learn a great deal–especially from those authors who were humble enough to admit that these ideas were simply methods that they, personally, had found to work in their own lives.  These unpretentious authors tended to suggest that the reader could adapt and apply all or part of these lessons to her or his existence.

But what I actually learned from most of the self-help sages was that I was intelligent enough to debate their pronouncements—sometimes arriving at the conclusion they were insightful; occasionally gaining only a scrap or two of wisdom amidst a whole lot of nonsense; and, sadly and most often, finding discovering egotism and conceit in their writing.

For instance, reading one child-rearing article some years back, I learned that to handle a toddler who was throwing a tantrum (said child wanting Mommy to participate in building a Lego fortress at a time when she simply could not stop to play), Mom should solemnly promise to play with the Legos “next time”.  Of course, I thought to myself, “next time” will occur when good old Mom is preparing a formal dinner party for ten, but, what the heck—this is an EXPERT talking.  There was also the childcare expert who suggested that, in order to teach a child that a stovetop was hot, the parent should see that the kid burned his little fingers “ever so slightly”.  I am not even going to tackle my reaction to that sage piece of advice!

Later I encountered the trendy “Two Different Planets” concept of couplehood.  In the chapters of that book devoted to those actions women must absolutely take to preserve their unions, I particularly remember a pronouncement that couples should take weekend trips away together to renew their relationship–and that, if she was under the impression that they just couldn’t afford to do so, she was wrong.  Uh-huh.  Yep.  Just wait until the bills begin piling up in the inbox after that romantic weekend getaway, I thought, and see precisely how much good it had done their marriage.  Buyer’s remorse was going to set in once the checkbook reached government-style deficit financing proportions, and the resultant quarrels would be beyond ugly.  Not to mention the fact that, since this “how to preserve your relationship” ploy was pronounced by this expert to be her responsibility, she would be the one locating the B&B and making the reservation while also lining up babysitters for the kids or pet sitters for the dog and cat. And although he would likely see that the car was gassed up and the tires aired prior to their jaunt, she would be the one rushing home from work to hit the kids’ soccer game and dance lesson before getting the laundry caught up so that suitcases could be packed…and all of this only to learn, much too late, that the whole romantic getaway had been planned in conflict with the weekend of the Big Game.

What a great way to save one’s marriage.

All too often, though, I learned that the self-help gurus themselves had the proverbial feet of clay. One, whose popular book I could not finish despite the fact that it contained genuine nuggets of insight, provided telling examples throughout his narrative of the points he was making.  But every single negative example he provided was illustrated using the behavior of one gender, while each of his positive examples was delineated by describing the behavior of the other.  Noticing this anomaly only a few chapters into the book, I thought that it must certainly change as the work progressed, so I skimmed quickly through the remaining chapters, searching for further illustrations of the author’s points. And the singularity was consistent. Negative examples were always illustrated depicting the behavior of one gender; positive examples, the other.  I was so appalled by this bias that I could not finish the book, despite what might have been some very helpful guidance.

It’s a rare day now when I read either self-help articles or books. After half a lifetime of taking all those books and magazines and putting their lessons into the thimble, I’ve learned that listening to self-proclaimed savants is  just a way to test one’s own wisdom; that arguing with the individual who has all the degrees “proving” their erudition is futile and something best done in the privacy of one’s own mind; and that, finally (and most importantly), hidden within my own soul is all the wisdom that I’ve ever needed to run my own life well and competently, if I will but listen to and act upon it.

To Wash or Not To Wash: No Question!

(Warning: This post may be dangerous to your gag reflex!)

The other day I was at my daughter’s home, and she commented that “Puppy” (a full-grown, 80-pound Husky) was in need of  “a spa day pretty soon; she smells like a dog”.

Now, I lost much of my sense of smell to a sinus disorder many years ago, so I could not comment on the problem, despite the fact that my granddog was dancing in front of me, performing her “I have not seen you in at least two days and you’re my favorite person on the planet” act. She might not have smelled like roses, but Puppy’s doggy-odor hadn’t reached offensive levels, I thought.  However, the comment on smell jogged my memory regarding an article I’d read a few months earlier.

The author of the article was a proponent of infrequent bathing. His essay discussed the natural biome of the skin which was, he claimed, destroyed by too-frequent bathing (which, he seemed to indicate, was basically any form of bathing at all).  The author explained that he no longer showered or bathed, contenting himself with occasionally rinsing off excess sweat, something made easy in the summer months by merely standing beneath the garden hose—especially to rinse off his genital area.

