True Friends

∼  If you want to know who your true friends are—the people who genuinely care about you—just get really, really sick. 

I have one former friend who is probably still puzzling over the demise of a relationship that spanned several years, surviving not a few misunderstandings and rough times.

But on my part, deciding to calling quits to the friendship was obvious: I was abandoned when seriously ill.

If you want to know who your true friends are—the people who genuinely care about you—just get really, really sick. Not a pleasant path to discovery, I admit, but one that is certain and true. The responses of your family members and friends will provide every clue to their genuine feelings for you.

Now, it’s easy to assume that family will help to provide your care: it is, after all, their responsibility. Spouses, especially, are supposed to look after one another; ditto, parents, their children, and children, their elderly parents.

Sadly, that doesn’t always happen–or, having happened, it is made all too clear to us that we are being cared for, not out of love, but obligation.

It’s really unpleasant being someone’s virtuous obligation. The “long-suffering-but-noble” stance and facial expressions of our carers, the occasional veiled but insensitive remark about things they could be doing, if only they didn’t have to look after us, the sighs and airs of self-sacrifice—even the slipshod methods employed to our care—yes, it would be almost better to struggle and risk harm to care for ourselves rather than be someone’s noble obligation.

Yet for those of us who are not natural malingerers, it’s almost as difficult experience to be cared for out of love. Most of us with dignity and conscience do not want to be a burden to others, taking up their scarce free time, making more work for those we love. Yes, there are those people who consider it their due to be looked after, even coddled—but those same people have probably spent most of their lives behaving in that manner, not just when they are ill or incapacitated.

But being cared for out of love, no matter how uncomfortable an affair for those who are independent and resourceful, provides a new perspective of relationships. And, heartbreakingly, a failure of care does, also.

When I was seriously ill, people whom I had not been in contact with for weeks, months, even years, seemingly flew out of the woodwork. They provided me with every service imaginable: meals, transportation, housework—even just sitting with me, mindlessly watching TV, when I was at my lowest point. Well over a year later, the warm glow of those acts of loving kindness lingers with me still. They reached out to me in my darkest hour, sending cards and letters and e-mails and texts. They put my name on prayer requests, and made certain I knew those prayers were being said. They made phone calls, or simply showed up on the doorstep. And, above all, they listened. They listened to my fears, spoken and, yes, unspoken, listening with their hearts as well as their ears. When I was at my lowest points, they walked with me through the valley of the shadow; they held my hands, figuratively and literally, through my dark night of the soul.

And others did not.

As I say, there is one former friend who is probably still puzzling over the demise of our years-long relationship.   When told that I had cancer, she assured me that she would include me in prayer at the next worship service. After that, although I kept her updated on my scheduled treatment plan and surgeries and the expectation of a lengthy recovery, I heard nothing: no cards, no phone calls, no texts, no e-mails, no letters. There were no visits, no casseroles, no assistance with housework during the dreary and long months of my illness.

As I always, naively, anticipate the best of people, especially friends, I was wounded. Most dismaying of all was the fact that, just a year earlier, I had been the person to provide her transportation to a minor outpatient surgery and wait with her through a long morning, drive her to pick up prescriptions and see her home afterward, bring her a get-well basket, call to check on her and send her one or two cheerful e-mails during her brief recovery.

I discovered, though, that I didn’t have time to waste worrying over her unexpected disappearing act during my serious illness. Having recovered myself, I became heavily involved with looking after another friend who had also become seriously ill. Giving the same service that I had been given was a way for me to repay the Universe for the kindness and care that had been shown to me.

Months later, my one-time friend suggested we might get together for dinner…so that I could meet her new boyfriend.

I declined.

Charity Begins

  True charity, true giving,  requires so much more of us than just sending a check or pulling used clothes from a closet. 

I clearly remember when I became aware of the need and responsibility to alleviate poverty and to give of my own resources: I was a preteen when our class at school decided to sponsor a needy family for Christmas. I will never forget the look on the face of the mother of that little family as we children and our teacher trooped in, singing carols and carrying boxes of food and wrapped gifts into a bare, cold house. “Well, I got them a tree,” she told us, her voice breaking, “but I didn’t know if there would be anything under it.” That day brought home to me, as nothing else could have done, how very blessed I was—rich, in fact—and the responsibility of sharing my blessings.

