Spirituality is Big Business

When I was in my early twenties, I picked up a slim paperbound booklet that discussed a technique called Treasure Mapping. I think I paid about $1.50 for it. (I was not very affluent in those days, so I certainly couldn’t have paid much more.) The technique illustrated in the booklet would today be understood as making a vision board, and I found it fascinating. “Pictured Prayer”, the booklet explained, was simple and produced excellent results.

I gathered together the necessary accessories, all of them easy to obtain and inexpensive: photos clipped from magazines, glue, pens, construction paper — and created my first vision board. I’ve used the technique many times in the intervening years, often with surprising success. I have sometimes come across my old, discarded vision boards and realized with satisfaction that nearly everything I pictured on them had come to pass.

But recently I saw an announcement for a class in vision board making. The cost for the two-hour course, which included all materials, was $150.00.  I thought back to my $1.50 booklet, and the years of photos clipped from magazines or downloaded on the computer, the poster boards, glue sticks, glitter, stickers, or occasional scrapbooking supplies – and realized that I probably hadn’t spent $150 on all my Treasure Maps in the 40 intervening years.

In that distant era, even as I learned vision boarding, I learned to meditate by selecting library books to read about meditation techniques, listening to tapes borrowed at the library, and asking advice of those who meditated regularly. After hours of dedicated practice I found the method that seemed best for me and made meditation a lifelong practice. Today, though, I could chose to spend anywhere from $10 weekly for an hour’s guided meditation at a local new age shop, or up to $60 for an on-line course complete with an instruction manual, interactive forums, and (this one still puzzles me) a certificate of completion. I could purportedly learn the hands-on energy healing system of Reiki entirely on-line, without ever setting foot in a master teacher’s office. I could pay $10,000 for a spiritual retreat with a self-professed guru. I could complete an on-line course to become a “spiritual master” in any one of a half-dozen different disciplines – and, having completed the course, be surprised with the information that there is yet another, higher level available that could not be revealed to a mere novice, but only to a seasoned acolyte. And, of course, that newly-revealed level could be mine for only an additional $59.95!

Americans, it seems, do not believe that anything, even spirituality, has value unless it is paid for – by cash, check or charge, rather than blood, sweat and tears. You need not put real effort into learning as long as you are willing to sit at the feet of a “master” and fork over money – and plenty of it.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t legitimate costs connected with teaching classes or holding retreats! Retreat attendees have to be fed and housed, and the teacher’s time has to be compensated. A class venue doubtless has costs attached – rent to be paid, utilities to be provided, class materials to be printed. But the hubris of charging $150 for an hour spent “instructing” students how to paste pictures on poster board, or to chant, hold crystals, or meditate, veers (at least to my way of thinking) about 180 degrees north of genuine spirituality.

Once the provenance of moguls of big religion, spirituality, too, has become big business, and a lucrative business, at that. Native American spirituality is taught by those who have not one iota of genetic material from the original inhabitants of North America, and their students pay the sun, moon and stars for the privilege. Instructors with no passion except that for feathering their nests promise to incite a passion for life in their unwitting students, and coin money as they do so.

My personal advice to anyone seeking a spiritual teacher is simply this: remember, first, that you are your own best teacher. There has never been a better or easier time for self-learning. Explore cautiously, keeping both an open mind and a weather eye, but explore. Read, watch videos, learn, practice. And if you find you need assistance to progress on your chosen path, or feel ready for that retreat, or believe a class with others might help – do your homework. Seek out a teacher who is validly a master teacher in her or his discipline, who is passionate about passing knowledge on to others, and who, mostly importantly, lives in such as manner as to demonstrate the value of the subject in which they will instruct you. If a cost is associated with the instruction, investigate what the payment covers, and decide if it seems reasonable, reimbursing the instructor’s costs and time and other essentials, or keeping a center in the black, but not intentionally generating massive profit.  And only then decide if the price is genuinely worth paying, or if you can find methods less financial and more truly spiritual to gain instruction in your chosen discipline.

But the finest spiritual instructor will always be the one you find in two places: your own mind, and your own heart.

And if all else fails, you can always make a Treasure Map.

Retirement Is…

Yet another acquaintance who retired at the same time I did recently said to me, “Retirement is not all it’s cracked up to be.”

Frankly, I don’t get it. I love being retired.  I gladly trade my moments of loneliness, occasional bouts of boredom, and finances that are sometimes on the edge, for my freedom—freedom  from the unending daily stress of rushing to and from the office and of being always at the mercy of petty despots in a faux totalitarian state.

In truth, when I received a cancer diagnosis, one of the first thoughts that entered my mind was, “Well, whatever else happens, I have had two wonderful years.”   Two years that would not have happened had I not been forced into the early retirement that I had never planned to take.  Two years for which I have been immensely grateful.  Two years in which I have had time.  Time, at last, for myself. Time to do all I want to do for others.