After I finished retching (and wondering just how active this joker’s sex life wasn’t!), I continued reading to his conclusion that, instead of soap, he “smelled like people”.

As I clicked off the article, I wondered to myself if smelling like people might be equivalent to smelling like a dog—especially after the garden hose trick. Despite my weak sense of smell, wet dog is not one of my favorite scents.  I’m pretty certain that wet, unwashed people smell pretty similar to that.  And I was absolutely certain that the male author of the “don’t wash” essay had never been a menstruating woman on a hot summer day.

I’ve always equated not bathing with, oh, say, body lice and bubonic plague. I’ll take the sheer, unmatched pleasure of soaking in a hot bath with lavender salts, or a steamy shower with scented soap on a body puff—yeah, I’ll take that any day over any amount of “natural biome”.  And don’t even get me started on the “no-poo” non-hair-washing crusaders.  No-poo-schmoo-poo—my hair gets washed every other day, and on the rare occasions that I must wait to wash it until the third day, it feels gross and looks dull and anyone trying to restrain me from the hot water and shampoo had best be armed!  I use a nail brush to scrub beneath my fingernails every morning, too, all the while wondering to myself just what frightening “natural biome” lurks beneath those lovely gel-manicured fake nails I see on every second pair of female hands.

I still wonder how the author of the “don’t bathe” article felt about the CDCs recommendations for handwashing during the flu season. And that causes me to recall another article that I read, this one long before the marvels of instantly available knowledge on the Web.  That article discussed the age-old scourge of the disease trachoma, a bacterial eye inflammation that causes granulations to form beneath the eyelids. The disease is progressive, eventually causing the eyeball itself to harden and blinding the sufferers. Trachoma is a common cause of blindness in third-world countries.  But the researchers had discovered a simple way to reduce the spread of trachoma and prevent re-infection of those receiving treatment.

They simply had the people, either infected or at risk, wash their faces every day.

Natural biomes are not necessarily benign. Queen Elizabeth the First may have bathed monthly “whether she needed it or not”, but I’ll stick to my daily schedule, thank you very much. And enjoy every blessed minute of rearranging the natural biome of my skin.

Stay Out of the Kitchen

Since I review every book I finish (and even a few that I do not), I’ve learned to speak my piece to my own peril.  State the truth—that this author should be barred not only from a keyboard, but possibly from pens, pencils and paper, as well—and one risks incurring the wrath of the Beta Readers.  These are the half-dozen or more reviewers, probably drawn from the author’s own family and friends, who have written gushingly positive appraisals of the book.  Contradict them to your own dire jeopardy,  I’ve discovered.

I particularly recall a review I wrote of an especially trite novel. I had plowed my way gamely through about three chapters of this book (which included, god help me, talking pets!) centered around a retired schoolteacher turned amateur detective.  Unfortunately for the reader, punctuation, as well as plotting, was hardly the author’s forte.  After the umpteenth incorrect use of quotation marks, I gave up on the book, which was growing increasingly more clichéd.

I included all of these criticisms in my review of the story, awarding it only one star. Bam!  In fewer than 24 hours, I received a comment on my review, one furiously criticizing my own grammar.  From the tone of the comment, one could almost visualize the incensed tears through which it had been written.

I sighed and forbore to ask the Commenter if she was the friend, daughter, granddaughter or other relation of the author—or even the author herself–and merely asked that she specify exactly which rules of grammar I myself had broken.

There was no reply to my question from the Commenter, although some days later another person joined the discussion, to quibble over whether or not a period should always be enclosed in quotation marks. We got into a very lively debate on the subject, courtesy of the grammar lessons as I had once been taught based on the definitive work,  The King’s English, in which this question was determined by whether the period punctuated the entire sentence, or the quote only. But that discussion is neither here nor there.

Writing a book–even a lighthearted novel–is, as I have pointed out previously,  a serious business, and should not be undertaken by those unequipped for the job. But, having committed to the work, writers must be prepared for the simple reality that not everyone is going to like what they’ve written.

Three of my own favorite novels, Katherine, by Anya Seton, Desirée, (in the original translation only) by Annemarie Selinko, and Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier, have literally hundreds of reviews on-line.  These are books that I first read at about the age of 17, and have re-read dozens of times since.  I can quote entire passages from each of these novels.  I’m absolutely passionate about them.  And the very age of the books makes them fall into the “Classics” category.

