They Have Ruined Oatmeal For Me!

The Ubiquitous They have ruined oatmeal for me.

You know the ones I mean: the “They” who inform our daily lives, inducing fear, spreading urban myths, dispersing vague and often erroneous information. I have always envisioned them as something resembling the giant ants in the old sci-fi movie, Them. “They say that….”   Who? Who says that? Rarely is the “they” who are saying these things defined. But we all know They.   We all repeat their information – or misinformation.

And They have ruined oatmeal for me.

Make no mistake: I love oatmeal. I have since childhood. It was rarely on our table, since in the 1960s most mothers preferred to hand out boxed cereal and milk to their children rather than to cook breakfast. But as a grown woman with my own apartment, I indulged my love of oatmeal – indeed, of all hot cereals. Cream of Wheat. Coco Wheats. Rolled Whole Wheat. And oatmeal. Real oatmeal – not that wimpy instant stuff. Old fashioned oats, which took longer to cook and were rich with texture and flavor. Rarely did I add in anything except a handful of raisins and some raw sugar. And even on those days when I caved to a time crunch, I could satisfy my longing with a delicious but now-discontinued cold cereal called Post Oat Flakes.

I was never quite able to convince myself that Cream of Wheat, laden with a big pat of butter and sugar, was really good for me, but I enjoyed it nonetheless; ditto, Coco Wheats. I still remember fondly a winter morning before school when I had spent the night at a friend’s home; her mother believed in a hot breakfast on winter mornings, and so I sat down to a bowl of piping hot Cream of Wheat with a pat of butter still warmly melting on its surface. Rolled whole wheat cereal, harder to find but prepared laden with honey, delighted me, and I could at least tell myself it was a whole grain. But oatmeal – oatmeal was GOOD for me, and I loved it. As I grew to adulthood, I rarely had time for it except on weekends until the addition of microwaves as standard office equipment meant that I could have my oatmeal for breakfast constantly. A recipe for Scottish oatcake was so delicious that I swore to indulge on it only a few times a year.  Exercising  restraint, I permitted myself to bake oatmeal raisin cookies only at the holidays.  I rejoiced when oats were declared, “heart healthy”.

Then my little world of hot cereal began to collapse like a deflating balloon. The word that poisoned my world was glyphosate.

Glyphosate,  the broad-spectrum herbicide used on genetically modified crops.  Glyphosate, determined by multiple jury trials to be responsible for causing cancer for those who used it regularly.  Glyphosate, infesting soil, water, animals, and crops;  occasionally mentioned by a few experts as a potential factor in the declining honeybee and butterfly populations, just as DDT had done to an earlier generation. Glyphosate, sprayed (They said) on harvested grain to dry it for storage. Glyphosate, ruining my Cream of Wheat, my Coco Wheats, my rolled whole wheat cereal. Glyphosate, infesting my healthy, hot, delicious oatmeal.

I continued to eat oatmeal even after first hearing about the glyphosate contamination of oats—even contaminating organic oats, due to the spray drifting from treated fields over  nearby organically grown and dried crops. The Ubiquitous They, I reasoned, might be wrong, after all. They might be repeating yet another urban legend.

But They weren’t. Lawsuits entered the courts, claiming glyphosate contamination in both hot and cold oat cereals, regular and organic. The company responsible for marketing the deadly weed killer was ordered to pay an incalculable sum to a groundskeeper who used the preparation regularly and contracted lymphoma.

Sadly, even after switching to an organic brand and praying it might not be contaminated, I find that I can no longer enjoy my healthy, delicious hot bowl of oatmeal. I can no longer bake and eat my favorite oatmeal raisin cookies, even at the holidays. I’ve entirely stopped baking my beloved Scottish oatcake.

I suppose it wasn’t really They who ruined oatmeal for me, but corporate lies and greed and misinformation, coupled with ecological apathy and insouciance.

But if I ever encounter giant, mutant ants, I’ll send them to the They who ruined oatmeal for me.