I wonder if what my retired acquaintances are truly expressing is actually just coming head-to-head with the reality of aging. Sadly, it’s true: I am not as physically limber as I once was.  Unexpected aches trouble me, especially at night; and although I have not yet experienced major physical limitations, I nevertheless find myself concerned about them in my future, as well as the ever-present reality of falls (such as the tumble I took last year down my own stairwell).  Recovery from such mishaps is no longer assured or quick. I discover that I look for ways to avoid dropping to the floor, since getting back up requires a touch of maneuvering and the inevitable “Ooof!” escaping from my lips. Growing older is frightening because the only way out of it is even worse.

The truth is, though, that I can’t remain focused on these minor physical problems, because I’m usually just too busy. I work constantly on this blog (and anyone who recalls writing  essays in high school is well aware of just how much work that takes).   I read all the books I never had time to read—and that’s a lot of books–and I write comprehensive reviews of each, as well as reviewing any product I buy on-line. I joyously babysit my little granddaughter and lend a hand  in completing household chores at my daughter’s home, knowing that every dish washed or load of laundry completed is time freed that she might spend with her own child.  In the warm months, I invade her garden to battle weeds and overgrowth like enemies of an evil empire; in bad weather, I crochet

 

and sew and join coloring groups

 

and catch up on household chores. I read the daily news from at least three different sources to be certain I’m getting a well-rounded viewpoint.  My home (always neat as a pin) is at last nearly both as clean and almost as organized as I like it to be, and I’ve even managed to accomplish some of my home improvement tasks. I use the expertise garnered from 45 years of office work to help a friend create flyers and manuals for the classes she teaches. I help out with sick friends, and, blessedly, when I fall sick myself, I don’t have to worry about calling in to the office, obtaining a doctor’s excuse, or dealing with unsympathetic supervisors.  I meet friends for yoga or meditation, creating vision boards, thrift shopping, girls’ home movie afternoons, flea marketing and antiquing.  I have coffee and breakfast with them as we discuss the state of the world, verbally trash all the world leaders, consign every politician to the nether regions of hell,  and rehash exactly the many ways in which everything would be SO much better if we were running the show.

I do, in fact, everything that I always longed to do during the weary years from the age of 18 until 62, when I worked full-time, cared for my home and family, and, struggling to meet all my responsibilities, never quite seemed to catch up or get enough sleep or have any time for myself.

I’m not certain how to respond when my retired friends claim that they are disappointed in the reality of their situation, for I fail to understand their mindset. The truth is, I’m having a rip-roaring good time.  Retirement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be—it’s better.

My Totally Un-Grown-Up Coloring and Tea Party!

My 64th birthday was more than a bit grim, as I awaited surgery for a potentially terminal illness. Oh, the family celebration was enjoyable; a young relative and I have birthdates falling only ten days apart, and we chose to make the whole gathering a lively thing by celebrating together in conjunction with Chinese New Year. But throughout the entire evening there was no way to escape the knowledge, lodged like an evil imp in the corner of my brain, that this might be the last time I gathered with my family to celebrate a birthday in this lifetime.

Circle the world on its axis…  I woke one January night nearly a year later.  Lying there, unable to sleep, I was overwhelmed by a deep gratitude that I would be entering soon upon my 65th year, healed. This year, I suddenly realized, I wanted a birthday party that was truly a celebration. I wanted something simply fun. I lay there pondering the question of just how to achieve that aim, and the answer came easily: I and many of my cronies considered coloring to be fun: just plain good fun. An Inner Child sort of party, I thought. A return to the simple pleasures of childhood. A coloring party would be the perfect way to celebrate my 65th birthday. Still restlessly tossing and not sleeping, I considered the question of what foods should be served at a coloring party, and again the answer rose up easily: another childhood favorite. A tea party.  I might no longer own my beloved childhood Blue Willow tea set (see the post, My Blue Willow Tea Set, 06/26/18), but I still loved a tea party.

Having taken hold, the idea spiraled. IMG_20190228_072333378_HDR (2)A family member suggested that all the pages colored at the party could be gathered into a scrapbook by which to remember my 65th birthday; an old friend arranged the use of a local church hall, so that I could invite as many people as I chose. Family and friends committed to bringing tea party-themed dishes. I searched for and found delightful miniature tea sets—thumbnail-sized plastic teapots with matching fairy-sized cups–to be inserted into organza bags and handed out as “tea bag” party favors.Tea Set I bought crayons and colored pencils and markers and coloring books and door prizes and party goods, and lovingly warned out-of-town friends who could not be present that they were expected to send me a colored page, too. Then, much as I had done for my daughter’s wedding, I petitioned all the saints and powers given charge of the weather for a snow-free February afternoon, and prepared to party.

