Minimizing is Not a Bra, Redux!

     Prelude: Just slightly over a year ago, on June 27, 2021, my Dad was admitted to the hospital with what would prove to be his final illness. The six months that followed passed in a haze of surgeries, doctors, care homes, visits, pet care, errands, and stress, all culminating in his death in December. At the time this post originally appeared, on June 30, 2021, I had no idea of just how awful things were about to become! I only knew that Dad’s illness followed a host of other personal crises: the death of my favorite cat; the unexplained, nearly-fatal illness of another beloved pet; Covid quarantine with my toddler granddaughter while both her parents suffered the virus; being cruelly excluded from family gatherings because the vaccine wasn’t yet available to me. So I wrote this post under a swirling cloud of angst.
     Now, recalling it just a year later, my feelings haven’t changed.
     No, Jack. No. It absolutely is NOT all just small stuff.

Kindness never minimizes another’s need.

I know several people who will nod in sage agreement when I admit that I’m a person who falls easily into the trap of listening to and accepting other’s opinions about my life experience, often to my own detriment and peril. But I’m learning. Late in life and slowly, but I’m learning.

One such event occurred not long ago when, asked during a Zoom meeting about how I was doing (a question that, in this case, was not just the usual social nicety, but intentional), I commented that I felt I was just lurching from one crisis to the next. Another of the meeting attendees quickly chimed in, pointing out that, from the perspective of the universe and over the course of a lifetime, nothing I was experiencing was a crisis. Everything was “small stuff”; just a challenge to be met or a learning experience, not a calamity.

The critical individual lives 300 miles away. He was quite clueless as to what personal disasters I was referring, or what I, along with my family members, had been experiencing. I’m sure he thought he was helping me regain perspective by his comment. But his remark was, nevertheless, intentional minimizing: diminishing the importance of not just what I was experiencing, but my feelings about the situation. By doing so, he was also shaming me—letting me know that my emotions were excessive and inappropriate; “bad”, if you will. Leaving entirely aside the fact that his remarks smacked of the male habit of denigrating female moods (that’s a subject for another blog post), the simple truth of the matter is that feelings are neither bad nor good; it’s what we do with them that counts.

Amazingly, though (and this NEVER happens), I did not fall prey to his inappropriate comments. In what was, for me, an astounding feat of standing up to being bullied, I quickly snapped back, “Oh, bullshit!” My critic was visibly startled, for he is one of those self-assured, clever types whose comments are rarely challenged. For once he had no quick comeback. Some of the others in the meeting quickly diffused the incident by joking and laughter, and we all moved on. But I did not apologize, nor feel any need to do so. If anything, I believed his apology was owed to me.

To be totally honest, though, and much to my shame, I have to admit that I, too, have behaved this way to others in the past. I have minimized their experiences, shamed their emotional responses, and gifted them with my “superior” knowledge and understanding as to how they could better handle their personal pain and disasters. Not only does this behavior smack of narcissism, it is simply rude; rude, thoughtless, uncompassionate, and bullying.

When I face even more uncomfortable truths, I know that when I have minimized others’ experiences, I have done so as a self-defense measure. Minimizing puts a barrier between us and the problems or pain of another; it assures us that, even if we were to experience such an event, we would not respond to it with angst or tears. No, we are strong; we would rise above the situation! Minimizing props up our fine opinion of ourselves: “If I could get through what I have done without complaint, then you have no right to feel sad or anxious, or to speak your feelings.”

But when we muzzle another person, even those who are certifiable whiners, we diminish not just their humanity, but our own. Yes, there are those people who simply wail. There are hypochondriacs who moan about every real or imagined ache or pain. There are individuals in our circle of acquaintance who drive us half-mad because they refuse to take any action to free themselves from terrible situations, instead continually lamenting their misery. There always exist feeble individuals for whom life itself is simply overwhelming—even when it’s not.

But that does not indicate that we are free to diminish their experience. We can make the choice to acknowledge their distress without being enveloped by it. Rather than shame them, we can act with true consideration and compassion by responding gently: “I’m sorry you’re going through this”, or, “That’s a harsh series of events. I hope things will be better for you soon”, or even straightforwardly, “Is there some action you can take to resolve this problem—something that will help you feel better?”

In the final evaluation, it all comes down to courtesy. To minimize and shame another for their emotional reaction or admission of a problem is rude; it is aggressive and narcissistic; it is the behavior of a bully. Even worse, it is counterproductive. Rare is the individual who ever took her or his courage in hand, stood up resolutely, and solved a problem as a result of by being tormented and oppressed by those who should have provided support.

At some point in our lives, we all need encouragement and kindness. Kindness is never overrated. And true kindness never minimizes another’s need.

You might also enjoy “Feeling Our Feelings”, which you can locate in the Archives, below, from October 14, 2020.

A History of Queen Anne’s Lace

I’d planned another post for today, but in view of the iniquitous decision on June 24 by the U.S. Supreme Court regarding Roe vs. Wade, I chose to rerun this blog (with edits) as both pertinent and necessary. Please scroll to the end for useful information regarding the reality and risks of self-managed abortion.