The lesson stayed with me, right up to adulthood. Even in those years when I barely had enough money to meet my bills, I saved a small—sometimes tiny– amount to contribute to charitable causes. During some years, that meant no more than my leftover pocket change dropped into a jar at the end of the week, and finally wrapped and rolled at year’s end.  The coin rolls were taken to the bank and deposited into my account before being distributed by check to a charity I deemed important. That, and buying a few small gifts for a needy child from an ‘Angel Tree’ at the holiday season, comprised my charitable giving during the lean years of my life.

As my income rose, so did my distributions. I was never one to believe in tithing to a single organization, but instead selected multiple causes in which I believed and contributed my funds there: environmental foundations, disaster relief, animal shelters, children’s charities. I gave as I felt moved, or the need arose. I donated my used goods and clothing to charity thrift shops, and purchased from them, as well, so that my money could do more for needy community. When someone at the office lost a loved one, I always offered a memorial contribution from coworkers as an option to the traditional and wasteful flowers; when my own mother passed away, Dad and I did the same, requesting contributions to her favorite animal shelter. Then we packed up her lovely clothing and shoes, and I contacted a local women’s shelter so we could contribute the items where they were most needed.

Despite my personal altruism, I was often in trouble during my working years for my refusal to participate in the office-sanctioned big-name charitable concern. A few times, knowing that my job hung by a thread, anyway, I committed to the bare-bones minimum of donating a dollar a week to the giant organization. But I gritted my teeth as I did so, suspecting that what I was actually subsidizing was some CEO’s high roller lifestyle. Nevertheless, when asked in later years to arrange office-wide silent auctions from coworkers’ donated goods, with the proceeds going to the big-name charity, I did so willingly, telling myself that at least people were receiving something tangible in return for their money.

But something happened, as time has sped by, to alter my preteen comprehension of the value of giving. Slowly but inevitably I’ve learned (and it would be a sad thing if we did not spend our lifetimes growing and learning) to fully grasp the meaning of the old maxim, “Charity begins at home”. True charity, true giving, I have finally come to understand, requires so much more of us than just sending a check or pulling used clothes from a closet.

True charity is the kindness that visits, not just to bring a casserole, but to spend time with a sick friend; to care for their pets and do their household chores.  It feeds the homeless, hungry animal that arrives on the porch, and finds the poor creature a home. Genuine altruism invites the lonely person without family to a holiday dinner, or cancels long-anticipated plans when another’s emergency arises and help is needed. It contributes time and compassion, sitting in the hospital room with family members as they deal with the anguish of a loved one’s illness. True charity looks at the neighbor’s overgrown, unmowed lawn and doesn’t register a complaint with the homeowner’s association, but stops by to find out if sickness or crisis has prevented them from caring for their home, and offers help. Authentic generosity arrives on the doorstep with concrete ways to help rather than muttering the worn-out and unmeant platitude, “Please let me know if there is anything I can do”. It cleans the house, drives the children to their activities, does the laundry, or simply sits with the person in pain. True charity uses the funds that would have gone to one of those hundreds of foundations, and instead buys groceries or pays a bill for friends or family members who are down on their luck.

I will never stop providing funds to the causes in which I wholeheartedly believe. But, although it has taken a lifetime, I’ve learned, finally, to give in the ways that really matter

Political Civility


~ I have intentionally avoided politics in my thoughtful blog, but with respect to the real reasons we celebrate Independence Day tomorrow, I offer this essay. I hope that, no matter what your political views, you will have the courage to read it all the way through. ~

 I was dealing with the potentially-fatal illness of my favorite pet, barely keeping my head above churning emotional waters as I prepared for the possibility of releasing her to her final journey, when a series of hate-filled e-mails sent me into an emotional tailspin. The e-mails had nothing whatever to do with pets or illness or any other life-altering, sad situations. They were political.

And while facing the loss of my favorite cat hadn’t forced tears from my eyes, the e-mails made me weep.

The first contained a graphic that proclaimed:

“We hated Obama like you hate Trump. Except we hated Obama because he hated America. You hate Trump because YOU hate America”.

Dismayed and affronted, I nevertheless replied to the e-mail mildly, saying just that I found this untrue, and very offensive, and asking not be sent anything like it again.

Yet less than 24 hours later, I received another e-mail, this time referencing those whose political views were similar to mine, alluding to us by name-calling and bullying. We were, it seems, “Libtards”. We were “Wingnuts”.

I’d long since dealt with and dismissed being derided as a “Snowflake”. Despite knowing it was not meant as a compliment, I accepted the appellation proudly. Snowflakes are some of the most incredible creations of Nature: intricately formed, astoundingly beautiful and infinitely individual; wrought into beauty from water, without which life itself cannot exist. Joined together, snowflakes are capable of creating massive, unstoppable forces for change, such as blizzards and avalanches.