But, according to the on-line reviews,  many people hate each of those novels with a loathing just as strong as that I bear for Moby Dick and Lord of the Flies.    I despise both of those books, and not just because I was forced to read them in high school.  I have nothing good to say about those books—nothing at all.  If I were to be required to write a review of each of them, it would not be pretty.  Yet these are classic novels, about which professors and the educated rave.

It doesn’t matter. I simply can’t stand them.

And so it is with lesser literature: the books written merely to entertain and to garner a living for the authors. Some people will like them.  Some will enjoy them, dreadful grammar and punctuation notwithstanding.  And others of us will totally despise the books the authors had such fun writing–and we won’t refrain from saying so.

Yes, writing is hard work; witness these essays.  Each post takes me a minimum of an hour to write. Hours more work go into rewriting multiple drafts and editing.  Yet still, I miss many of my own errors; hell is well-paved with my best of intentions.  And sometimes people don’t like what I’ve written.  They don’t like it at all.

But, if I can’t stand the heat, I should stay out of the kitchen. And so it is with book authors.  If they dislike negative reviews, they should not be writing.  And they certainly should not respond with vitriol and reproach when their work is criticized.

The End of the Story

I wish that every media outlet had a special feature daily titled, “The End of the Story”. Because I want to know. I want to know the end of the story.

I’m a foolishly demanding person in this respect. A lover of the “cozy” mystery genre, I have been known on more than one occasion–usually those when I’m certain I’ve pinpointed the murderer–to peek at the last few pages of a novel and see if I’m right in my suppositions.  This tendency has been greatly enhanced by the advent of the e-reader, since I can bookmark the page I’m on, swipe swiftly to locate the denouement scene, and verify my deduction.  (And, no, knowing the end of the story in no way diminishes my pleasure in the novel as I return to my bookmark and read the rest of the book.  In fact, it just gives me greater appreciation in examining the ways in which the author builds clues, especially if I’ve guessed the wrong murderer.)

So, as I say, I am demanding in this respect: I want to know the end of the story. One news story which I never saw finished was that of the Bus Push Jogger in England.  Each morning as I log on to read—not watch, but read–the news, I turn first to the BBC.  (That is because I trust the British to provide the most balanced version of what the heck is actually happening in the world-gone-mad US.)  Doing this means, of course, that I also read a lot of incidental British news, and the London Bus Push Jogger story caught me in its web.  Contrary to my usual behavior, having read the story, I watched the video—several times, in fact—as a jogger intentionally pushed a woman passerby out of his way and into the path of an oncoming bus.  Happily, she was rescued.  By day’s end, the video had gone viral, but the jogger had not yet been identified.  I checked back any number of times, and never found a news story indicating that the jogger had been recognized.  Eventually, there were no new links, no new leads, to the identity of the jogger.  The story just whispered away.

This drove me absolutely nuts. I wanted to know the end of this story—even if the end was, “Someone must know who this man is, but no one has the integrity to come forth and finger the jogger”.

A similar news story was one in a Western state in which a young woman had been the victim of road rage. An angry driver had stormed over to her stopped car and smashed his fist into the side mirror, breaking it.  She had videoed the whole thing on her phone, and it was presented on the local and then national news.  Yet, despite the fact that the man’s face was clearly visible in the video, again, days later, he had not been identified.  Again, the links to the story simply dissipated.  Again, I gnashed my teeth.

I suppose my propensity for longing to know the story’s end began when I was (as I’ve discussed in earlier posts) a “Dear Abby” and “Ann Landers” junkie. Now, 50-some years later, I’ve not forgotten a letter written to the columnist about the possibly-separated twins.

The letter was written by a man who explained that, six years earlier, his wife had given birth to boy/girl twins. Their infant girl had died a few hours after birth.  Fast forward six years, and the man’s wife had passed away, also.  His little son had begun first grade, and come home one day, desperately excited, because a little girl in his classroom shared his birthday.  Later, meeting the little girl’s parents at a school function, he learned that, not only did the children share a birthdate, but both had been born at the same hospital, and resembled one another to a startling degree.

They might have been twins.

The man’s suspicions were aroused. What more likely than some well-intentioned nurse, paving the road to hell with energy, had switched his living daughter with the dead child of the other couple, consoling herself that this way each couple would have a living child?