Years ago, I was watching an educational TV show during which the narrator discussed plants that were not native to the Americas but which are now common. As an example, the speaker mentioned Queen Anne’s Lace, commenting that the seeds of this non-native plant were inadvertently carried to these shores, hitchhiking in blankets and caught on the clothing of European settlers.Queen-Annes-Lace11

I could not stop laughing at such blatant ignorance. I was well aware that the seeds of Queen Anne’s Lace, taken as a morning-after tea, were the most effective of all the early forms of birth control–at least since silphium was hunted to extinction by Roman and Egyptian women desperate to prevent conception. The seeds of Queen Anne’s Lace weren’t ferried to the Americas accidentally, hitchhiking on property, but quite purposefully, by women who preferred not to be worn out or die due to too-frequent childbearing.

For centuries, knowledgeable midwives instructed the women they served in the lore of birth control—difficult, and not totally reliable, but not completely impossible in the centuries before the development of the diaphragm and the contraceptive pill. And, yes, their knowledge also included methods of abortion, customarily using herbs. Compounded from celery root and seed, hedge hyssop, cotton root, Cretan dittany and spruce hemlock, mistletoe leaves and horseradish, cinchona bark, ashwagandha and saffron, mugwort, wooly ragwort, castor oil, blue and black cohosh, evening primrose, and even the remarkably dangerous (if used wrongly) rue and pennyroyal and tansy and ergot of rye, herbal abortions were common when contraception failed. Though those recipes have been lost to time, the concoctions were so prevalent that ads for patent medicines to cure “delayed menstruation” were common in women’s magazines throughout the 1800s—that is, until the passage of the Comstock Act in 1873 (both written and passed by old White men, of course) criminalized even the possession of information on birth control.

The world has turned many times since the Comstock Act, through the invention of the contraceptive pill, to the self-help clinics of the late 1960s that instructed women in the practice of menstrual extraction, through Roe vs. Wade. The morning-after and abortion pills were introduced, a chemical solution at last replacing that centuries-old use of abortifacient herbs.

I absolutely do not, will not, debate the wrongness or rightness of any of this, from contraception to 50 years of a constitutional right to an abortion. To my way of thinking and understanding, decisions regarding birth control and abortion remain always a choice best made by the woman involved, in accordance with her conscience, her faith, and her personal situation; while human life begins at the point at which full activity of the fetal brain’s neural connections (indicating the capacity for human thought, and thereby a conscience, a soul), finally develop between the 27th to the 30th weeks of pregnancy.

But what struck me most forcefully in reading up on the history of contraception and abortion was that, step by step, women have been conditioned, by men, to believe that choosing to control their own reproductive process, even to the decision to prevent conception, is at best immoral, or at worst, criminal.

We think of the Middle Ages as a time of great ignorance, yet it was then that midwives—wisewomen–practiced, sharing their expertise and knowledge with the female population at large; easing the pain of childbirth and preventing many maternal and infant deaths by their skill. And it was then, too, that such women were hunted down as witches, tortured and burned and hung, effectively silencing their knowledge for generations. Women were left in the hands of male doctors who, shrugging casually, pronounced, “Maternity is eternity”, carelessly accepting that a majority of women would die in childbirth (wives were easily replaced after all) and reconciling countless numbers of women and infants to easily-preventable deaths as babies were delivered in filthy conditions with unwashed hands.

Circle the world a few times on its axis, and enter the 1900s, when horrific deaths by botched back alley abortions were common. Young and desperate women bled to death, died horribly of septicemia, or were rendered forever infertile. Circle again, and information on contraception was readily available, along with new forms of birth control. Contraceptive creams and condoms were sold over the counter. Legal abortion gave a measure of safety to the procedure. The morning after pill became available for those who had either been careless or experienced the horrors of rape.

History, they say, always repeats itself. And so as so much of society swings perilously close once more to the era of illegal and back alley abortions, so it may also oscillate to women who reclaim the ancient knowledge that gave them power over their own reproductive processes: to the natural methods that provided women a way to make their decisions in accordance with their conscience.

The morality of these decisions is not truly the question, for no matter what is legislated, women will continue to fight for and gain absolute control over their own bodies. They will continue to make their personal choices regarding reproduction. The Pendulum of Queen Anne’s Lace, you might call it. History will, genuinely, always repeat itself.

No form of abortion is without risk, but it is vital that anyone considering self-managed abortion should first thoroughly do their research, and not rely on Facebook and TikTok “information”.  A few reliable resources for self-managed abortion are listed below.

“Eve’s Herbs” by John Riddle provides a comprehensive, well-researched history of contraception and abortion in the ancient world until the Middle Ages, also explaining how and why this knowledge was stolen from women.

“Natural Liberty: Rediscovering Self-Induced Abortion Methods” (Sage-femme Collective) is available as a free PDF download at: https://we.riseup.net/assets/351138/22321349-Natural-Liberty-Rediscovering-Self-Induced-Abortion-Methods.pdf

Henrietta’s Herbal Homepage, Herbal Abortives and Birth Control, https://www.henriettes-herb.com/faqs/medi-3-7-abortives.html

“The Herb Book” by John Lust (out of print; difficult to find) contains comprehensive information on several abortifacients and emmenagogues.

It’s a Peculiar Little Language!

Most of us prefer either what we grew up hearing, or what sounds most euphonious to our ears.

I have always read a lot of British mystery, and it is perhaps for that reason that I often prefer verb formats that differ from the American. But (and in this way, I adhere to the “rules” of the English language, which seem to be that there really are no rules at all, since every rule has an exception), I’m not at all consistent in my preferences.