But, hitting me at an already-low point in my life, the abusive invective of these latest e-mails was not something I could shrug off or transliterate into a positive. Instead, they wounded me at the very wellspring of my heart.

I have been heard to make sour jokes about politicians whom I do not like, but I do not, under any circumstances, speak  ridicule, insults or derision to another person regarding their political choices. I firmly insist on behaving respectfully about their opinions, even when I just as firmly disagree with them. Politically, I consider myself to be an Independent middle-of-the-roader, slightly left-leaning, but always open to civil discourse and the possibility of changing my mind.

I voted for President Barack Obama, and, while I certainly did not approve of everything he did, I thought him to be both dignified and definitely far and away from being the worst President we had ever seen to that time (after all, I’d  lived through Nixon).

And I did not vote for President Trump. Like our late, greatly lamented former First Lady, Barbara Bush, I’d been reading about Donald Trump–the unscrupulous, unethical businessman; the serial adulterer; the scoundrel who did not sacrifice home, career and family to go to Canada for his convictions, but relied on a medical falsehood to evade the Vietnam draft–reading this and more since the mid-1980s. I’d made up my mind about the man at that time, and nothing I heard him say, nothing I saw him do, during his campaign, gave me cause to alter my opinion. Had I been persuaded in that direction, reading the 2016 article, “I Sold Trump $100,000 Worth of Pianos. Then He Stiffed Me”1 would have sealed my opinion of the man forever.

But nothing, NOTHING, in my judgement about now-President Trump, nor former President Obama, signals that I do not love my country! In fact, my opinions represent exactly what is best about the United States of America: the right to personal convictions. Liberty. Freedom of expression. The right to choose one’s leaders, and to criticize those leaders without fear of retribution or reprisal. The right to see matters from differing perspectives. The right—the requirement—to stand up for one’s beliefs. The requirement to be respectful of those who believe differently.

But now derision and ridicule, vicious mockery, name-calling, bullying, harassment and persecution of others for their beliefs have become the standard, the norm; have taken the place of civil discourse and reasonable debate.  I find that shocking and heartbreaking. That is not what I have always understood America, or Americans—the concept, nor the reality—to be.

And so, receiving such harassment by e-mail, and already in a saddened state of mind, I wept.

I will never claim that those who stand with President Trump are in some way un-American.  I will not stand before them calling them wingtards or nutjobs or even deplorables. They are simply individuals who hold a different viewpoint, one with which I resolutely, unshakably disagree; one which I do not even understand. But that I do not agree with their choice of leader makes me in no way un-American or vile or deplorable, either. On the contrary, it makes me a true American: one who is unafraid to speak up for her convictions; who accesses her right to freedom of expression, to liberty.

I, an American woman, do not deserve to be made to weep, to be derided and insulted, for my political opinions, least of all through the faceless, cowardly medium of an internet communication.

My right to view and work for and love this wonderful country of ours in the way that I see best is my personal pursuit of happiness. And I would have it unshadowed by those who demean America by deriding the liberties bestowed by the Constitution upon its citizens.

1https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/09/28/i-sold-trump-100000-worth-of-pianos-then-he-stiffed-me/?utm_term=.6ab2e9c42d4d

The Power of an Insincere Thank You

Justifying bad behavior is being wrong twice.

A while ago I was shopping at Super Big Evil Mart, and found myself enamored of a pretty knit top which I didn’t need, couldn’t afford, and knew I shouldn’t buy. So of course, seeing that there was only one in my size, I flung it into my cart and marched up to the checkout with it.

The line was long since (as usual) there were only perhaps three checkout lanes open of the twenty or so available. So I was dismayed when the clerk started to ring up my purchases and found the top had no price tag. Obviously irritated, she switched her lane light to strobe, hoping to attract a supervisor who could verify the price. Meanwhile, I turned to the lady in line behind me, and said abjectly, “I’m really sorry to hold you up.” The woman responded with an expressive lift of the eyebrows and quirk of her head which seemed the equivalent of a shrug–whereupon the teenage clerk, not quite sotto voce, remarked snippily, “Well, if you’d checked to see if the item had a price tag, you wouldn’t be holding everyone up!”

Expressive Eyebrow lady raised her brows even further, if that were possible. I’m certain my own eyebrows were riding at high tide, also. But I reined in my temper and just looked coolly at the young clerk, replying in saccharine tones, “Oh, thank you so much! There is nothing I appreciate more than being given life lessons by someone at least 40 years younger than I am!”