The saints and powers were kind; the Saturday of the party dawned grey, misty, and perhaps a little ugly, but snow-free and fairly warm for a late February day in the Midwest. Friends and their young children or grandchildren arrived in droves–with late arrivals and early departures, over 40 people were present at some point during the party. They hunkered down to laugh, gossip, win door prizes and sip tea while nibbling a luscious assortment of goodies: rose petal jam cookies and tiny tea sandwiches; canapés and strawberries; nut bread and cupcakes–all the while producing colored pages—beautiful, funny, delightful–for my scrapbook.

At the end of the day, everyone pronounced the party to have been a great success. I was gratified, exhausted, and pleased beyond all measure. All I had really wanted was for my family and friends to have fun as they helped me create the memory of a lovely birthday to expunge the uneasy recollection of the one that had preceded it.

And for that reason alone, the Coloring and Tea Party was more than a success; it was a small miracle. Although nothing will ever completely erase the memory of those  anxious weeks spent awaiting cancer surgery, the support and care of family and friends who saw me through those dreadful days limns that fearful remembrance with a halo of shelter and sanctuary. In the same way, the recollection of that former gloomy birthday pales into insignificance beside my wonderful new memory of loved ones gathered in laughter and  happiness to relive childhood pleasures.

Growing old is inevitable, the saying goes, but growing up is optional. I could not ask for more than that each of us occasionally once more experience the simple joys of childhood, right up until the day we leave this life.

Growing a Spine

I am one who avoids conflict at all costs, sometimes—often–to my own detriment. Early experiences taught me that it was safest to be a pleaser; to be cautious, to maneuver or manipulate, rather than confront.  The direct approach is rarely my chosen route; I am ever a pacifist.  Consequently, it’s been an on-going challenge throughout my life to be able to tackle opponents head-on.  Instead, I often go in through the back door of confrontation by writing—letters, reviews, e-mails–rather than speaking my truth aloud.

For that reason, following surgery last winter, I refused to answer the automated Patient Experience phone call a few weeks later. I had a lot to say, but I was NOT going to spend 20 minutes pressing 10 for “Very Likely” or 1 for “Worst Experience EVER”, and receive perhaps two minutes at the end of the call to speak my piece.  Instead, I looked up the address for the Patient Experience division and wrote a letter—a real, true paper letter.  A long letter.  I provided detailed descriptions of both the good and bad aspects of my pre- and post-surgical experience.

It’s probably notable that a few weeks after sending my letter, I received a call from a genuine human being. The call from an unknown number went to voice mail, and I declined to return it; I had said all I wanted to say in my usual non-threatening manner.

But I am also very much of the “do as I say, not as I do” mindset. Just because I’m rarely willing to speak up for myself doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize when those around me are doing the same thing—again, to their own detriment.  This was never made more clear to me than once when, at a party, I listened a woman discussing the mother-in-law who had browbeaten her for years.

Mother-in-law lived out of town, and had made it her habit to simply call and announce when she would be arriving to stay for any length of time—a night, a weekend, a holiday, or longer, with no consideration for any plans already made by her son’s family. That was bad enough, her victim explained bitterly, but this high-handed woman’s expectations went much further.  She would demand that certain other people, relatives and friends, be invited for dinner or parties during her stay, and would even specify what was to be served at those functions (food for which the mother-in-law paid nothing, her long-suffering daughter-in-law noted).  When the gatherings were held, the mother-in-law failed to lift a finger either for preparation or cleanup.  In fact, during each of her stays she expected to be waited on hand and foot.

As this angry woman expounded ever more bitterly upon her mother-in-law’s outrageous behavior, it crossed my mind to wonder why, since his wife was so compliant, her husband never put his foot down to refuse his mother’s demands. However, it’s often that “like marries like”,  I realized, and the husband was probably just as docile as his subservient wife.

One would think the breaking point would have been reached when, as the victim explained, she’d just endured major surgery when mom-in-law announced her latest visit—a visit which was to include inviting the husband’s sister and all her family for a dinner party, as well as several outings. Apparently, at this point her submissive daughter-in-law finally protested, explaining that she needed bed rest for her recovery.  Her protests were dismissed as her mother-in-law declared that that getting up (and apparently working her fingers to the bone) was the best thing for her daughter-in-law’s recovery.

At this point in the woman’s narrative, I finally spoke up myself. “This is HIS mother, and your husband didn’t stand up for you while you were ill?!” I spluttered.  She merely shrugged with her hands splayed upward.  “Well, I would have told her to shove it in a sock and just stayed in bed!” I pronounced, was horrified when she said that “was impossible”.