For instance, I dislike the British verb “leant” used in place of “leaned”, yet prefer “knelt” to “kneeled”. I much prefer the American “dove” to the British “dived”, and “scarfed” to “scoffed”—what, after all, does sneering and jeering have to do with gobbling up one’s food? And yet when it comes to “dreamed” vs. “dreamt”, I’m easy with each of them, using them interchangeably.

Perhaps it is the archaic flavor of the original British English which sets my preferences. I will always prefer the ages-old “wrought” to “wreaked”, while it’s probably best that no one question me on “shone” as opposed to “shined”!

I sometimes even extend my eccentric preferences to spelling. The spell-checker constantly reminds me that “theatre” is not American; I prefer “succour” to “succor”—and the French pronunciation to either, which in English sounds so unfortunately like “Sucker!”.

And that, perhaps, is the reason for my wacky taste in verbs: sound. One verb form simply sounds more euphonious or melodic to my ears than another. As I pointed out in “Mispronounced, Revisited” (October 19, 2018), there are words that I have mispronounced so long that the correct pronunciation sounds uncomfortable and wrong. The sound of a word, even as much as its form and spelling, is incredibly important to me.

Perhaps that is why I totally reject having the word “cisgender” applied to me. It is not that I rebuff the concept that I inhabit a body the gender of which, assigned to me at birth, I totally accept and practice; it is that cisgender is such an unattractive, ugly, uneuphonious word, reminding me of bullies in my childhood who called people sissies. I refuse to be called cisgender because I so dislike the sound of such an atrocious noun. Besides, it seems to me that if others can demand concessions to their gender identity, even going so far as to use the multiple pronoun “they” in place of the singular “he” or “she” — well, if others can demand such concessions to their preferences, then I have the right, also, to insist that I be called by my preferred descriptor. I am, therefore, either “birthgender”, or simply and straightforwardly female, just woman, just “she”, and not cisgender, thank you very much. You be whatever you want to be, and I will, also.

But then, not just the English language, but all languages, it seems, are having a hard time coping with and adjusting to the changes in social consciousness and recognition of gender fluidity. No doubt this mess will have shaken down in a generation or so, by which time I shall not be here to worry about it, in any case (she says with obvious relief).

Returning to the question of preferred verb forms, though, I have often found it hilarious when either British or American authors try their hand a writing a book or story set in one another’s countries. While familiar with the most egregious differences (i.e., lift vs. elevator; flat vs. apartment; chips vs. fries), each group invariably misses out on the more minor deviations, despite their best efforts. As I pointed out in a review of one novel, an American does not go on holiday, but on a vacation; nor do we go to hospital, but to the hospital. We eat cartons, not pots, of yogurt, not yoghurt, and are much more likely to cover our beds with a comforter than a duvet—although we might enclose that comforter in a duvet cover! We tend to eat candy, not sweets; desserts, not pudding, and we sprinkle that dessert with powdered or confectioner’s sugar, not icing sugar. It is these tiny differences that trip up an out-of-country writer every time, and make me wonder why they didn’t just track down an American colleague to scan their work and correct the more noticeable oddities. Nor does the shadow fall only on one side! While reading a novel set in Australia but written by an American writer, I noticed a few peculiarities myself, later collapsing in mirth at the snarky corrections helpfully provided by Australian reviewers of the book.

It’s no wonder that a non-native speaker of any language, no matter how fluent, is rarely able to converse in their new tongue with a comprehensive grasp of the nuances and subtleties understood by those who have spoken the language since birth–not when even those who learned the words in childhood sometimes find the whole darned process convoluted and ridiculous!

You can find the previous blog on the peculiarities of the English language, “Mispronounced, Revisited”, by scrolling below to the Archives. It was published October 19, 2018.

Love Travels Backward

It is never too late to say what we need to say.

Practical Magic is one of my favorite movies, which is particularly intriguing as I didn’t really like the book. There you have it, though, as almost everyone has experienced: loved the book, hated the movie; liked the movie, despised the book. It’s pretty rare to enjoy both equally.

But I’ve gone off on a tangent. Among the many reasons that I favor the movie is a single line at the end, when character Sally Owens’ asks in a voice-over, “Can love travel backward in time to heal a broken heart?”

And the answer to that question is, as I have only recently learned, a resounding yes.

You see, when my mother died in 2010, my family was, and had been for some time, sundered. Maternal problems compounded of mental illness, unending lies, drug use, physical abuse, and alcoholism meant that one of my brothers had not spoken to anyone in the family other than myself and my daughter for twenty-plus years, while my other sibling, dealing with a raft of personal issues that had resulted in poverty and homelessness, was also usually incommunicado. My daughter and I, declaring ourselves Switzerland, stubbornly maintained neutrality in the midst of all this dissension. (Unfortunately, unlike Switzerland, we didn’t have all the family money holed up in anonymous bank accounts!)

But being neutral often also meant rarely seeing or hearing from most of our family members except at holidays. It was a lonely position to uphold, but we would not cut ourselves off from anyone.

Finally, about a year and a half after Mom passed away, my older brother and my father reconciled at last. The relief I felt was palpable. Our Dad wasn’t getting any younger, and I did not want him to go down into the darkness without his oldest son as part of his life. Meanwhile, following another rocky couple of years, my younger brother found his feet at last, and, moving to another city, got a good job and found a stable relationship, finally seeming happy and secure.

