Please Stop Using the Term “Karen”: It’s Racist, Ageist, and Misogynistic

Slurs are specifically intended to elicit a negative reaction.

WARNING: This essay recounts several racist and rude labels, not to insult, but to press a point about the damage done by such slurs. Confronting them may be extremely disturbing and triggering for many readers.

It seems not terribly long ago when I first encountered the word “Karen” used as an epithet. Totally bewildered, I had to punch out to Startpage (no, I do NOT use Google!) to find the meaning of what seemed an obvious slur. The various sites I glanced through each provided basically the same definition: Entitled White Middle-Aged Woman. A few sites included a belittling physical description and mentioned personal behavior characteristics.

My immediate reaction was indignation: indignation first on behalf of a relative named Karen, who in no way fit the descriptions I encountered; then on the part of an acquaintance, a Black woman, also named Karen; and finally on behalf of all the women in the world, everywhere, named Karen. I wasn’t sure if the appellation had arisen due to someone’s upsetting encounter with an actual, unpleasant individual by the name of Karen, but it seemed absolutely nuts to use a common personal name to label a cluster of disagreeable behaviors inherent within an artificially concocted subset of humanity. Nuts and rude.

For a long while I continued merely feeling indignant and disapproving  whenever I encountered the pejorative term in written or spoken form. But after long, long months of seeing the tag flung about by otherwise intelligent and ethical people, I’m far past indignation. I’m miles past, “Well, that’s just rude.” I’m fully into the territory of flaming, roaring, raging, disgusted pissed-offedness.

If “Karen” is used to intentionally indicate Entitled Middle-Aged White Woman, then it is a racist, misogynistic and ageist epithet. Hardly misses any harmful categories there, does it? It is right on par with all other vile epithets. It is deliberately insulting and intended to elicit a negative emotional response in the reader/listener.

I know from personal experience what it is to be called a Wop (which, according to the person spouting the cruel nickname, was “…just a joke. Can’t you take a joke?”) It wasn’t a joke. Passive aggression never is. Racial and ageist and sexual slurs never are. If their reality disturbs you, then skip the rest of this paragraph; otherwise, let’s be brave and confront just a few of these ugly, detestable monikers, shall we? Wop, Dago. Nigger, Jigaboo. Redskin, Paleface. Chink, Gook. Krauts. Japs. Kike. Old Fart. Greaser, Spic. Slut, Ho. Camel Jockey, Raghead. Hillbilly. Faggot, Homo. Honkey. Polack.

A terribly uncomfortable, viscerally disturbing list, is it not? Nauseating to some. Agonizing for others. And those are just the ones with which I am familiar. I’m sure there are countless more.

And now, Karen.

“Don’t call people names. It’s not nice.” I must have been scolded with that phrase a dozen or more times during my childhood, by parents, grown relatives, and teachers—adults who then, not caring that they were overheard, tossed out in casual conversation any number of racist, sexual and ethnic slurs. Leading by example was not a strong suit on the Pale Island* of my childhood. Then I grew up and moved to the American South, and found my jaw dropping as I heard Black teenagers affectionately call one another “Nigger”. Surely I hadn’t really just heard…! Except…why not? Hadn’t my family members often comically or affectionately bandied about the term “Wop”? “You dirty Wop,” my then-young father and his long-time friend and mentor laughingly called one another. Ah, of course: the difference. Between ourselves, and only ourselves; between us Wops, it actually was a joke, and even a term of affection. But only between ourselves. When my (now thankfully ex) husband, not of Italian American heritage, tried the same thing, it became a rank bone of contention between us.

Don’t call people names. It’s not nice…unless they share your heritage and experience. Unless they are in on the joke: the joke of taking something derogatory and evil and transmuting it into a shared experience, thereby rendering it harmless.

There is no way “Karen” can be rendered harmless. It is a vile and bitter taunt; a sneering, intentionally derisive gibe. It is a label—a label that “others”—dehumanizes–human beings, who (despite possibly having and sharing characteristics, some of them disagreeable) are, in fact, human beings. People. Women. Individuals.

Not a group. Not all the same.

It’s long past time that we all, every last one of us, stop applying these offensive sticky notes to the members of our human family.

There are, sad to say, many people who walk this sad world wearing a patina of entitlement. And those people come in every color of the human rainbow. They are male, female, and every finally-recognized gender in between. They come in all ages, all sizes, and are drawn from all walks of life.