As non-confrontational as I am, I could not comprehend this woman’s inability to grow a spine. I’d have suspected that she was exaggerating her situation, but later, after she’d left, others at the party—all of them just as mystified as I was about her passivity–confirmed her description of events.

Growing a spine is harder than hell. As I say, I go in the back door by writing, but at least I take some type of action to stand up for myself.  This woman’s submissiveness, and that of her husband, was totally incomprehensible to me.

I think about that woman’s story sometimes, especially when remembering my refusal to take the phone call after the hospital received my letter. I told myself that I’d said all I wanted to say, but was that really the truth? Or was my own spinal pliability the real reason?

Hmmmm. Maybe I’ll send “Patient Experience” a copy of a couple of my blogs from that time.

The Evil Machinations of This Blog!

Rejoice, readers. You have been preserved from the evil machinations of my chatty little blog by the combined efforts of Amazon and the local New Age shop. You are now safe and protected! You are no longer subject to the intrigue and conspiracy, the plotting and scheming, present in these talkative little posts. Aren’t you grateful? What more could you ask? (Other than to be adults permitted to make up your own minds, that is.)

You see, a short while ago I decided to update my “Beckett Shiona” profile on Amazon. (That “Shiona”, by the way, references the name I give to each of my computers, as they die and are replaced. After all, the PC is doing a lot of the work as I write—it deserves recognition!) In any case, Beckett Shiona is the name under which I write my many, many book reviews – about 600 of them, to date.   Not that I have any followers; as someone who eschews the giant of Facebook, not to mention Twitter, or runners-up in the social media world such as Goodreads—well, those of us who circle the worlds in a slightly more subdued manner are a bit like those alien installations on the dark side of the moon: we don’t exist. Nevertheless, my non-existent self maintains an Amazon profile just so that the authors, be they lambasted or praised, may look upon a photo and read just a tad about the person who spoke, nastily or nicely, about their books.

So I updated the blurb that describes who I am and why I write reviews, and changed my profile photo.

And this, it seems, triggered a review by some Amazonian Minion. (I would have said jackass, but that would be rude.)

You see, there’s a place provided on the profile to note one’s website. And, as I pay considerably extra to WordPress for the possession of an actual web address, I had always noted that address in my Amazon profile. After all, being retired, my occupation was listed as “Blogger”, so  including the blog address seemed like a reasonable action. Or so I thought for the nearly two years it had been listed.

Obviously not.

A chastising and sternly-worded e-mail landed in my in-box in about the space of time it took to turn around thrice shouting, “Evil! Bad! Wrong!” By including the web address in my profile, I had, it seems, violated “community standards”.  Despite the fact that my non-monetized, garrulous little blog is neither a product nor a service, and said web address has been sitting there in plain view on my profile for nearly two years, it was now utterly forbidden. Noting it in my profile was verboten. To “protect” the public.

To say that this ticked me off mightily would be the equivalent of saying that Hurricane Katrina was a wee bit of a storm–especially since I’d just gone through a very similar erasure process at the local New Age shop.

Again, because I eschew most social media, shortly after beginning this blog I’d created a few “blog announcement” business cards.  Blog CardThey provided just the blog title, motto, and web address. Whenever I gave tips to servers (and I am a good tipper), I handed them out along with the money. I hung the cards on any bulletin board I came across, too, and had actually gained a few followers thereby.

So the local New Age shop bulletin board seemed a logical place to pin a few cards. After all, the flyers and business cards already on  the board encompassed everything from roofing to retreats. But, ever mindful of courtesy, I asked the checkout clerks if I might hang a few of the blog announcement cards there among the businesses and lost pet flyers. (And let me just say that I don’t honestly believe that anyone else EVER asked before pinning up flyers or cards; they just did so.)

The clerks said they would run this past their supervisor, and I smilingly acquiesced. A week or two later, seeing no cards on the board, I asked if the request had been approved. They hadn’t had a chance to find out, the clerks told me. I waited another week, and checked again. No, not yet, they replied.

This song and dance continued for over two months—at which time I was diagnosed with a serious illness, and having my blog announcement cards on the bulletin board receded into unimportance in the face of other, more vital matters—like saving my own life. My blog cards never appeared on the bulletin board, and were never returned to me, either. I suppose they went into the trash.

A year went by and, healed and refreshed, I printed a new batch of blog announcement cards. This time, though, I knew better than to ask. I stuck a half-dozen of them right up there on the bulletin board in the midst of all the other effluvia.

Where they were promptly removed by management within the week—again, I presume, to the trash can.