Enter 2021… Dad, who had been terrifically healthy until about his 89th year, had been visibly failing as he moved into his 90s. Hospitalized in late June, he quickly spiraled downward, never returning home, and finally dying in December of that year.

The burden of his care during those months fell primarily upon my older brother and me, although we found ourselves fortunate enough to have relatives and family friends who pitched in to help. I honestly do not know how people without friends and family survive situations like this. Even splitting the ticket, the work was relentless, and it did not end with my father’s death, for we still had to clear his home of 58 years’ worth of accumulated possessions before it could be sold.

Eventually, though, all was completed: funeral held, estate inventoried, bills paid, possessions distributed, house sold—all the painful minutiae of a person’s passing completed, finalized, finished, done.

It was during this conclusion that my older brother explained to our younger sibling the final distribution of funds according to our father’s will. He described the co-executor’s fee that Dad had included, explaining that it meant I would receive a little extra from the estate. Concerned that there might be some misunderstanding over this, he’d prepared a straightforward explanation: not just that I had been there to help throughout the six months of our father’s dying, but had stepped up to do the majority of the work in cleaning out Dad’s home.

It was at this point that my brother said the words that, for me, lifted a burden that I had not even realized I’d been carrying for twelve long years: he acknowledged to our sibling, “Neither you nor I were there when Mom died. Our sister handled it all: the weeks at the hospital, the funeral, cleaning out all mom’s hoarding, and taking care of Dad for months until he was back on his feet again. Now that I’ve been through it, I’ve got a real appreciation of what she handled all alone. That’s another reason why she deserves this extra money.” Perhaps not surprisingly, hearing this, our younger brother completely agreed.

But for me, that acknowledgement—not the money, but the words—lifted an almost unbearable weight that I did not even know I had been shouldering.

With my older brother’s admission, and my younger brother’s agreement, love—appreciation, respect, acknowledgement—travelled backward in time to heal the portion of my heart that I was unaware had been broken during the excruciating weeks that my mother lay dying, and the painful aftermath of her passing.

Twelve years later, my heart is lighter. The memories of lonely responsibility are cleansed. And all because the words, words I did not even know I needed so desperately to hear, were spoken at last.

Love travelled backward in time to mend my broken heart.

It is never too late to say what we need to say. And it is never too late to hear what we need to hear.

You might also enjoy reading “The Speech of Angels”, which you may locate in the Archives, below, from October 24, 2017.

Vintage Treasure

Two friends are celebrating  significant birthdays this month. So for them, I am reprinting this essay from September 18, 2019. Happy Birthday, Kim, and Belated Happy Birthday Dani!

My late mother-in-law, Mary, was a world-travelling, spirituality-seeking whirlwind. She was bright, intelligent, graceful, and had a marvelous sense of humor. I absolutely adored her. The destructive evil that is Alzheimer’s robbed Mary of all these qualities, but until that happened, the woman I lovingly nicknamed “La Comtesse” was everything I wanted to be as I aged.

One of my favorite memories of Mary stems from the days when she was still a healthy woman who travelled extensively. Arriving home from a cruise, she related a story from her vacation, and to this day I recall the look on her face as she concluded the tale. At the time, Mary was on the far downhill side of 60, rapidly ziplining toward her next decade. One of her shipmates on this seniors’ cruise was a silver-haired lady, tidy, quiet and retiring, who participated in few of the ship’s activities. This quintessential little old lady, Mary remarked, observed a birthday during the cruise, and La Comtesse asked her which birthday she was celebrating.

“Oh,” the little old lady replied, “this is the big one! The big Five-Oh!”

I had cause to recall the irony of this story not long ago, when an author whose books I generally enjoy put dreaded words into the mouth of a youthful character: the young woman referred to an aged character as an “old biddy”. Judging by this youthful writer’s perspective, my beloved La Comtesse would have qualified as an “old biddy”. Yet nothing could have been further from the truth! Then, with dismay, I recalled that “old biddy” was actually the very phrase my own Grandmother used to reference those in her age group who’d stopped really interacting with life; who spent their days bemoaning their aches and pains while disparaging everything modern and recalling the past in a pink-tinted haze of inaccurate nostalgia. (Grandma, too, was a whirlwind, one who drove everywhere in her huge yacht of a car, couponed madly, fed everyone home-cooked meals no matter what the time of day or night, drove to work at an office until she could no longer shovel her car out from the snow in harsh winters, and generally had a rip-roaring good time.)

I have walked a few weary miles since the days when I was a mere teenager, sitting through a boring classroom lecture about semantics: the value of a word beyond merely its definition; the weight and worth of meaning given to it by opinion and understanding. And so as I now deal with the reality of my own aging, recalling Mary’s humorous tale of her “old” shipboard companion and my life-loving Grandmother’s behavior, while encountering demeaning phrases in books and being treated with thinly-disguised impatience by the very young, I’ve had reason to truly mull those long-ago lessons in semantics. I’ve reached the conclusion that it’s often sadly true that those in the latter half of life are treated with disrespect and contempt in modern society. And I’ve decided that some, perhaps many, of those attitudes center less around one’s personal behavior and ability than around the semantics of the word “old”.

We treat merchandise with disdain when it is merely old. To be old is to be outmoded or outdated; unfashionable. We begin to appreciate it when it becomes vintage, but it is not until it is antique that we regard it with awe and reverence. When we speak of “elder” it is with respect; i.e., “the elder statesman”. Yet to be elderly conjures up a picture of frailty and infirmity.