At the time of his letter, DNA testing was the stuff of science fiction; only blood tests and an extensive investigation into the hospital’s ID practices would shed any light on the possibility that the little girl was his own child. The man wondered if he should proceed.  Abbey or Ann (I forget which) advised him not to open this can of worms.

The man never wrote again, or, if he did, the letter was not published.  Or perhaps I just missed it.  But the mystery of the possibly switched-at-birth twins has (obviously, since I’ve never forgotten it) bothered me ever since I read that long-ago letter.  And I still want to know the end of the story.

I found myself considering about this odd little facet of my personality—thinking of it a lot—while I was ill earlier this year.  From the day of my initial symptoms, until I received the news that I did not carry the dreaded Lynch syndrome (a hereditary cancer-causing genetic defect), I wondered constantly about the end, possibly soon, of my own story.

This time, at least, it was not to be. But that doesn’t stop me from wondering.  For I want to know.  I want to know the end of my own story.

Antiquated Thought

I began my working career, aged 18, in the lowly position of File Clerk. Since desktop computers were not yet a glimmer in the eye of Bill Gates and every record was typed on an electric typewriter or laboriously entered by hand in a thick ledger before being arranged into orderly files, the mortgage company for which I worked had a spacious room entirely devoted to the files it kept on its customers.  It was there I toiled, clambering up ladders or squatting and kneeling to pull out requested files or placing them back into their slots when completed.

The attitudes of the company were more antique than their filing system now sounds. In 1973, at the height of the feminist movement, this company required that its female employees—only the women, not the men–wear uniforms.  Women, it was patiently explained, could not be trusted to dress professionally.  And so we were coerced into uniforms made of nubby, heavy woven polyester, ugly as sin and hot as Hades.  Horrifically uncomfortable, too, as the fabric scratched and scraped at one’s skin like an army of straight pins.  Rendered in colors selected by the Executive Secretary to flatter her olive skin and (dyed) coal black hair, the uniforms were hideously unbecoming to most of the female employees.  Accessorizing with so much as a scarf was forbidden; even the style and color of footwear we were permitted to wear was specified.

Providing our clothing, though, was also the excuse used by this company to pay its women employees less than the men. After all, they reasoned, we had no work-related clothing expenses; why, then, would we need as much compensation as the male employees?

It’s difficult for me now, as a 21st century woman, to remember that I once lived under such strictures.  Yes, I chafed at them—but there was virtually nothing I could do about it, not if I wanted to keep my job.  So I put up and shut up, until I found another job.

It would be more than a decade after my sojourn at the mortgage company before the organization was sued over their uniform policy (and lost, primarily due to the pay discrimination factor). As an 18-year-old, though, supporting myself on a meager income and living in a semi-slum, I dared not buck the system, no matter how wrong I felt—knew–it to be.

But I was recently forced to recall my feelings of bitterness and injustice—recall them vividly and painfully–when an acquaintance complained of the “attitudes” of African Americans fighting against police brutality and racial inequity. “It’s not like when I was a kid; they can be anything these days—doctors, lawyers,” my acquaintance grumbled.  “They need to stop bitching.  They should be grateful.”

Grateful….  I was forcefully reminded of my 18-year-old self in similar circumstances.  Remembered being told, recalled even telling myself,  “You have a job.  Your generation can work outside the home. Your clothing is provided. So what if you’ll never make as much money as the male employees?  So what if the only promotion you can expect is to another clerical position?  So what if a male employee can put his hand up your skirt, and there isn’t a damned thing you can do about it?  Quit your whining and bitching. You don’t know how good you’ve got it.  Show some gratitude.”

But like typewriters to keyboards, paper files to a cloud drive, attitudes evolve—must evolve—and change. And they do so only when forced: by pressure, by recognition, by lawsuits, by revelation, by coming out of the darkness into the piercing daylight of truth.

For until all of us are free, none of us will ever truly be free.

The Dishwashing Analogy

I don’t wash my dishes every day.

This horrifies a one or two of my acquaintances. Oh, they might accept it if I at least loaded the dirty dishes into the dishwasher, awaiting a full load to run it.  But I live alone, and it sometimes takes me nearly a week to complete a full load in the dishwasher, especially when I’m in sandwich-a-day-mode.  Besides, I actually enjoy washing dishes—I find it peaceful and meditative.  So I carefully scrape and lightly rinse my used dinnerware and stack it neatly in the sink, until, after two or perhaps three days, I have a sinkful.  Then I wash them.