And so there you have it, folks: The Saga of Your Protection From the Utter Evil of My Chatty Little Blog. Be my weekly subject humor—or introspection—or spirituality—or merely observation—you are SAFE. You are PROTECTED. You are NOT EXPOSED to the sheer, awful reality of my maunderings.

The Jackasses of Power have seen to that.

By the way, New Age shop–I really want my expensive blog announcement cards back.

I Want to Know the End of My Story

Shortly after my brush with cancer, the mother of one of my daughter’s oldest friends passed away, dying in her sleep. Marilyn had gone through surgery a few months earlier, but was recovering, so her unexpected death was shocking to everyone–not in the least to me, for she was seven years younger than I.

That event, combined with my own experience of a potentially terminal illness, has left an indelible impression on me.

I’ve never been one of those people who go blithely through adult life, never once considering the reality of their own mortality. As a new mother, one of my first actions was to write a will and name both a  guardian and trustee for my child, should she lose both her father and me.  As the newly-divorced mother of a young teenager, purchasing a new car, I was easily persuaded to add the extra few dollars to my monthly payment for insurance that would pay off the car if I died, reducing any debt that might be left to my daughter. Throughout my working years, for much the same reason, I carried all the additional life insurance my employer offered,  because I might die at any time, and my child would need the money.

Shortly after retiring, having researched the laws concerning the subject in the state where I live, I purchased an urn for my own ashes, finding a lovely, large lidded vase at (of all places) a flea market. Although I’ve made it clear to all and sundry that I’d prefer my ashes be scattered, I’d seen the “temporary urn” provided for  my mother’s cremation, and was appalled; it looked like a Hershey’s cocoa box!  One way or another, I decided, I was going out in style. Still, I wasn’t about to have my family paying the inflated prices of a mortuary urn. And so my crackle-glazed, bird of paradise-decorated ceramic vase reposes on my closet shelf, carefully marked as to its future use.

And then there was the wracking asthma attack in the middle of the night that had, just a few months prior to my cancer diagnosis, come close to taking me across the Veil. The realization that night that, “I might not make it out of this one!” had dismayed but not shocked me; nor did the tumble down my stairwell a few months later, which might have had such terrible results.

However much I may want to stick around for awhile yet, I am completely comfortable with the knowledge of my own mortality.

But, as I said in a previous post (I Want to Know the End of the Story, 07/06/18), I do want to know.  I want to know the end of my story.

I am the person who often flips to the final pages of my mystery novel to read the dénouement.   I can’t stand waiting to see if I’ve actually fingered the murderer.  During Downtown Abbey’s first run, I knew about the upcoming death of character Matthew because I’d sneakily read a British website describing the episode long before the show aired in America. I always want to know the end of the story.

I once attended a lecture by a Buddhist monk who explained that we should choose the manner of our going—to meditate upon it, and to announce our choice to the universe. I found this an interesting concept, and gave it a good deal of thought, but made no decision.  Later, a friend explained that she plans to die in her sleep when she is age 85.  I admired her resolution, but I don’t want to give myself an expiration date; the Divine might have plans for me beyond what I consider a reasonable life span.

But I am incredibly well-organized and orderly, and it bothers me that so much of life, and death, is not. I do not like chaos.  I don’t like surprises.  I dislike bedlam and confusion.

And so I am finally meditating upon the manner of my own passing, as that Buddhist monk once taught that we should do. I won’t, as my friend has done, accord myself an expiration date. But if that monk was right, and it is possible, then I want to decide what my going will someday be.

After all, as I have said once before: I want to know the end of my own story.

 

Lemonade From Lemons

I saw the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” at the theatre on the first weekend of its release. As I left the theatre that evening, I overheard a woman walking beside me comment to her companion, “I wouldn’t have wanted to miss that!”, a sentiment with which I and numerous other smiling moviegoers apparently agreed.  But as I glanced over at her, beaming agreement, I glimpsed the frowning face of her companion.  He proceeded to explode in a plethora of angry complaints about the movie.  It was obvious to me—and to just about everyone nearby in the theatre lobby—that he had NOT enjoyed the movie, and, by golly, she and every one of us present was going to be made aware of that fact.

I’ve had reason to recall this unpleasant moment on multiple occasions as various male companions responded to movies we had just watched together. And I’ve begun to wonder if this is just a facet of my generation—or my bad taste in boyfriends–or if it’s simply a male trait in general to respond to a movie disappointment by behaving as if the writer/producer/director/actors all intentionally conspired to perpetrate upon him a film which he despised.

I’ve attended many a disappointing movie with women friends. Discussing it afterwards, that’s basically what we’ve said, too: “Well, that was a disappointment.”  “I’m sorry I wasted my money on that.” “I didn’t really like it” (with a shrug).  “Well, at least the popcorn was good!” (with a giggle).