Old is old-fashioned; out-of-date; old is an outlook that is behind the times. Old is a pensioner, a senior, a geriatric—yet mature is a superior condition. Songs can be “oldies but goodies”; cars can be classics. Yet attitudes can be scathingly considered traditional and even archaic. Aged is a sad condition, yet historic is valued, while ancient or antiquity are regarded with wonder. Old, though, is time-worn, hoary, antiquated.

With all of these words firmly in mind, each of them denoting a different semantic variation of that which is old, I’ve decided that I shall never, ever again refer to myself using the word old. I will not even disrespect myself by remarking that I am aged, or aging. The words I use to refer to myself need to be free from heavy and unintended meaning, weighting me down with subconscious consequences.

So from this point forward, I plan to be Vintage. Vintage is treasured, special, worthwhile, valued, appreciated. Vintage is desirable.

I’m not nor ever will be an old biddy. But I’m already Vintage.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like the essay “Dying to be Seen”.  Scroll to the Archives, below, and you will locate it published September 4, 2018.

The Many Faces of Hate

I’d originally planned a different post for today. But in honor of the innocent victims of the Uvalde mass shooting, I chose to rerun this post from June 24, 2020. It may not seem apropos at first, but please just keep reading

While a young woman, I had a coworker—let’s call her Angela–who endured troubling memories of her paternal grandmother. At the time I knew Angela, I’d just begun re-establishing a close relationship with my own paternal grandmother; years of family squabbles had kept us apart. So I was shocked to hear of the treatment this likeable woman had received from her grandmother.

Angela explained that Grandmother absolutely despised Angela’s mother—had hated her from the very day Mom and Dad began dating. It’s been 40-odd years since our conversation, but I still recall the troubled expression on Angela’s face as she told me that her mother and father tried countless times to heal the sorry situation. Sadly, nothing had ever worked.

But Grandmother’s hatred extended to, when they arrived, the children of the marriage. She never put aside her contempt for her daughter-in-law for the sake of her grandchildren, who were, after all, her son’s children. No, in ways both overt and subtle, Grandmother made certain that those youngsters knew that they did not measure up to her other grandchildren. Her favored grandchildren were not “contaminated” by a birth relationship to the despised daughter-in-law.

Angela recounted Mean Grandmother’s worst insult, which centered on the kids’ school photos. One wall of Grandmother’s house displayed her grandchildren’s school pictures. But the photos of Angela and her siblings were not flaunted among the rest. Instead, they were hung in the bathroom, facing the toilet.

Hearing the ache and indignation in Angela’s voice as she described this stinging memory, I felt heartsick on her behalf. To be the victim of such spite and cruelty from a person who should have loved her unconditionally—well, it stunned me.

The memory of that conversation has never left me. Many times after our discussion I daydreamed, inventing scenarios to bring resolution and revenge to my coworker’s bitter experience: Of all the Grandmother’s children, only the marriage of her son and despised daughter-in-law thrived. The marriages of all her other children failed, and bitter divorces meant that she was separated from her favorite grandchildren. Or: Mean Grandmother lived out her final days quite alone and helpless in a substandard nursing home, visited by no one except the despised daughter-in-law. Or, best of all: Those other, favored grandkids all grew up to be ungrateful little wastrels who scammed Grandmother for money, became drug addicts and alcoholics, and were jailed for multiple crimes. Meanwhile, Angela and her siblings lived quietly successful, happy lives, but obviously never bothered with the Mean Grandmother who had treated them so badly.

That’s not the way life works, of course. Mean Grandmother probably wound down her life warmly surrounded by the love and attention of the children, in-laws and grandkids she preferred, smugly self-satisfied with her contemptible treatment of her reviled daughter-in-law and unloved grandchildren.

Hatred can wear so many faces! It can be disguised as the face of a grandparent or an in-law; someone who should be both loving and beloved, but is instead malevolent. It can wear the face of an abusive spouse or parent, or even a job supervisor. It can focus on skin color, or ethnic origin. It can manifest as religious or even generational intolerance. It can be masked in passive aggression, calling itself teasing when it is in fact intentional torment and insults.

Or it can wear the face of a total stranger.

This last really struck me, and is the reason I recalled my former coworker’s sad little tale, as I sat one recent morning watching a video examining the causes and motives behind the many mass shootings of recent times. Unlike the malicious Grandmother, these cases so often involve total strangers who go on a rampage, wounding and murdering innocents with whom they have absolutely no connection. Is it easier, I wondered, to do so? To harm those with whom a person has absolutely no relationship? To wear the mask of a stranger, and see, not other human beings with lives and loves of their own, but merely unimportant specks on the rim of the mask’s limited vision? Is exterminating unknown strangers guilt-free?

Or does it all—murdering strangers or murdering the spirit of those who should be loved ones—come with consequence?

I have no answers. I only know that I clicked off that video, and sat, remembering Angela’s long-lasting emotional wounds. Then I sighed and selected some financial work I needed to do on my computer. But as I tapped the mouse, I noticed in surprise that my face was wet, and that tears had splashed onto my keyboard.

I had not even realized that I was crying.

Hard as it is to believe sometimes, there are also faces of kindness in this world. If you want to believe in that, please read the true story of “The Miracle on Route 16”. You may locate it by scrolling to the Archives, below. It was published on November 4, 2017.