I guess there is something less offensive about having dirty dishes hidden out of sight in a closed dishwasher, for, as I say, some of my acquaintances find this practice appalling. But then, I am just as revolted to think of the mounds of bacteria growing and odors accumulating on a full week’s worth of dirty dishes piling up slowly in the dishwasher.

Nevertheless, I have sympathy for my friends’ reaction, since I myself once had a male acquaintance who strewed his dirty dishes, unrinsed and unscraped, carelessly across every countertop in the kitchen until he finally got around to washing them—and by “finally”, I mean after 8 or 10 days. The kitchen looked like the garbage can had exploded onto the dish cabinets.  There was nowhere to prepare food, either, since every horizontal surface was covered in dirty pots, pans, plates, and silverware, crusted with drying food and smelling like a landfill. And, yes, sometimes ants and worse insects discovered the unrinsed tableware and began to picnic on his leavings.  Needless to say, I never ate at his home!

Of course, this same man claimed that he could thoroughly clean his two-bedroom apartment weekly in just 20 minutes. It would have taken me that long just to scrape and rinse the dishes, but I didn’t argue the point.  It was, after all, his home, not mine, and I didn’t expect him to follow my personal rules on housekeeping—even if I did cringe and gag once when reaching for the toilet paper roll in his bathroom and seeing the porcelain holder covered in a paste of grey dust and god-knows-what.

But this makes me puzzle, then, as to why my own acquaintances feel it appropriate to criticize my personal dish-washing rules—especially as, if I know that guests are expected, I get all the dirty dishes washed and my well-kept home into a state even more immaculate than it usually is. The only people who have ever encountered my sink half-filled with rinsed dishes awaiting washing are those who dropped by unexpectedly.  What business might it be of theirs, I wonder, how I manage this household chore, and why ever do they feel  such a need to debate it?

And therein lies the real conundrum: that we expect others to do things our way.  Because, after all, our way is the right way, the correct way, the appropriate way.  It would be a perfect world if everyone just did things as we do them: thought as we think; believe as we believed.  (Possibly this explains the fact that there exist hundreds of “one true way” approaches to spirituality.)

Considering the dishwashing conundrum, I’ve decided that it might truly be a more perfect world if we criticized less and accepted more; if we shrugged and said, “Well, that’s not the way I do it, but if it works for you….” If we picked our battles and insisted upon being heard only when speaking about a genuinely serious matter—and, if, even then, we realized that so long as no other human being or helpless animal was being harmed by another’s decision, we should make our peace with that.

The Dishwashing Analogy might be a poor one…but it works for me.

 

 

My Blue Willow Tea Set

A few years ago, I gave a young relative a china tea set for Christmas. It was a darling thing, with holly-bespattered cups and plates, and even tiny cloth napkins.  And when I saw her later on New Year’s Eve, I told her this story.

As I grew up, I gave away all my childhood toys. They were nice toys and dolls,  well-maintained; in our family, we were expected to take good care of our playthings.  I was never allowed to drag dolls about, unclothed, with rooted hair pulled out, or to leave my toys out in our backyard, exposed to weather and wind.  Toys were picked up every evening and put in their proper places in my room.

I had some lovely dolls—Amosandra, of whom I’ve spoken in a previous blog post, and Lisa, my realistic baby doll. I had an heirloom doll crib that had been my own mother’s toy, and a gorgeous ballerina doll.  Being raised Roman Catholic, I even had a nun doll in full habit, with a rosary dangling from her fingertips.

But of all my toys, one of my favorites was my Blue Willow tea set. A dark wooden hutch held tiny china cups, plates and saucers, tea pot and sugar bowl and creamer, all in the well-known Blue Willow pattern.  The little plates and saucers stood balanced in rims along the shelves, while the cups depended from tiny hooks; there was a little drawer at the bottom of the hutch, and there I stored the tea bags my mother allowed me to have.

I played with that tea set constantly. I brewed tea using hot water from the kitchen faucet and drank it laden with sugar stirred into the cups.  I snuck a can of chicken rice soup from the pantry and took it down to our basement play area and served it to myself, cold, in the little cups, using a baby spoon that I liberated from the silverware drawer. I placed unwrapped Hershey’s kisses on the plates as canapes.  My playmates being older, they were uninterested in tea parties, but I gathered my dolls about me and played hostess to them.  Only once did I ever break a plate in the set, and my father carefully glued the two split halves together again, warning me to always be careful with it.  That plate sat always to one side on the hutch, unused.