But leaving a substandard movie, or turning off the TV, while with a male acquaintance has almost inevitably resulted in an explosion of sorts. And I puzzle over this.

Discussing the subject with various female friends, it actually does appear to me that an irritation or disappointment—not just with a movie, but with outings in general—results in (shrug shoulders) “Oh, well” from the female contingent, while our male counterparts complain bitterly about the vile wrong perpetrated upon them.

Never was this made more clear to me than the time my sisters-in-law and I went to The Festival That Didn’t Happen.

Now, my Chosatives (see my 12/17/17 blog post) and I are small-town-festival junkies.  We love the fair food, the smiling crowds, the hokey little parades.  We adore shopping for homemade crafts and homegrown produce.  So a few summers ago, we hurried out of town to one of the first festivals of the season.

Which, as it happens, didn’t. Happen, that is.  Somehow the organizers had come up with a name for the “First Annual” festival, gotten it listed in the annually-published booklet of festivals throughout the state, named the attractions that would be available…and then somehow just lost momentum.

We arrived and there were no booths selling crafts and produce, no little parade, no corndogs and gyros and elephant ears. No Lions Club barbeque. There was, in fact, no festival, and the few year-long merchants in the area, dishing out ice cream and hot dogs and burgers at their little diners, were just as bewildered and apologetic as people could be.

Oh, there were still a few things to see: the town was an extremely old one, in a picturesque location, and there was, in fact, a wedding being held in that lovely lakeside venue; we watched from the outdoor seating area of a countryside diner as the photographer took gorgeous photos of a young couple. There were historic old houses, an antique shop, and a rustic general store.  And it was a simply beautiful early spring day, soft and warm with scudding, fluffy clouds in a bright, sunny sky.

So we three enjoyed ourselves. We strolled about and licked ice cream cones.  We looked at the town’s lovely old architecture, watched the wedding photos being taken, explored the antique shop and a century-old millworks grinding grain, the general store and a year-round Christmas shop.  We had, in fact, a lovely afternoon.  Then we came home.

But we also discussed what would have happened had the male members of our family been along for this “failed” outing, and shuddered, considering the complaints, angst, bitterness over wasted gas and a long drive, and general grumbles, moans and protests that would have taken place, ruining what had turned out to be quite a pleasant day.

Perhaps, as I say, this is just a personality quirk among my own family and friends, that our womenfolk tend to make lemonade from the lemons of life. Nevertheless, I wonder if, at some future date, I will not read some scholarly and scientific article comparing the rate of wars and generalized destruction to a predominantly-male habit of bitter resentment over the most minor vicissitudes of life.

But how much more relaxing to shrug and say that the popcorn was great, and enjoy sipping lemonade while strolling the boardwalk

The Name of My Year

I know what year it is: 2019. But I don’t yet know what year it will be.

Many, perhaps most people do this, I’ve noticed. The majority of years are thought of just as the number stated at the top of the calendar. But throughout our lifetime, that number often pales into insignificance as we give the year a verbal title recalling events pertinent to us: The Year Joe Died. The Year Haley Was Born. The Year of the Flood, the Wildfire, the Hurricane. The Year We Bought the House. The Year I Graduated.

These titles lend such richness and flavor to our memories that we often speak of them in just that way before stopping a beat—closing our eyes and searching our memories for a moment to recall the actual date of the occurrence: “The year the kids were married—oh, yeah, that was 2017. Yes, October, October 7, 2017.”

I have a flock of years like that in my recollection: arrows of memories winging their way through the skies of reminisce, named for events both traumatic or blessed, as I scroll through the chapters of my life—for that is how I think of them: chapter titles. Beneath each is a viable script, paragraphs of meaning and explanation, tracing details and events quite unrelated, one would think, to that chapter title. Together, they comprise the book of my lifetime, beginning with Chapter One: The Year I Was Born. (Perhaps the book may be titled: I Was Born: It Could Happen to Anybody!)

Since retiring, though, I’ve noticed more of a tendency to think of all of my years as verbal titles, rather than those numbers displayed so prominently at the top of the calendar page. And so I currently look back upon The Year I Retired, followed by The Year of the Cookbooks. (That second odd title requires a touch of explanation, no doubt: That was the year when I told my cousin, proprietor of our late Grandmother Marie’s huge box of recipe cards, “Look here, Susie, you’re busy! You work, you have a teenage daughter. You’re never going to get around to copying those recipes for all of us. I’m retired; time hangs from my hands like loops of yarn. Lend me the cards, and I’ll transcribe them into a cookbook for everyone in the family.”)