Rude Words!

Our words have power.  Guard well what we say.

When I was a child, we were constantly instructed in the adage, “If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.”

Now, to be quite honest, absolutely no one followed this sage advice (or, if they did, they were considered to be an unbearable prig!)  We all said, and thought, plenty of not-nice things, and not a few really malicious, cruel and vicious things.  But we were careful about whom we said them to, usually saving our nastiest remarks for a limited circle of like-thinking friends.  It was rare that any of these companions would admonish someone for cruel statements, and even then, the criticism was pallid:  “That’s not nice!”, usually followed by a giggle or occasionally the comment, “But true!”

Nevertheless, it wasn’t really a bad bit of life advice, that learning to keep spiteful or mean observations either in the privacy of one’s own mind or at least among a narrow group of people.  Mannerly behavior, however hypocritical, ruled; courtesy was valued, and those who failed to keep even a modicum of a civil tongue in their heads were reviled as malicious and disgusting, and widely avoided. One did not want the taint of their bad behavior to rub off on one’s own reputation, any more than one wanted to become a target of their vicious contempt.

Not so now, when every bit of mind garbage is spewed out to the entire populace, into every corner of the world, via a keyboard or voice-to-text, accumulating Likes from equally vile-minded strangers.  The nastier one can be, it seems, the more judgmental, rude, cruel, or despicable, the better.  Abhorrent speech is no longer scorned as evidence of a small-minded person, or of someone with a size 12 ego and a size 2 soul.  Maliciousness is encouraged as funny or entertaining. Compassion, civility, empathy, kindness, courtesy, caring…those have become the calling cards of the truly old-fashioned—traits that are despised, rather than emulated.

As a society, it appears, we have sunk to the lowest common denominator, urged on by the sick cohesion of social media and even by vulgar and vicious national leaders. And that saddens me.  It breaks my heart.

Yet it was not that long ago (and in a possibly mythic era) that the concept of chivalry was touted.  Ballads were sung about such exemplary behavior; legends were written and repeated.  And for all the flaws inherent within the chivalric code (and there were many), there was still something to be said for many of those ideals: To live with loyalty and honor.  To protect the weak and defenseless.  To fight for the welfare of all.  To speak the truth at all times.  To avoid meanness and deceit.  To respect and honor women.  Chivalry, though, was merely a European concept.  Other cultures worldwide taught similar values to their young: Courage. Respect for and appreciation of the wisdom of one’s elders.  Courtesy. Honor. Compassion. Charity. Deportment.   And while it is true that not one culture, anywhere, at any time in the history of human civilization, can claim that all its members lived their lives in coherence with those teachings, the important factor is that such concepts were imparted.  The very teaching of these ideals inculcated conscience in the students.  It gave them a map, a pathway to life establishing consideration for others as a foundation.

Perhaps, then, that is the main factor missing in today’s society.  The trappings of courtesy, of manners; the slightly hypocritical keeping of impertinent thoughts to oneself, that were once a stable groundwork for behavior that demonstrated consideration for the feelings and needs of others—those concepts are no longer taught.  Rarely do individuals learn a foundation for kindness, or establish personal integrity.

Words, some say, are in and of themselves a form of energy.  To speak a word aloud; to type it into a forum; to write it, as I write these essays–to disseminate any word, in any way, is to give an energetic life to that word.  When we speak, write, type, or promulgate vile and cruel and vicious, or untrue, unkind or uncivil words, we contribute to the jangling dissonance of negativity, the misunderstanding and malice that seem to hover constantly over current social interaction.

But when we make a concerted effort to remove hateful speech from our personal lexicons; when we intentionally infuse our words with benevolence and consideration, with gentleness, courtesy and understanding, we go more than halfway toward meeting others with a handclasp acknowledging our shared humanity.

And if we genuinely cannot say, speak, write or type anything good or kind or caring, we can always choose to, yes, say nothing at all.

If you found something to like in this essay, you might also appreciate the post, “The Speech of Angels”, which you locate by scrolling below to the Archives.  It was published October 4, 2017.  And, as always, please feel free to republish this blog, with attribution.

It’s All Just Stuff (Mary’s Teacups)

I thought about Mary’s teacups continually as I cleared out my father’s home following his death.

My late mother-in-law, Mary Chifos, had the most marvelous set of teacups. Each of the six cups displayed a single flower on both saucer and cup exterior, as well as within the teacup itself. But the loveliest thing about each of these teacups was that cup and saucer were each fashioned to resemble the flower displayed. The daffodil cup was formed into the trumpet of the flower, with the saucer its crown; the rose cup and saucer were gently sculpted into the shape of petals.

Mary, who loved to give dinner parties, always served after-dinner coffee in those cups. I usually chose the rose teacup for my beverage, appreciating my coffee even more when served in her beautiful china.

But Mary became ill with the utter devastation that is Alzheimer’s disease, and I, by then divorced from her son, had no say in her care. Her lovely little apartment was abandoned, along with most of her things. I never knew what became of her exquisite tea set—the cups that should have been left, if not to me, then to my daughter, Mary’s only grandchild.