Spirituality is Big Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Retirement Is…

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

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

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

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

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

 

and sew and join coloring groups

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Growing a Spine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lemonade From Lemons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Name of My Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marie Gregory

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

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

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

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

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

Repainting the Nativity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toxic Recipients

Now that the holidays are safely behind us, it’s probably the perfect time to discuss the situation of Toxic Recipients.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lopsided Tree

I have been watching (for, give me strength, months—literally months!) commercials lauding a particular brand of “perfect”, extraordinarily realistic Christmas tree. Each time I’ve been subjected to the commercial, I’ve thought to myself, “If you want a tree that perfectly realistic, for heaven’s sake, buy a live tree!”

But that isn’t true, either, is it? I recall the live trees of my early childhood, before artificial trees became common. They were never perfect. One always turned the “not so good” side to the wall. They sat crookedly in the tree stand, requiring endless work to straighten them and keep them straight. They shed needles no matter how much water was added to the stand. The top branch keeled over under the weight of the angel. But they smelled heavenly, and once the heavy glass colored bulbs were lit, they looked like a little piece of heaven, too.

They were a lot of trouble, those live trees, and I don’t precisely miss them, having used the artificial variety for most of my lifetime now. But I had reason to think about them as I set up my tree this year.

Two holiday seasons past, I had to purchase a new tree, doing so during the after-Christmas sales. I choose a prelit “umbrella” tree, one with folding branches that didn’t have to be frustratingly inserted following a complicated pattern. As I checked out with my tree at the counter, the sales clerk warned me that returns could only be processed within 30 days; be sure, she advised me, once I arrived home, that the lights on the tree were working. I swiped my credit card and laughed. “My dear,” I chuckled, “this baby is staying in the box until next Christmas. And if the lights don’t work, well, that’s why God invented strings of lights!’

But the lights did work, as I found out the following year. Although sparse (I prefer my trees simply laden with twinkling white lights), the tree blossomed into brilliance once plugged in. It was taller than I’d anticipated, but fit nicely into the narrow area available after the aggravation of moving the furniture. And, once decorated, it was just breathtaking.

Fast forward to January 2nd. There was simply NO WAY that tree was going back into the box. Finally I covered it with big trash bags and propped it into the corner of my tiny, single-car garage…where, a few months later, it crashed to the ground one evening as I pulled my car into the space, snapping the weld that held the bushy top branch in place so that it broke completely from the tree.

Ever the optimist, I decided to put it aside until the holiday season, sure it would be easy to repair. If the upper lights didn’t work now, I thought, I’d just get a string. No big deal.

Sigh. A week prior to Thanksgiving, I decided it might be best to repair that treetop. But after a frustrating two hours of attempting multiple mends, it became clear to me that the broken treetop was not going to be repaired. Oh, the lights still worked. But no way was that treetop ever going to slide into place in the trunk once again.

Finally, on the night before Thanksgiving, I brought the damaged tree into the house. Deciding that if duct tape had been good enough for Apollo 13, it was good enough for my Christmas tree, I taped the broken tree top to the trunk portion of the tree. It was lopsided as all get-out, and it wobbled ever so slightly, but it worked. I wound some ribbon about the trunk to disguise the mend, and settled the tree into its spot by the living room window.

The Lopsideded Tree Crop

And now, I realize, I like the tree better.

It was a little too tall before; now, perhaps four inches shorter, it is just the right size. It’s lopsided, just like the beloved trees of my childhood. The side where the mend shows most has been turned to the wall. It lost a few needles in the repair process, especially where I discovered that one umbrella-fold branch had also been a victim of that topple to the garage floor.

It is a perfectly imperfect tree.

Perhaps that is a metaphor for Christmas itself—for all the holidays celebrated by all the families of many cultures throughout the lands of this earth. We strive to make everything perfect—the food, the gathering, the gifts, the lights. But no matter how hard we try, perfection never happens. Married children cannot split their time between two families; grandchildren can’t make it home from distant colleges. The turkey burns; the mashed potatoes turn out runny. Someone starts a political discussion that ends up in shouting and quarrels. The smokers are angry at banishment to the porch. All the men escape to the TV for football, while the women, resentfully, clear tables and wash dishes. The kids scorn the gifts that their parents worked so hard to provide.

Perfection never happens. But, nonetheless, the lights burn brilliantly on the lopsided tree, reminding us that perfection isn’t a necessary component to joy. Satisfaction, acceptance, and “good enough” are all we truly need for happiness.