And transcribe I did, through the course of one entire spring and summer, occasionally losing a bit of my mind in the process as I stumbled through difficult handwriting, missing information, and antique recipe nomenclature that required hours of research to resolve. (What the HECK was a “29¢ bag of chocolate chips”? 29 CENTS? Or a “Number 2 Can” of pumpkin? For the love of God and little green apples, Grandma, what do you mean, “Bake until done”? Uh, is there a temperature connected with this, much less a time?)

My sanity, such as it is, was severely challenged by the Year of the Cookbooks, yet when it was done, I had a PDF document ready to e-mail to every family member who wanted it, complete with Grandma’s high school graduation photo on the cover, and other pictures and memorable food-related, riotous stories scattered throughout.

Marie Gregory

So delighted was I with the results of my efforts that (definitely, sanity-challenged!) I turned right around and transcribed all my own recipes into a cookbook, also.

The Year of the Cookbook was followed by The Year of the Wedding,Dancing with my daughter at her wedding as I leapt into the preparations (finally—were any two people ever engaged for SO LONG?!) for the wedding of my only daughter. A frustrating, amazing, exhausting, meticulous, wonder-filled and magnificent year, in which everything that could go wrong, did, and yet in which I somehow managed to help produce the most marvelous and glorious wedding possible for my beloved children.

Then came the most recent year, 2018: My Dickens Year. It was, genuinely, the best of times, the worst of times. I might have titled it “The Year of Cancer and of Morrigan’s Birth”, but it’s simpler just to recall it as My Dickens Year. Diagnosed with cancer in January, cured by surgery and prayer and natural treatments in March, and finally overwhelmed by indescribable, heart-breaking, breathtaking, wondrous joy by the birth of my first grandchild in August, it was, beyond any measure, a year of the worst of times, a year of the best of times.002

And so, this morning, as I traced my fingers over the number at the top of the paper calendar that I persist in using and enjoying despite a digital world, I realized: I know what year it is. I do. It is 2019.

But, for the moment, I don’t yet know what year it will be.

Being THAT Person

We all know one: the person who is incredibly thin-skinned. Whose feelings brim close to the surface and who is constantly, easily hurt. Who almost seeks out reasons for offense.

And, of course, at one point or another during our lives, many (most?) of us have been that person.

Thoughts of this behavior hovered in my mind recently when the Universe seemed to have declared a “pick on Beckett” day. One friend, not at all meaning to be unkind (and specifically saying so), pointed out a physical flaw that was likely to worsen due to a minor medical problem I was experiencing. While making this point only with the intention of providing helpful advice, it was, nevertheless, said in front of others, and so embarrassed me slightly.  I said nothing, allowing the feeling to slide off, but it arose like a buried demon and came back to haunt me when I woke in the middle of the night, hovering before me and forcing me to deal with the unpleasant emotions evoked by my friend’s comment.

Later that same day, another acquaintance used a pair of topics from this very blog to press a point in a very negative manner. Once again, the words were said in front of others; this time, I was both startled and taken aback, hardly knowing how to respond. And, once more, I let those feelings slide off, telling myself sternly that no harm was actually intended, and saying nothing. But that memory, coupled with the other incident, haunted me in wakeful moments in the small hours of the night, robbing me of sleep and causing self-doubt and unhappiness.

In the morning, I took time to fully consider my reaction, shining the light of day into my wounded places. Was I really reacting just to my friends’ words, I wondered?  Or was I actually responding to past events of intentional bullying–situations that wrought havoc in my life and left emotional scars. Should I have spoken up at the time to each of these people? By keeping silent, was I behaving masochistically? Would the memory of these events cause difficulty in my future relationships with these friends, resentment casting a pall over our interactions? Was I actually even doing each of my acquaintances no favor by failing to point out that they had distressed me? For if they did not realize they had unintentionally offended, I reasoned, they might easily do this again, to someone else—someone perhaps less prepared to deal with the resultant emotional turmoil.

Or (and this was the hardest thing to consider) was I simply being too thin-skinned, seeking out reason to feel hurt feelings; seeking out cause for offense?

My thoughts ping-ponged in this manner for the better part of a day, until I finally decided that I had wasted enough valuable time thinking through a very minor set of events. In the end, I decided, because no offense had been intended—in the first case, quite the opposite, in fact—I needed to take no offense. To do otherwise would place me in the category of being that person: the one who is always offended, always upset, always drowning in a welter of hurt feelings, always affronted and angry and miserable.

That person, I realized—the hypersensitive, prickly, overly-emotional, constantly aching bundle of nerve endings, has one trait that I shared and was quickly spiraling into as I overthought the events I’d just experienced: an over-inflated sense of self-importance. A unreasonable belief that everyone around me should “just know” what might upset me, and therefore either avoid such circumstances entirely, or, having stumbled into them, immediately apologize.

I am not that important.

Neither are you.