There are, in fact, no Karens. There are only self-satisfied hypocrites who find security in labeling others in order to assure themselves of their own righteousness.

*The reference to the ” ‘Pale Island’ of my childhood” can be found in the blog post Juneteenth from June 16, 2021.

When We Weren’t White

This blog post was actually scheduled to publish during the week of Columbus/Indigenous Peoples Day. But Mercury Retrograde was in full swing at that time, supposedly causing everything technical to go totally whack; somehow, the post never appeared. So let’s blame it on Mercury Retrograde! Here it is now, belated and totally out of sync with the holiday, but heartfelt nonetheless.

I am, as confirmed by DNA testing, half-Italian. My grandparents were each born in America, but their own families, including some older siblings, were born in Italy: Lucca, in Tuscany, and Vasto, not far from Rome.

One of my great-grandfathers actually arrived on the shores of America pre-Ellis Island, coming through Castle Garden, on the southern tip of Manhattan. Mansuetto Gregori arrived with his wife and children sometime during the 1840s or 1850s, long before Castle Garden stopped processing immigrants in 1890. Family legend, related to me by my grandmother decades ago, held that, having arrived in New York and before moving to what would eventually be Sioux City, Iowa, Mansuetto quickly changed the spelling of the family name to Gregory, hoping to be taken as “Black Irish” (the name once given to those dark-haired, olive-skinned Celts who descended from survivors of the 1588 destruction of the Spanish Armada). The Irish, as Mansuetto quickly determined, had assimilated and were accepted in America, as Italians were not. I’ve never quite understood why Mansuetto would have believed that his accent, as he learned English, would fail to identify him as Italian rather than Irish, but I suppose that logic would have been his least consideration at the time.

We Italians weren’t White, you see. We would not be considered White until 1965 (I was 11 years old), when racist quotas on Italian immigration would finally be overturned.

So although many people–people of color, indigenous people, and those of Asian, Pacific Islander or Jewish descent–might easily glance at me and think, “privileged White person”—and although I, personally, suffered quite little of the anti-Italian sentiment which was once rife in the United States–well, no, not quite. My experience falls nowhere near the same classification as that of many Jews or Asians, and certainly doesn’t even place in the same solar system as the racism experienced daily by most Black people in the United States. But it was not all smooth sailing, either, especially for my paternal Grandmother and Grandfather. As I have reported in prior blog posts, they endured terrible incidents of bigotry throughout their lives. For my Grandmother, especially, those incidents left emotional scars; I will never forget my feelings of disbelief, shock, and grief as she related the painful story of the racist remarks she suffered in her early childhood from her teacher, an Irish-American Roman Catholic nun. (See “And Speaking of Prejudice”, from January 18, 2018.)

For, yes, as Italians, we were also Roman Catholic. Few people today realize or recall just how detrimental to his campaign was the Roman Catholicism practiced by John F. Kennedy. Yet it was not long after his assassination that I sat in my fifth grade classroom, listening fearfully, as my teacher explained to the class that, should the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion ever be revoked, “THEY” would come for us, just as they had murdered our President.  Fortunately for my peace of mind, there were many Catholic children in the neighborhood where I first grew up, since Holy Name church and school were literally around the block.  But the one little girl who was just my age (all the others were older or younger) wasn’t permitted to play with me, the “Car-tholic” girl.

Still, most of these fears and slights touched my life only peripherally, fading away as I grew to adulthood. Perhaps that is why I reacted viscerally to the reframing of Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day. Please do not misunderstand! I genuinely believe this is a long-overdue reparation for and acknowledgement of the horrific damage suffered by the native peoples following the arrival of Europeans on the American shores. Nevertheless, I also have a heartfelt personal investment in Columbus Day, as an Italian American aware of the sad truth of the origins of the holiday: that the celebration (originally intended as a one-time event) was declared by the short-lived President Benjamin Harrison in 1892, following the horrifying New Orleans lynching of 11 Italian immigrants. The murders brought Italy and the United States nearly to the point of war; the Italian consul in New Orleans left the city at his government’s direction, and Italy cut off relations with the United States until President Harrison’s paltry act of reparation.