I thought about those teacups continually when, throughout the first months of 2022, I endured the difficult process of clearing out my father’s home after his death. Dad was not precisely a hoarder, but disposing of 58 years worth of accumulated household goods and personal possessions is, nevertheless, a substantial effort. It’s a recipe stirred together of packing to move an entire household, blended with nostalgia, and spiced with pinches of grief, disbelief, and sometimes even wrath. Every possible bit of disorder and disorganization is on high display, infuriating to the nth degree (“Dad! For the love of God and little green apples, why did you save EVERY checkbook register from 1964 onward? Why were none of your personal papers filed, so that we could locate the information we need?!”)

There were many things that had been undoubtedly precious to my Dad, but meant nothing to us, his survivors, as well as numerous items that were just the opposite. Not being Roman Catholic, I cared nothing for the silver-and-crystal rosary I discovered in his bedside table, and gifted it to a devout family friend. But I was delighted to have a set of inexpensive turquoise water glasses that he didn’t even use, but which matched my tableware.

I suppose, in the end, that’s what it all comes down to: not the financial value of a possession, but whether it is valued, and by whom. Mary cherished her teacups, and I, had they been given to me, would have done so, also. But the people who inherited them cared nothing for the set. I suppose they were dispersed to a charity or resale shop.

Mary Ellen Set

I, meanwhile, have spent years searching for and collecting similar cups, never finding the precise teacups that were Mary’s, yet reassembling a comparable set in her memory and honor; treasuring them, as she did hers.

But the experience of losing items I would have prized, coupled with that of sifting through nearly 60 years’ worth of my father’s accumulated detritus, has caused me to look at my own home and possessions with a very different eye, and to remember my grandmother’s remarks after having to clean out the home of her three sisters when the last of them passed away. Determined that no one would ever have to endure what she had done in emptying that house, Grandma began to organize her personal property. She collected music boxes; now she went through the entire collection and wrote on the underside of each the name of the person who had given it to her, so that upon her death each could be returned to the giver. Grandma cleaned out paperwork and told trusted people (and, sadly, in one case, someone who could not be trusted) where her few valuable possessions were hidden.

Now I, taking a leaf from my Grandmother’s book, and remembering the all-too-recent experience of cleaning out my father’s home and property, have begun the arduous process of organizing and clearing my own personal possessions. Tons of paperwork has already been shredded, and books sent to a charity shop. A huge box of photos awaits examination, to be pared down to the most precious few that might mean something to my survivors. Notes have been appended to a few books, explaining why they meant something to me, or whether they might have actual monetary value. Information that my survivors might need has been organized and filed.

This will be, I realize, a long, slow process, and one that requires constant upkeep: to make my home orderly for those who will, once I am gone, have to sift through everything I owned. And, with the exception of (I hope) my written works, and no matter what I annotate or explain, I know that they will decide to keep only what is truly meaningful to them, personally.

For now I truly understand that, in the end, no “thing” has importance unless it is appreciated and cherished. In the final estimation, it’s all just stuff.

If you found something you liked in this post, then please consider scrolling to the Archives at the bottom of this page, and reading “A Memory Walk” from September 11, 2019. And, as always, feel free to re-post this blog, with attribution, elsewhere.

My Shabby Old Green Armchair, Redux

We imbue the physical objects in our orbit with worth, adding to them a value far beyond their price.

My old green armchair was on its last legs, almost literally. It was growing ever more shabby…and ever more comfortable and comforting. It was just an overstuffed chair, not even a recliner, but that scruffy old chair was my salvation for at least 15 years. It’s been the chair where I sat to read every morning since my retirement, sunlight pouring in from the living room window behind me. It’s the chair where my cat Lilith has come almost daily to lounge across my chest as I sprawl in the laziest position, my feet propped on the ottoman in front of me. It’s the chair where I collapsed, feverish, coughing and wheezing with what was quite likely Covid one December night in 2019, feeling sick enough to die, after what had already been a long, long day spent at the hospital with my even-sicker Dad. It’s the chair where I cuddled my cranky little grandbaby, trying to soothe her to sleep as I watched her through the night. And it is the chair beside which I knelt to stroke and kiss my darling little black cat, Belladonna, who lay there so peacefully and quietly as she began her journey across the Rainbow Bridge.

The green armchair wasn’t new even when I bought it. In the early 2000s, I’d discovered a store which sold second-hand hotel furnishings—sturdy pieces which were still in good shape, usually disposed of because a business was remodeling. In the days before bed bugs had become a resurgent menace, these pieces were an excellent bargain. The furnishings had heavy-duty springs and were covered in substantial, thick fabrics; upholstery meant to last through the worst that careless guests could offer. Best of all, the pieces were within my limited price range. So I bought a set consisting of a sofa striped in bottle-green, rose pink and fawn, with two matching bottle-green chairs.

The sofa had already seen the most wear, but still lasted a good eight years; I finally disposed of it when moving from an apartment to my little condo. The two bottle-green armchairs, though, moved with me. Despite being a pair, one was a bit more worn than the other, and finally, its springs sagging, gave up the ghost. Prior to putting it out on the curb for heavy trash pickup, though, I removed the fabric from the seat. A bit of cutting and stitching turned the rescued cloth into slipcovers to disguise the worn arms and back of the remaining chair.

It was those covers which were themselves now beginning to show wear. Picked at by cat claws and rubbed a thousand times by my forearms (and, regrettably, my knees, as I’ve sat sideways on the cushion with my legs slung over the arms), the covers were growing shiny with use and knobbly with picked threads. When they went at last, there was no reprieve for my shabby old green armchair. But saying farewell to it was genuinely sad.