Those around us—friends, acquaintances, coworkers, family members, neighbors—will sometimes, inevitably, inadvertently, hurt our feelings. But if these events are not malicious, nor continual and pervasive—not slyly abusive, nor subtlely cruel– then we, adults all, need to relinquish our over-inflated sense of self importance and just get over it. Shrug. Consider the source. Let it roll off. Save our high dudgeon for the really critical problems of relationships. But, most importantly, we must be certain of our genuine selves: certain of the person who we each are at our core and center, so that the thoughtless remarks of others have no ability to cast a pall over our spirit.

That sure self-knowledge is, after all, the ability that comprises a true sense of self worth: the sure center of our spirit; the Self that can never be harmed by the thoughtless, careless words or behavior of another.

Repainting the Nativity

Following the most recent holiday season, I’ve spent weeks working to refurbish my small nativity scene.  This grouping—just the three main figures—is nearly 25 years old. I purchased the expensive set from a charity-oriented catalog, spending money that I didn’t really have, because I was taken with the unusual grouping. Unlike traditional displays, the child in my tiny nativity scene is cradled in his mother’s arms, while she sits encircled within the loving touch of her husband.

Despite their cost, the statues I received were formed of cheap plastic, their clothing created by cloth that was probably dipped into some mild hardener, such as white glue, and then draped. The faces were surprisingly detailed and well-sculpted, but because they were created in an Asian country, the skin tones and eyes were representative more of their origins than those of a family from the Mideast. But I appreciated my little set especially for that very reason; it seemed to me to be more universally  inclusive. The muted, uneven colors of the cloth, and its rough texture, correctly represented a family in exodus, travelling in poverty.

One of my own family members, though, found my nativity set comical. A sad person who usually tried to build herself up by cutting others down, her preferred method of criticism was mockery. And so it happened during one holiday season several years ago that she sat at my Christmas dinner table, laughingly examining the figurines where they perched, surrounded in holly garland, on the pass-through to the kitchen (to keep them safe from my cats, who regarded the Baby as a hockey puck). My relative made scathing remarks about St. Joseph’s “sick-looking” face, and the fading colors and battered cloth covering the statues. Where on earth, she demanded, had I found such a pathetic  little display?

Respecting both the day and her status as a family member, I forbore to answer in kind, replying only that my  nativity set had been created in an impoverished country. I neglected to mention how much I had actually paid for it, but explained that the proceeds from sales went largely to people who desperately needed the money. I let the matter rest there.

But I felt stung. I loved my little nativity scene, but I had to admit that it was true: the statues were beginning to show their age. So that January I set about repainting the figurines. I carefully changed their facial tones to accurately represent desert dwellers, and altered their clothing to colors that, while slightly more traditional, were still faithful to the era represented. The smooth acrylic paint restored the cloth to stiffness and luster. I was pleased with the results.

Years again passed, and during this most recent holiday season, I re-examined my nativity set. The colors painted a decade ago had not faded (as had the sting of those long ago critical comments); instead, they had darkened.  holy family loves cats Joseph’s shepherd’s crook had been stolen and used for another hockey game by my ever-marauding cats. The tiny statues no longer quite pleased me, I realized. I made up my mind to refurbish the set once more.

But this time, as I brought out paints and brushes in January, I approached my nativity scene with a different idea in mind. I would not be adding tints to represent a family of immigrants in poverty. Instead, I would be painting them as the sacred souls that they were, not just in Christian legend, but in countless myths and legends of a Sacred Birth from all the eras and all the countries of the world.

Finally finished (I’m not a particularly good artist, and painting comes hard to me), the seated figure of the Divine Mother wears a scarf of silver, touched with opalescent paint. The guardian figure of her husband, standing near her and encircling her and the Child, is partially cloaked in gold—gold, for the nobility of a man who gave up everything: home and family and livelihood, to fly into hiding in Egypt—and all for a child that was not even his. And the Divine Child is swaddled in a shining blanket bespattered with  minute stars.  img_20190115_110047196 (2)

Refurbishing my aging nativity scene has been a careful, thoughtful effort. I seriously debated before finally adding haloes to the figurines, created of gold and stars. It was the finishing touch.

img_20190115_110150240But an acquaintance dropped by one recent afternoon as I was fitting the small, painted twig, shaped like a Scottish thumb stick (a type of walking stick), into Joseph’s tiny hand.

She examined my work with raised eyebrows. It was obvious she thought little of my small, shining saints.  “That doesn’t look anything like a shepherd’s crook,” she at last complained.

I took a deep breath. It wasn’t Christmas day, and she wasn’t a relative! Shooting her as withering a look as my face was capable of producing, I retorted decisively, He wasn’t a shepherd. He was a carpenter.”

No one was ever going to criticize my noble St. Joseph, not ever again.