When my purchases had finally been rung up by the now-silent clerk, I smiled sweetly at her and said in a voice dripping sugar, “I’ll be sure to let your supervisor know all about your helpful advice! Thank you again!”

This wasn’t the first time I’d routed a clerk at the Super Big Evil Mart using the extraordinary power of an insincere thank you. A few years earlier, I’d strolled into the garden section in the very early spring. The main shelves were already full, but I didn’t see what I wanted there, and so wandered toward an opening between some pieces of clear vinyl sheeting hung from the ceiling. In a hazy sort of way, I thought they were hung there to keep chilly air of the still-raw weather from seeping into the main part of the store; there were certainly no signs or cones indicating that the section wasn’t yet open. But a middle-aged clerk, who certainly should have known better, charged down upon me, snarling loudly and angrily, “Hey, YOU! GET AWAY! That whole area’s still closed!” I pulled up short as commanded, and, placing a hand over my heart, replied, “Oh, I’m SO sorry! I didn’t realize that! And thank you for letting me know SO courteously! Thank you for saying, ‘Please be careful’. Thank you for saying ‘Ma’am’. Thank you for speaking to a customer with SUCH courtesy! ”

If looks were a box of matches, I’d have burst into flames on the spot. But there is simply very little response even the most obnoxious person can make to being thanked, however insincerely.

There are some who try, of course. Spluttering or muttering, they attempt to defend their execrable behavior. My standard response to such equivocation is to stare them down with X-ray eyes and snap out a snarky comment of my own: “Justifying bad behavior is being wrong twice!” Occasionally, too, the chided individual will simply mouth off an insult (i.e., “Bitch!”). This, of course, requires a return to childish rhetoric: while still evading an exchange volley of insults, I just grin and sing out, “Hey, takes one to know one!”

I’ve utilized the astounding force of an insincere thank-you when given unasked-for advice or when, as described above, I’ve been victimized by those in a service capacity; I’ve even used it, very carefully and in a modulated tone, when faced with a situation in which a stranger seemed murderously angry. I was known to exercise the gesture back when I was still employed, although in those situations, also, I dialed down the saccharine tones and gestures quite a bit. Insincere thanks have seen me through many a moment in which speaking my mind or responding with my true feelings could have produced awful results.

In a world of rising dissension, in which common courtesy has become so uncommon as to be notable, there is enormous strength in the words “thank you”, whether meant sincerely or otherwise. But for shutting down outright rudeness, there’s nothing quite like the power of an insincere thank you.

“Murder”

In 1985, I suffered a miscarriage.  My dearly-longed for baby died within me, and my body refused to miscarry the dead fetus.

The technical term for a miscarriage is a spontaneous abortion. A missed abortion is the situation in which the embryo or fetus dies, but the body does not miscarry. The pregnancy appears to continue.

I know this because, in 1985, I suffered a missed abortion. My dearly-longed for baby died within me, and my body refused to discharge the dead fetus. I carried my child dead, knowing it to be dead, for a further three weeks.  My obstetrician insisted it would be healthier if I miscarried naturally. Finally, that not having happened, he intervened with a D&C.

I was at last free to mourn the child who would never be. And my world went to grey and sepia.

Years later,  I had cause to remember those dreadful days of dragging myself into the office every day, carrying my dead child—the anguish; the unutterable grief. It all came rushing back to me one afternoon when a coworker who had also suffered a miscarriage asked to see her personnel file.

A difficult supervisor was making her life miserable, and she decided to take matters in hand by visiting Human Resources and viewing her personnel file. She wanted to know exactly what the supervisor had written about her. Permitted to examine her records in the presence of an HR employee, she sat down to page through the folder.

In those pre-HIPAA days, doctors could write almost anything in a work excuse note; there was no privacy concerning one’s personal medical information. And so, as she sorted through the pages of information and misinformation, she came across the “Please Excuse From Work” note  provided following her miscarriage. Her ob/gyn had written, “Absence due to recovery from a D&C performed following spontaneous abortion”.

But across the word “abortion”, someone had written in bold, black ink, “MURDER”.

She sat there, shocked to her depth and core, holding that bit of paper in a shaking hand, staring at the libelous judgment scrawled across the note.

MURDER.

Still shaking, she turned to the waiting HR employee.  Shoving the note under her nose, she demanded to know what the hell was going on. Why was this…this filthy lie…written on her medical excuse?