So while I rejoice at the new national consciousness and acknowledgement of wrong doing, at the truth and justice brought to the reframing of the day, for me, personally, it can never quite be that. Columbus Day will for me, always, be known as “Murdered Italian Americans Day”. My racially-profiled ancestors are to me, you see, quite as important as yours are to you. And none of them, yours or mine, deserved to be treated as less than human because of the circumstances of their birth and heritage.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “You Dirty Wop”, which you can find in the Archives, below, from February 1, 2018.

The Gifts of the Season

It’s not just toxic recipients that one has to deal with at the holiday season.  Perfectionists and critical relatives add a whole ‘nother layer of angst!

My late mother-in-law was a marvelous woman in many respects.  One of the things I most envied about her, though, was her artistic ability.

Never was this ability more evident than at the holiday season.  A tray of gorgeous glass ornaments and greenery accenting a sideboard; a transparent vase filled with shining beads, artfully wound in graceful spirals and spilling in perfect draped arcs from the rim…  Mary’s decorations were breathtaking.

Her gift wrap, too, was spectacular.  Presents might all be wrapped in glossy white paper with tartan ribbons and real holly one year; the next, each would be covered in a harmonizing paper. Even the tags matched.

Now, I dearly love Christmas and am no slouch with the decorations, but I could never begin to equal Mary’s artistic flourishes.  My gifts are nicely wrapped, but haphazard, and the best one might call my décor is cheerful.  Mary always seemed pleased, though, with the gifts I presented her, no matter how irregularly wrapped, and praised my decorations sincerely each holiday season.  I genuinely appreciated her compliments, since I was all too well aware of just how much better she did things. 

This came to mind during a recent holiday season as I tried to wrap an extremely large gift.  I had only one roll of giftwrap of the right width for the present, which was heavy and unwieldy.  I’d had quite a bit of trouble maneuvering it onto the paper and getting the wrapping around it, but was finally working on closing the ends when the box shifted in my hands.  The result was a tear across the underside of the gift wrap.  It was easily enough mended with tape, but as I finished wrapping the box, I had a sudden flashback to a story told me years ago by two women at the office where I worked.

One young woman, I recalled, was both working and attending college, and couldn’t afford to travel home for Christmas.  The other coworker—let’s call her Charity, because that fits–kindly invited Carol (since that seems right for Christmas) to join her family for the holiday.

Carol came gladly, armed, as a good guest, with a pie and a gift for her hostess and a bottle of wine.  But she also came armed with a distinct sense of justice and a great dislike for bullies.

Because that’s what Charity’s mother was: a bully.  Unendingly critical of her daughter, she found fault in every tiny flaw and found flaws where they did not even exist.  Mom was one nasty ticket, and saw no reason to alter her behavior just because of the season of loving and giving.

But Mom hadn’t counted on Carol.

Arriving in a flurry of snow and smiles, Carol presented her hostess with the pie and wine. As Charity’s friend, Carol was already blacklisted, so Mom pounced.  “I don’t suppose anyone,” (here looking directly at Charity) “informed you that my husband is severely diabetic,” she grumbled.  “We always avoid sugary desserts at family dinners.”

“Is that so?” Carol countered coolly.  “Well, I’m sorry he can’t indulge, but surely the rest of us can enjoy the pie.”

“And I, of course,” Mom continued without pausing for breath, “am a non-drinker.”

Carol smiled.  “My Dad’s a non-drinker, too.  But he never begrudges everyone else a little tipple at the holidays.  Says his choice is no reason for the rest of us to be deprived.”

Apparently realizing that Carol was no easy target, Mom backed down until the gifts were handed ‘round.  As one of those irritating people who carefully slit tape and preserve the giftwrap, she turned over her gift from Charity to carefully unwrap it and discovered, yes, a torn and mended corner.

“Really, Charity!” she berated the girl.  “I can’t believe you didn’t take the time to start over and do it properly when you spoiled this gift wrap!”

Everyone was silent at Mom’s outburst, glancing with embarrassment at Carol.  More than equal to the occasion, though, Carol merely smiled and handed Charity the gift she’d brought: an oddly-shaped package, covered in reams of tape barely holding together giftwrap composed of the Sunday newspaper comics and tied with a colorful shoestring.  “Sorry about the way it looks, Charity,” Carol chirped.  “Wrapping paper just wasn’t in my budget.  But on the day when generosity of spirit rules, I know you’ll forgive me!”