And then I grew up.

My tea set sat, untouched, in the corner of my room as I moved from ballerina and baby dolls to Barbies, and then away from dolls entirely, to teen magazines and Monkee records and teen-heartthrob posters and lip gloss and all the paraphernalia of adolescence. Finally, embarrassed to have such childish things in my room, where they might be seen by my friends and mocked, I gathered together all my remaining dolls and toys and distributed them to the little girls in my neighborhood, or handed them over to be taken by my father and stored in the attic.

And one day after school, I gave my Blue Willow tea set to the little girl who lived in the house behind ours.

This, then, is the story I told my little relative on that New Year’s Eve a few years ago. Mimicking the look and voice of a young teen,  I told her how I became “too big for a silly tea set!”  I described how I gave away my beautiful Blue Willow china, to be played with by another little girl.  And then, feeling the tears gathering behind my eyes, I offered her the advice–words to which she probably did not listen at all, but which I felt it necessary to say:  “So, when the day comes that you are ‘too big’ for your holly tea set, don’t give it away!  Keep it.  Put it away someplace safe.  Because now I am an old woman, and I would give anything, anything at all, to have my Blue Willow tea set once more.”

I have seen Blue Willow tea sets many times since on sales sites like e-Bay and Etsy, but never the full set in the dark wooden hutch, and always at prices far beyond my reach. Sometimes I wish that I could find one just like my own lost set.  It would never be quite the same, of course; it would not be the set I played with; it would not have one carefully-glued, broken plate.  But perhaps,  just perhaps, I could touch those tiny cups and plates and saucers, gracefully lift and pretend to pour from the tiny teapot, and thereby recapture just a little bit of the woman-child who I once was, playing hostess with watery, sugary tea and soup; serving up dreams  of a future filled with grace and elegance and charm.

Our Daily Gifts

Until recently, I had experienced only one major surgery, having my gallbladder removed. Most gallbladder removal patients are sent home the same day, but because I was a single parent with only a minor daughter at home, I’d been kept in the hospital overnight.  That extra night made the whole matter of recuperating easier, for when I arrived home, I was already through the worst of the post-operative period for what is, these days, a fairly simple surgery.

So I was a little unprepared for my recovery from a far more complicated surgery, a complete hysterectomy due to uterine cancer.

As I mentioned in a prior post, I found myself essentially tossed out of the hospital only 20 hours after they wheeled me out of the operating room minus six organs—a cervix, a uterus, two fallopian tubes and two ovaries. I got to spend the most dreadful hours of the post-operative period in the “comfort” of my own home.  But even after overcoming the worst of the post-operative pain and bleeding and generalized misery, I was still unprepared for the series of  “firsts” that comprised complete recovery. I have new understanding now, and a much deeper respect for anyone recovering from major surgery, and especially for those who have undergone procedures a hundred times more serious than mine.

Life as I lived it was completely disrupted. I had to depend on others for the simplest things: food preparation, housework, errands–even medication reminders.  And, as a caretaker personality, such dependence did come not easily to me.

Consequently, everything—every simple daily activity–became a series of firsts. The first time I walked up my own stairwell, slept in my own bed, took a shower without someone standing guard. The first time I could do more with my hair than just run a brush through it. The first time I felt up to putting in my contacts, or dabbing on lip gloss and a swipe of mascara.

I literally celebrated the afternoon that I was able to wash my dishes, or the day I realized I could put down my cats’ food bowls by bending instead of carefully and slowly squatting. I was thrilled when I could finally make my own bed.  I exalted when I found myself able to get out of a gown and robe and into loose exercise pants—or when, after weeks, I was finally able to pull on jeans without too much discomfort from my sutures.  I texted everyone I knew when I was finally able to drive without pain. I had never, I exclaimed, realized how much simple pleasure was involved in just being able to run a quick errand to the bank or the grocery.

Finally given just a faint glimpse of what those with physical challenges—often mere children– must endure every day, I had a new appreciation of just how much of daily existence I had simply take for granted. Intellectually, I’d always known this, but living it was, I found, an alternate reality.  And, sadly, I also know that my memory of those challenging days will fade, leaving me with less and less awareness of and gratitude for the many things I do daily without really thinking.