“Oh,” Ms. HR said casually, “we thought we’d caught all those.” Without another word, she took a bottle of cover-up, casually dabbed it across the appellation, and handed it back.

Disbelieving; too shaken to dispute and not knowing quite what else to do, my coworker slipped the note back into the file, closed the folder, and left.

Later, as she tearfully described the situation, another staff member clued us in.  Heaven knows where she’d gotten her information, but in this instance the gossip mill seemed trustworthy, for she claimed that an HR employee had been discovered writing the word “Murder” across medical notes and insurance claims for all female employees who had either actually had an abortion, or suffered miscarriages. The employee, apparently ignorant of either the term spontaneous or missed abortion, had assumed the meaning to be the elective procedure. She made her damning judgement, scrawling reprehensible accusations over the reality of the agonizing truth.

Human Resources staff had been forced to dig through mounds of files, finding and correcting all those in which she’d written her libelous remarks.

Obviously, I thought in fury, they hadn’t corrected all of them! For a moment I considered demanding to see my own personnel file, certain that it, too, would either be libeled, or (just as damning) covered in white-out.  But recalling the weeks of my colorless world, the hours of grief and mourning for my unrealized child, I could not bring myself to do it.  I could not look at that word written across the source of my pain.

Thirty-some years later, I still shake with anger as I recall this event.

But the reason I am writing all of this is because, not long ago, I read a news story  about a young woman enduring the agony of a non-viable pregnancy–an agony that I so well understood. The woman had been denied a medication prescribed by her doctor, one that would cause her body to begin naturally miscarrying the dead fetus. A pharmacist had refused to fill the prescription. Shaming and judging her, he claimed that she was trying to abort a living child, and denied her the medication.  To obtain the prescription that would end her pregnancy with a dead child and circumvent a surgical procedure, she was forced to drive for hours from that rural pharmacy to another town.

For just a moment, time reversed its flight, and I stood with that young woman in her grief, her anguish and misery, and, most of all, her innocence in the face of the most terrible of all accusations by someone self-righteous and wrathful.

MURDER.

I experienced every minute of her suffering as if it were my own. And, just as I had once consigned that smug, sanctimonious, faceless HR employee to the uttermost depths of hades, I now wished the same fate upon this unknown, censorious pharmacist.

I know that we are to judge not.  And I do not even believe in hell.  Yet sometimes, remembering, I find myself hoping that they both, the self-righteous HR employee and the contemptuous pharmacist, will find there is a special corner of a Very Hot Place reserved just for them.

Forgiveness Is Always An Option

Being told, over and over, by multiple people, that I needed to forgive was, in the end, totally counterproductive to the actual process of forgiveness.

I recently attended a six-week support group. Those brief two-hour sessions a week, and some light “homework” assignments following each session, found me freed, freed at last, from an intolerable burden that I had carried for a decade or more: unforgiveness.

Understand, it was not that I did not want to forgive the person who had, undeniably and maliciously, caused me enormous harm. Being raised in an Italian/Scottish family, I was all too familiar with the mechanics of feuding; of carrying grudges. I knew what it was to experience unforgiveness, bitterness, enmity, animosity and hostility.

Even more, I knew very well the toll these emotions took not just upon me, but upon everyone on the periphery of my life: my loved ones and family members. And I knew, as well, that not one iota, not one tiny, minute drop of the acid from those spiteful feelings in any way harmed the object of my anger. Instead, they ate away at my own soul.

Intellectually aware of all these facts, I nevertheless could not put aside the rage that scored my soul to its center. I could not forgive the individual who had wronged me.

Oh, I tried—how I tried! I prayed over and meditated on the problem. I forced myself to carefully recount all the ways in which the person who had harmed me deserved my understanding and empathy.  Each time the bitterness rose like a bile that I could taste in my mouth, I chanted to myself the words, “I forgive”. But the words were hollow and empty; the empathy a mere pretense, fleeting and unfelt. I finally created a string of beads and frequently held them in my hands, whispering my forgiveness as the circlet slipped through my fingers. The exercise did nothing but drain me. All my attempts to forgive merely induced a new anger—anger at myself—and a growing feeling of being inextricably trapped, ceaselessly beating my hands at the silken strands of a web that would not release me.