It’s strange how these little bits of household detritus worm their way into our hearts and memories and lives, becoming more than just the sum of their being. Yet it happens. A wall is not just a wall, but a record of a child’s growth; a stuffed animal not merely a toy, but the friend that comforted us throughout our childhood, and one whom we cannot bear to abandon. And, for me, a chair that is not simply an old, battered, and comfortable armchair, but the foundation of a hundred precious and important memories. The more spiritual among us may scoff at this habit of making a material object something more than it seems, deriding our connection as a foolish physical attachment, and perhaps they are right. But there it is, nonetheless. The broken down beater that was one’s first car, or the too-small first apartment; the maple tree climbed by a succession of children, itself grown tall from nothing but a spindly little volunteer; the old rocking chair that comforted many a sick child—they mean something to us, these little incidentals in our lives. We imbue them with worth, and they take on a shining patina thereby.

Yesterday, with my son-in-law’s help, I dragged that battered, sad, and wonderfully comfortable easy chair to the curb to await the trash truck. Chairs don’t have souls, of course. But I nevertheless patted the back as we set it in place, saying (yes, aloud; my neighbors already know I’m crazy), “You’ve fought the good fight, old thing. Well done, thou good and faithful servant: Well done.”

I don’t suppose the new, giant puffy rose lounger will last nearly as long or ever mean as much, but as I put it into place in the living room, I slapped the back lightly and told it, “You’ve got some very big shoes to fill, youngster.”

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like the essay, “My Blue Willow Tea Set”, which was posted June 26, 2018. Scroll down to the Archives link to locate it.

Emails to Dad

On a morning soon after his death, I began to email my late father, sending him messages almost daily.

My father passed away in December, 2021. His email account remained active for four months after his death, and during that time I sent him almost daily emails. When his account finally closed in April, I was shocked to realize how much I was going to miss sending those regular emails to him.

Dad Young Man_20220416_0001

You see, Dad never became very technologically competent, so his voicemail was actually set up under my voice. It was I who told callers that they had reached his number. I was also usually the person who went through his messages for him, remembering the password that he could never recall and dialing into the account; listening to each memo and noting it down; telling him who had called and what they wanted, and deleting or saving his messages.

Yet despite the fact that, after answering machines became passé, Dad could never quite get the hang of voicemail, he managed to adapt to email and even enjoyed it. He often needed help with the minutiae of his email program—adding or deleting contacts, downloading photos or videos–but Dad loved email. He received and forwarded an endless stream of jokes and cartoons and highly-opinionated articles. Never more than a “two-finger” typist, Dad was still able to initiate simple emails and transmit them (aIthough I never managed to convince him that TYPING IN ALL CAPS was considered shouting!)

Following Dad’s death, I spoke with many people who continued to call a deceased relative’s voicemail for weeks after the individual had died, until the disconnected number was transferred to a stranger. They yearned to hear their loved one’s voice again; they just wanted to say, “I love you; I miss you.” Sadly, I couldn’t do that with Dad’s voicemail. There was nothing on his recording but my own voice.

Dad’s email account, though, was another matter. It remained active, and I was in charge of it. During the six months of his final illness, I’d spent hours sitting with him in his room at the care facility, logging in to read his messages aloud to him or turning the screen so that he could see the photos and videos. I laughed with him at the jokes, and typed to his dictation the answers that he wanted to send to a few select contacts.

Now, following his passing, I was still scanning his email account daily, checking for bills and clearing out spam. Often I sat with tears trickling down my cheeks as I notified contacts who had not heard of his passing, and reminded others to remove him from their mailing lists.

And so, having access to remove my own messages, I decided one morning soon after his death to begin emailing my late father, sending him daily notes. Sometimes I merely described the events of my day, just as I might have during phone calls and emails during his life. In other communiqués, I related stories of his little great-granddaughter, occasionally even attaching a photo. I discussed painful and distressing recollections of his last months, explaining to him how much some of those memories still hurt. Remembering how much he’d enjoyed eCards, I went to my favorite site and selected a birthday card to send him. Throughout the endless weeks I spent cleaning out the home where he’d lived for 58 years, I berated him, time and time again, for leaving such a gawdawful mess for my brother and me to sort out: the decades of accumulated paperwork that had to be shredded; the dirt and disorder and disarray of all his personal property. I reminded him when my birthday rolled around, and told him about my gifts. I railed at him for his years of smoking, the vile habit that destroyed his lungs and contributed to his death. I described the two men who arrived from a museum in Evansville to collect his hundreds of hand-crafted wartime aircraft models and his library of aviation history books, delighting in their excitement at obtaining his collection.

There was something healing about those emails; something much more cathartic than merely writing a letter and then discarding or even burning it. There was a sureness, a certainty, that I was, somehow, actually conveying my words to my father there on the Other Side.

The dismay when I could no longer do that was palpable. A few days after Dad’s email account closed, I found myself utterly at a loss, bereft of this unusual but therapeutic communication.

For four months, I grieved my father with each keystroke and each press of the Send button, and I sent that grief into the ether, trusting that he was waiting somewhere, eagerly receiving each of my messages; understanding my need to communicate; and, finally, simply glad that I cared enough to remember, and to still talk to him.

If you appreciated this essay, you might also enjoy the post “My Dad Called the Japanese ‘Japs'”, which was published April 6. You can find it by scrolling below, to the Archives.