As I age, though, those challenges will return. Just as I now remember, regretfully, when my muscle strength was such that I could rise from a sitting position without levering myself up, so the ability to run my own errands, clean my own house—care for myself—will (should I live long enough) eventually be lost.  Like the child I once was, like the recovering patient I have been, I will be dependent once more upon others to do these things for me.

I do not look forward to that time.   And so it is that I try to remember and appreciate each day—as I climb my stairwell; as I bathe and dress myself; as I prepare my dinner—the infinitesimal and yet vast gifts that I am bequeathed, moment by moment, and movement by movement.

Hook, Line and Sinker

Two years ago I discovered an app for my Kindle that allows me to scroll through a list of free books on the topics of my choice and decide which, if any, are those I’d like to read. Many of these novels are the initial efforts of a brand-new author; others are first books in what is to be a series.  A few are older books that the author chooses to promote in hopes of garnering new readership.

For someone who reads constantly, as I do, this should be (and often is) a great boon. It provides me the opportunity to discover authors whom I’ve never before encountered, and to enjoy reading without the worry and hassle of returning books on time to the library.  I am able to satisfy my voracious reading habits without incurring the national debt to satisfy my addiction.  In theory, then, this app provides me wonderful benefits.

In practice…not so much.

Make no mistake: I use care in selecting the books I download.  After finding a novel listed on the app, I thoroughly investigate it. I glance swiftly through the plot description, deciding if the story even sounds like something that interests me.  This can be tricky, as anyone who wants to select a good book knows.  In any case, I am persnickety. I enjoy light mysteries, but I don’t want too much blood and gore; “thriller” is not, to me, a leisure-time activity.  I’m a nervous person by nature, so I don’t need highly suspenseful novels to provoke an anxiety attack!  I also prefer that my books not be drenched in romance; heaving chests and tight buttocks and kissable lips are irritating, not titillating, and I find the romance-novel style names (Chance, Promise, Lark, Wolfe…) utterly laughable.  Nor do I want blow-by-blow descriptions of the sex act.  In my view, sex is something best done, not described.

Should a novel pass the sniff test in all these areas, I then read both the best review (the gushingly-favorable 5-Star review that was probably written by a family member or best friend) and at least two or more of the worst reviews. Those are usually the deciding factor.  If the poor reviews contain any complaints about the writing—grammar, spelling, punctuation or editing—the book is a no-go. (Disclaimer: Never doubt that I realize my own writing is hardly error-free; of that I’m  all too sadly aware.  But I am not asking a weary public to pay hard-earned money for what I’ve written.)

If a novel that I’m considering passes all my onerous qualifications, I finally take the plunge and download it.

Despite my care in selecting each book, though, I’m often disappointed. And so it is that, all too frequently, I’m reminded of the time my mother had chosen a novel at the library on one of her favorite subjects, the early American settlers.  Using just as careful a selection process as I, she nevertheless found one book to be so bad–so utterly, terribly, reprehensibly, abysmally awful–that the only thing she could possibly do was read some of the more unintentionally-hilarious passages aloud to us kids.  My mother read aloud very well: expressively, and with perfect diction.  Delivered in her faultless and precise voice, the dreadful passages of that appalling book were so unbearably funny that we literally collapsed on the floor, clutching our sides as we laughed until we hurt.

I still laugh just remembering it.  Such a comically cruel thing to do to the minds of young people!  Some of the more painfully bad sentences from that book are burned into my memory to this day.

Too late, Mom and I discovered the words “Vanity Publisher?!” penciled lightly on the flyleaf of that appalling novel. It is notable that the librarians had not erased the words.

In the world of e-books, half the novels today are essentially vanity publishing specimens. Many of these so-called authors should have their keyboards smashed and their fingers broken for the atrocities they commit in the name of literature.  More terrifying yet is the fact that a reading public swallows these works, hook, line, and sinker.

Writing a book is hard work, and those unequipped to undertake the job should not be doing it (and I include myself in that assessment). But if they insist on doing so, those authors should at the very least have the intelligence and grace to haunt the halls of their local college, find some starving graduate student aiming for a Masters in literature, and offer her or him a few paltry bucks to edit their “masterpieces”.

The rest of us might have fewer laughs that way, but we’d sure as hell burns be hitting the “Delete!” button less.