Worse yet was my reaction to those who told me what I already knew. If I had plucked a hair from my head for each time I heard someone say the words, “If you could only forgive…”, I would have been bowling pin bald!  “I’m trying,” I wanted to scream at them. “I’m trying to forgive. I want to forgive! I just can’t seem to get there.” No matter how well-intentioned, their words hindered rather than aided my healing. Rather than perceiving their concern for my emotional state, I heard them belittling my efforts. Instead of comprehending their hope that I would find healing, I heard them being sanctimonious. I shut my ears to their actual words or their intentions.  Instead, what my heart heard them saying was, “I  have been hurt and  I forgave! I am so much more evolved a soul than you!”

Being told, over and over, by multiple people, that I needed to forgive was, in the end, totally counterproductive to the actual process of forgiveness.

But what I found in those brief few weeks of spilling my guts to total strangers was the unexpected miracle that led me back to a state of grace. Finally able to speak my truth—my rage, my enduring anger, and my unforgiveness–without censure and without judgment, gave me the freedom I needed to find my way to mercy and compassion; to give pardon and grant absolution to the individual who had so grievously wounded me.

If I have learned anything on this long and twisted journey to compassion, it is that forgiveness is always an option, and one that we do not have to choose. I have learned that to tell another that they need to forgive is to stand in judgment upon them. And I have discovered that, for most of us, forgiveness can happen only after the wound we are carrying has been drained of all its poison. Then forgiveness will happen so naturally, so easily, that we will not even realize at first that it has occurred. We will simply awake one day to the knowledge that the burden of rage that we have been carrying has been lifted from our shoulders, and we are no longer enmeshed in the binding web of fury.

If I am ever faced with a friend who is suffering, trapped in the spider’s web of unforgiveness, I now know what I will say. I will tell that person only, “It’s okay. Everything you are feeling is okay. And when you are ready to forgive, it will happen. It will just happen. And that will be a wonderful day.”

Language Is a Funny Thing

Will regional idiom become more or less common due to social networks and instant communication?

I recently read a BBC article questioning whether Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle’s accent was becoming more British. Skimming through the examples proving the author’s point, I shrugged. “Yeah, probably,” I thought, “because she now lives in Britain. She’s surrounded by those speaking British English.”   As myself recalled from three years spent living in Charleston, South Carolina, after a childhood growing up in the Midwest, one picks up not only regional dialect and phrases, but a touch of an accent, while living in those circumstances. I rapidly shed my faint overlay of a Southern American accent upon my return to the Midwest, but I still occasionally find myself reaching back through time for a turn of phrase which causes my Midwestern acquaintances to double-take, such as when I declare an attractive man to be “right pretty”, or claim that someone is “no brighter than a firefly’s backside”. I do not, however, complain that a room is too “airish” (breezy) any longer, and  the memory  is still vivid of my total confusion when a Southern acquaintance referred to the previous night as “slept under blankets”. Uh, didn’t most people sleep beneath a blanket or a sheet, I wondered? It took a real twist of Sherlockian brainpower to make the deduction that, to someone for whom a “warm” day was 90°F, sleeping beneath a blanket was a rare occasion, occurring only when the temperatures had plummeted to a surprising low.

It astounds me that, in a era of instant communication, not only accent and dialects, but regional idiom, persist. Yet they do, and I find myself often either bewildered or surprised by them.

I remember sitting in the theatre at the first showing of the movie “Home Alone” and being astounded when the sleepyheads awaken to screech, “We slept in!” My reaction was a straightforward, “Huh?” To my understanding, sleeping in was something desirable; it was a leisurely Saturday morning in which one had nowhere to be and nothing important to accomplish, and just planned to putter around in a bathrobe all morning. Rolling out of bed just when one felt like it was sleeping in; waking in horror, too late for an appointment, one’s job, or a plane trip was not sleeping in, but oversleeping. These were too separate occurrences, with two separate phrases to describe them: one delightful, the other absolutely awful.

I encountered the same confusion when watching a popular sitcom and hearing a character declare that he was close with his sister. Huh again. Close with? I’d never encountered that phrase. The Midwestern reference I’d grown up with and used all my life to describe a warm personal relationship was close to.   Just as one might be described as close to an emotional melt down, one was also close to a beloved friend or family member. Next to. Beside. Near to. Dear to.

More recently, a trip to the grammar advice pages of the Web was triggered by hearing the phrase step foot. By now growing accustomed to my “Huh?” moments, I decided to research, learning that the phrase had evolved from the original, set foot, around the year 1500. Huh. 500-some years. Funny, then, that I had never once heard it until 2018. The grammar page went on to explain, though, that the use of step foot rather than set foot had become more common since the 1980s…which actually made it still strange that I had never encountered the expression during those 30-some years. I’ve grown more accustomed to hearing it, but I can’t say that I like it. It just sounds wrong to my ear.