I don’t recall how the rest of the story concluded: whether dinner was a delight or a disaster, or if Mom managed to choke down—or on–a piece of pie, or her own bile.  But I do know that Charity and Carol remained fast friends for the rest of the time I knew them.

As I say, the whole memory came to mind as I slapped tape every which way over the gift for my kids.  I sure they didn’t even notice as they tore the giftwrap in excitement from the box.

And, in the season of loving and giving, that’s just as things should be.

If you enjoyed this essay, you might also like “Second Hand Rose”, which can be found in the Archives from July 1, 2020.

The Secular Light Show

I decided to rerun this post from January, 2020, because…well, because!

In early November (2019), a local family initiated their holiday light display—an astounding and impressive effort; simply lovely. It was, perhaps, a tad early, but what with the invidious daylight savings time having begun two weekends prior, the winter nights were certainly quite long enough to make such a light show worthwhile. They noted the display on our local neighborhood website, posting photos and inviting people to drive by and enjoy the spectacle. Several website members commented on the exceptional light show, and I punned that it was “delightful”.

But, as always seems to happen these days, a sourpuss simply had to comment. “This is a very secular display,” he groused. “Christmas without Christ is not Christmas.”

Other members quickly shut him down, pointing out that not only does not everyone celebrate Christmas, but that a light-up baby Jesus in the front yard really made no more of a statement than a reindeer; that religious beliefs were best celebrated in the home and the heart, not on one’s lawn, and not just at a particular season, but throughout the year; that at the holiday season it was best to be building people up, rather than tearing them down; and, finally, that whatever else it might be, the light display was certainly fun and festive and was bringing smiles to the faces of those witnessing it and wonder to the eyes of children.

Nothing that was said to him, however, no matter how thoughtful or theologically sound, altered the Religious Grinch’s opinion; he remained stubbornly resistant to these various peaceful remarks, responding emphatically with his opinion that the light spectacle was insulting to the true meaning of Christmas and intimating that he felt picked upon for having stated his opinion.

Mindful of our ever-watchful website “Lead”, who had deleted my comments before, I merely replied with a carefully-pointed remark that I thought it was a lovely gesture that this family had taken so much time, effort, and expense to make so beautiful a display just ahead of World Kindness Day on November 13th. It seemed to me, I continued, a truly kind thing to create such beauty for one’s neighbors to enjoy, and I, for one, was most appreciative of their efforts. Then I private-messaged two of those who had made the most rational and courteous responses to the Religious Grinch, and told them how much I appreciated their efforts, receiving in reply their thanks, good wishes and blessings—blessings and good wishes that they also offered publicly to the Religious Grinch, and which were (perhaps not surprisingly) not returned by him.

Although my true thoughts remained unsaid on the website (at least by me; some others dared make some of these points), there were so many things I wanted to say to Mr. Religious Grinch. I wanted to suggest that perhaps the light display had been set up by a Hindu family celebrating a belated Diwali, not Christmas, or even a NeoPagan family whose spiritual holiday, celebrated with light, is not Christmas but Yule, the winter solstice. I didn’t know, I pondered, if light displays comprised part of the celebrations of Hanukah or Kwanzaa, but those holidays, rather than Christmas, might be what the lights represented. Soyaluna, Saturnalia, Festivus—even the 6,000-year-old holiday of the Kemet Orthodoxy faith, called “The Return of the Wandering Goddess”, might be the reason behind the glorious twinkling and blinking and racing lights in the front yard of a neighborhood home.

I wanted, too, to ask Mr. Religious Grinch what he had done, or planned to do, to bring a smile to the lips of his neighbors during this holiday season; to provide them a moment’s joy. He certainly had not provided his good wishes to those on the website, so was he planning some other random act of kindness?  How would he express his Christ of Christmas during the season?  Would he speak a word of  loving encouragement to someone sad and depressed, or haul an elderly neighbor’s trash bin through the snow to the curb? Would he be dropping a dollar into a homeless person’s outstretched hand, or volunteering at a food pantry, or giving a contribution to a domestic violence shelter?

Finally, furiously, I typed my reply to Mr. Religious Grinch–the reply that (lest I become a Grinch myself!) I ever so carefully deleted before my finger, hovering anxiously over it, could press the SEND button:

“Well, sir, since this light show disturbs you so much, perhaps you should set up on your own lawn a very non-secular display, full of stables and Holy Families and angels and stars and Magi and shepherds and sheep and oxen—and YOU could be the ASS!”