And then there are the phrases on accident and by accident. On accident makes me grind my teeth! One can do something on purpose, intentionally, but one can only do something unintentional by accident. Even the language tutor pages agree with me on this one: on accident makes grammar purists cringe. The difference—intentionally, unintentionally—is marked by the preposition.

But those who have grown up using the expression on accident would probably not agree. We usually prefer the language forms to which we’ve been accustomed. Which begs the question, will regional idiom become more or less common due to social networks and instant communication?

One can only wonder. I will ponder it the next time I’m waking from leisurely sleeping in.

Those Two Snakes…

Belittling encounters with medical professionals could probably spin out into a story as long as War and Peace. 

The symbol for the medical profession is the caduceus, featuring two snakes winding around a winged staff. And despite the many caring medical professionals I’ve encountered over the years, I sometimes fear that those snakes are uncannily accurate!

This struck me forcefully a few days ago when a friend called for advice on behalf of her sister. She wanted to know if I thought (as she did) that her sibling should make some type of complaint regarding the treatment she’d just received at the hands of a specialist, a pain management doctor to whom she’d been referred. All three of us were well aware that pain management is a tricky subject these days due to the opioid epidemic; even more so for a patient being treated for long-term depression and emotional issues, as the sister admittedly is. But she’d also been enduring untreated chronic pain for months, and had waited patiently for weeks to see the specialist…only to leave his office in tears, not one  whit closer to being out of pain, and having been demeaned, insulted, misinterpreted, and shunted aside.

I commiserated with my friend and we determined a course of action for her sister to take. But the event brought clearly to mind the many times I and others of my acquaintance had endured reprehensible behavior from someone in the medical profession.

cauduceusI vividly recall my shock and dismay when, years ago, having seen my doctor regarding symptoms suggestive of an underactive thyroid, I received his verdict. Although my thyroid activity was on the “low end” of normal, he explained, “What you really need is an aerobics course. Or a psychologist.”  Just as my friend’s sister had done, I left the medical office in tears. Ignoring the doctor’s assessment, I researched and found a natural solution to my problem: two herbs that I continue to take to take to this day, since whenever I neglect them my symptoms return. But I’ve thought about that doctor’s words many times in the intervening years, as I’ve participated in many forms of exercise and mental health counseling that did nothing for my “low normal” thyroid.

Then there was the anesthesiologist who treated me during a breast biopsy. To say that I was frightened the day of that surgery would be the understatement of the decade, and my way of handling emotional discomfort often is to joke. So when the anesthesiologist saw me prior to the procedure, asking about allergies, I said laughingly, “Mostly, I’m allergic to my whole planet of origin.” Her face darkened and her lips twisted into a snarl as she snapped out that she needed accurate information. Chastened, I quickly recounted my precise allergies. But conflict terrifies me, so I was still trembling as they wheeled me in for surgery

I’ve wondered since if that anesthesiologist trained alongside the tech who handled the anesthetic for my emergency c-section.  During that procedure, despite trying my best to remain still as the needle was inserted into my spine, I jumped slightly. The anesthesiologist smacked me across the upper arm and growled, “I said DON’T MOVE!”

Another friend recounted her miserable experience with a doctor whom she saw for knee problems. Although my friend never denies that she is overweight, she was shaken and humiliated when the specialist genuinely threw up his hands. Threw his hands into the air and declaimed that there was nothing he could do, owing to her weight. She continued her story of medical mistreatment, explaining to me that,  many years earlier, when she’d first begun to gain weight, she’d visited another specialist.  She’d described to him a breathing problem she was experiencing that was limiting her activity and contributing to her weight gain. Prior to developing this breathing problem, she explained, she’d weighed only 127 pounds.  Later, as she dressed following the examination, she overheard the doctor dictating his notes regarding her case: “Patient claims to have previously weighed 127 pounds. Frankly, I find that hard to believe.”

I could probably recount a dozen or more such unpleasant, degrading incidents, both mine and others. I feel certain almost everyone has such a story. Many are far worse than those I’ve already related here: the breast cancer patient who was slammed into the radiation therapy machine by an angry tech; the woman who was told of her 102°F temperature, “That isn’t a high fever!” Belittling encounters with medical professionals could probably spin out into a story as long as War and Peace. And still I recognize that there are always two sides to every coin: During my daughter’s long labor and eventual c-section, I was thoroughly impressed by the kindness and quality behavior of the two anesthesiologists who treated her pain.