If you enjoyed this essay, you might also like to read “The Ghosts of Christmas Trees Past” from December 18,  2019.  You can scroll down to the Archives link to locate it.

Toxic Recipients

As the holiday season approaches, it seems the perfect time to rerun this blog post from 2019, regarding those people who, no matter what gift is given, are never quite pleased.

As we will soon be enduring the gift-giving whirl of the holiday season, it’s probably the perfect time to discuss the situation of Toxic Recipients.

Most of us have known one…and many of us, unfortunately, still do: the person who, no matter what gift is given, is never quite pleased. Who is not only displeased, but vocal about her or his displeasure. (The dress is an unflattering style; the shirt is the wrong color. The membership to the local museum is a waste of money—after all, no one goes to the museum more than one time yearly. Movie tickets? The movies these days are all trash. There’s nothing worth seeing. Ditto the restaurant gift card; don’t you know how much that place has gone downhill?)

As to why these individuals behave this way, well, that is a topic for another blog post.  But in an attempt to please a TR, friends and family (having exhausted all the usual avenues for gift ideas), often turn to creativity, sure that something handcrafted, homemade, will be given the respect due the work put into it, if not the gift itself. Homemade bath bombs and salt scrubs, hand-knitted sweaters, carefully-constructed photo journals, “just add water” recipe jars, handcrafted suncatchers, redeem-at-will coupons for yard work, home repairs, chauffeuring, babysitting…  But all are rejected with a roll of the eyes and a heavy sigh, or a scathing comment about a how a flagrant misuse of their funds must have resulted in a limited budget for gifts this year.

A gift card to a favorite store? Couldn’t  be bothered to shop, could you? Cash? Giving money is the biggest cop-out ever! Fresh flowers? What a waste—the damned things don’t last any time at all; they just wilt. A gift made to a charity in one’s name? Don’t you realize that NOW that self-same charitable organization will be dunning the honoree for donations at every possible turn? A planter? Who has time to take care of plants? A spa gift card? One has to tip the staff at those places, you know!

I recall a story once told me by a coworker: Her family was sure they had finally hit upon the absolutely perfect gift for their Toxic Recipient Matriarch. They contacted an astronomical society and had a star named for her. Now there was a present that couldn’t be topped! It was, in fact, sky-high.

The Matriarch’s reaction to this gift was, as they recounted afterward, a true Mastercard moment: utterly priceless. Upon opening the certificate, she read it through twice—the first time uncomprehending, the second time, in patent disbelief. Then she pinioned her hapless family with a gimlet stare and, tossing the certificate toward the discarded wrapping paper, demanded, “Just what the hell am I supposed to do with this?!”

So….  My humble suggestion to all of those trapped in the hellish round of attempting to please a Toxic Recipient on every birthday, anniversary, holiday, or whatever, is just this: Stop. Stop trying. Stop giving. And, above all, stop caring.

Give a gift with the store receipt prominently displayed, and when the TR comments upon the tackiness of this behavior, merely shrug and say, “Well, we knew you’d hate it, since you always hate everything we give you, so we were just making it easy for you to return it.”  Or show up empty handed, and mention casually and with total unconcern that your financial circumstances right now limit gift giving to small children only. Or, when the poisonous remarks about your gift begin to be spouted, throw up your hands and recount a laundry list of past gift failures. “Well, let’s see. You didn’t like the pink blouse/blue shirt. You used the restaurant gift certificate, and then gave us a blow-by-blow description of how poor the food and service were. You never even used the zoo membership. You didn’t cash in on our “a full day of yard work” coupon. You said the tool set was cheap. You never got a pedicure at the spa. You told us the year of gym membership was just our way of saying you were fat. So it was this,” (here making a dramatic gesture toward the most recently-rejected gift), “or purchasing your funeral plot. Of the two, we thought this was better.”

Of course, this last statement is likely to result in one’s being cut out of the will, or thrown out of the house, or banished from the family, or treated to an Amish-style shunning, or some other such volatile gesture of utter disdain.

Which, come to think of it, might not be so bad a result after all.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you might also like “Apples of Gold”, which may be found in the Archives from November 20, 2019.

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.