Nevertheless, thinking over so many disagreeable experiences, both my own and those of others, I persist in believing there is a genuine reason for those two sidewinding snakes on the caduceus.

A History of Queen Anne’s Lace

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

Years ago, I was watching an educational TV show, and the narrator discussed plants that were not native to the Americas but which were now common. As an example, the script mentioned Queen Anne’s Lace, stating that the seeds were carried to the Americas caught in blankets and clothing of the European settlers.

I could not stop laughing. 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, wooly ragwort, castor oil, blue and black cohosh, evening primrose, and even the remarkably dangerous pennyroyal and tansy and ergot of rye, herbal abortions were common when contraception failed.  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 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 pill was introduced, a chemical solution at last replacing that centuries-old use of abortifacient herbs.

I absolutely do not, will not, debate the wrongness or rightness of any of this, from Queen Anne’s Lace to the present day. To me, decisions regarding birth control and abortion remain always a choice best made by the woman involved, in accordance with her conscience and personal situation. But what struck me most forcefully in reading up on the history of contraception and abortion was that, step by step, women have been conditioned to believe that choosing to control their own reproductive process, even to the decision to prevent conception, was at best immoral, or at worst, criminal.

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

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

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

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

Prom Night, Then and Now

Because the month of May is when so many high schools hold their proms, an acquaintance asked me to re-publish this post from last year.

As women will do when gathered together day after day, when I worked in an office, we often found time to switch into “chat and gossip” mode. On one particular day in my memory, I recall that a supervisor had proudly displayed to a group of us ladies the prom photos taken of his oldest daughter. That sparked a discussion of school dances in general, and prom gowns specifically.

Each of the women present took turns describing her beloved senior or junior prom gowns and favorite dance dresses. I stayed on the periphery of this conversation, volunteering nothing, and fortunately each of the women was too wrapped up in fond memories of her own Cinderella moments to note my reticence.  My relief was enormous; I didn’t know what I would have said if they had turned to ask me about my dance dresses.  Made something up, perhaps – probably – because admitting the truth would have been humiliating: that I had never had a prom gown, nor even a dance dress.  I never wore one because I never went to a dance or a prom.  I did not go because I was not asked.  Without a date, a young woman of my generation didn’t have the opportunity to attend her own school prom.  She did not dare walk alone through the door onto the dance floor.

All of the women involved in the conversation that day were fifteen to twenty years younger than I. I knew that they could not possibly understand.  Contemporary young women would likely reel in disbelief and shock if faced with the restrictions we girls lived under in the late 1960s and early 70s.  If one did not have a date for a dance or a prom, one simply didn’t get to attend.  I seriously doubt that a single girl would have been sold a ticket for her own prom—or, if she had somehow wrangled a ticket, would not have been allowed to walk in alone. We, the overflow of plain young women without boyfriends or dates, simply bowed to the reality of the situation: we would not be asked, we would not attend. If we chafed under the restrictions, we were told that there was absolutely no point in railing against the situation.  It was just the things way were.

But somehow, at some point, it stopped being the way things were. The daughters of  “women’s libbers” and “hippies”, imbued with a sense of combativeness and personal worth that had been sadly absent in earlier generations, struck out on their own and refused to be tied to some male just in order to gain admission to their own school dances.  Happily single, they demanded tickets.  They bought their own corsages, slipped on their lovely gowns, tucked their feet into brand-new dancing shoes, and off they went.  Even if asked by a boyfriend to be their prom date, these brave young innovators sometimes refused to be coupled to one person and instead attended in groups of girlfriends, free to dance (or not) with whomever they pleased.

I not only admired those young women, but I was fiercely glad for them.

When my daughter and I went to a showing of the Disney movie Cinderella, I found myself biting my lip and blinking hard against tears when the title character is barred by her stepmother and sisters from attending the ball.  Later, as we left the theatre, I told my daughter, “That’s what it felt like, on the night of my senior prom.  That’s how I felt.”  Her own eyes sought mine in compassion and she squeezed my hand.

There were no fairy godmothers for the Cinderellas of my generation. And I had not the needed courage, perhaps, to change the sad state of my own affairs. But I have nothing but admiration for contemporary young women who neither need nor want fairy godmothers, nor pumpkin coaches, nor glass slippers—who reach out with no magic wands but that of their own self-assuredness and hard work to create the lives they want. And I hope every one of them dances, like the twelve dancing princesses of another fairy tale, long past midnight and until their shoes are worn through.