In The Moment

Hoding newborn Amanda

After my daughter’s visit to her obstetrician, I hurried over to see the pictures from the sonogram of my first grandchild. As she and her husband, John, told me about the wonder of hearing the baby’s heartbeat, I exclaimed, “Oh!  You ought to have recorded it.”

“I should have thought of that!” John responded. “But I was totally caught up in the moment.”

And that, as I assured him, was perfectly okay. In fact, it was exactly as it ought to be.

There have been too few times in my life when I was totally “in” the moment, totally present for exactly what was happening, but I treasure those memories. One of those moments was the day that my own daughter was born.  In that less-empathetic era, the nurses attendant at her birth began rushing through their own procedures without first handing my newly-born daughter to me.   I could see my child on a gurney to my side, but could not touch her until her father, saying, “I think Mommy  wants to touch her baby!”  yanked my own gurney over that precious extra inch so that I could reach her. Never, never in my lifetime will I forget that moment–electrifying, incredible, impossible–of touching just the tip of my finger to the tiny body of my newborn daughter.  Never, never more than in that moment have I felt completely cognizant of what was happening, yet, conversely, more totally part of the universe, and of the heart of God.

And that is what “being in the moment” does for us. It reconciles our humanness with our divine being.  For one incredible second, we are at one with all that we truly are.  We are, for that moment, not merely spiritual beings having a human experience: we are expanded, total, whole.

I would like to say that I have had other such moments, too numerous to count, in the passage of 64 years walking this planet. I would like to say that, but I can’t.  Like the fictional inhabitants of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, few of us truly understand the value of life while we are living it. Those rare moments of communion with all that life is are infrequent, at best.  But the fleeting seconds of recognition should be recalled and celebrated.

I’m truly glad that my son-in-law was so caught up in the moment of first hearing his child’s heartbeat that he forgot to record it. No recording could ever take the place of his wonder and awe at that moment.

Sometimes, though, it is something far more insignificant and seemingly less earth-shattering that, for one brief second, brings us to recognition of the miracle of life. I recall one such moment as an adolescent,  when, having gone for a walk in the cool weather of late fall, I arrived back home just as the sun began to set.  The sky was a maze of varied electric and shining colors.  I stood transfixed in wonder at the beauty of it, all awareness of my surroundings forgotten, elated and exalted.  For just that one, mere second, I found myself totally at peace; completely at one with the world.

Also while still young, I used to lie on the cool grass, wet with dew, on late summer nights, and stare upward at the stars lighting the sky. That sense of peace, of oneness, totally enveloped me, as I lay there on the ground, running my hands over the dew-wet grass and gazing at the heavens, feeling the inescapable, undeniable knowledge that, “I came from there.”

In fact, I found a faint memory of those nights triggered in me one dark morning in early spring as I waited for my bus. I looked down at the dewy grass next to the sidewalk, seeing the crystalline sparkle of every jewel-like dewdrop sparkling beneath the rising sun.  I reached down to the glimmering beauty, glittering there in the crepuscular light of the barely-begun morning, and knelt to run my fingertips over the blades of grass.  Feeling the cold, wet dew upon my fingers, I completely lost track of time and place until the bus pulled up, startling me out of my concentration.

I gathered up my purse and boarded, slipping my fare into the waiting maw of the cash box, and my regular driver asked me why I had been kneeling. Had I dropped something there on the grass? Did I need to go back and look for it?

“No,” I told him, smiling. “I was just admiring the beauty of the dewdrops there on the grass.”

He shook his head at me and started up the bus.

“You,” he said, rolling his eyes, “really need a vacation.”

Happy Birthday, Amanda Desireé.

 

Anger and Loss

A couple of years ago, an acquaintance passed away. We weren’t particularly close, but she was very dear to another friend of mine, the woman who’d introduced us, and so the feelings I experienced at her loss extended to my grieving friend, as well.

Debbe died, though, unnecessarily, wastefully, of medical error. So when I found myself in a blue funk on the day after her death, it took me nearly another 24 hours to comprehend why I was so upset.  I was sad that she was gone, yes; sadder still for the grandchildren whom she had been raising, and concerned for their futures, too.  I longed to comfort the friend who was most deeply feeling her loss.  But despite all these tumultuous emotions, I hadn’t known Debbe very well. I wasn’t mourning intensely.  Why, then, I wondered, was I so terribly sad?

I discussed the problem with that “other self” in my own mind (I’ve often wondered, when I’m asking myself a question, who precisely it is that I’m talking to?) Was the real cause of my distress the fact that Debbe was a couple of years younger than I?  Had her passing brought home to me the truth of my own mortality?  I didn’t think so.  I’d lost a good many acquaintances of my own age or younger in my lifetime, and had, in fact, recently spent quite a bit of time making my own end-of-life plans.  I didn’t believe that Debbe’s passing was a sudden and jarring reminder of my own mortality.

I was saddened for others, but that didn’t explain the intensity of my feelings.

Finally, after almost a day of puzzling through my feelings, I was able to put a name to them: anger. I was angry – bitterly, desperately, furiously angry, that Debbe had died due to mistakes by the medical professionals involved in her care.  She was dead due to their blithe prescribing of more and more antibiotics for longer and longer terms, until the very medications meant to heal her had turned on her immune system and destroyed it, shutting down her kidneys and killing her.

I was so bitterly, furiously angry at the wrongness of it, of a life wasted and other lives turned topsy-turvy, due to straightforward carelessness. I was outraged at negligence, at sloppiness, at inattention, in a profession in which a failure of precision literally makes the difference between life and death.

I am still angry and sad over her needless death. But my takeaway from this situation is the discovery of just how often I am so disassociated from my own feelings that I can sometimes identify them only with enormous effort.  How is it, I later asked myself, that it took me more than a day to recognize my own fury?

Naming my emotion was difficult; why it took so long is easier for me to answer: early training.  My youth was spent in a household where fury and rage were constant.  Screaming, shouting quarrels were a common occurrence.  Precious things were thrown and broken, doors were slammed until they bounced off  hinges.  Faces were slapped; punches were thrown.  Obscenities were shrieked.

But not by me. Not by my siblings.

No matter what was happening in our household, we children dared not express our anger at the situation–neither verbally or physically. Even as teenagers, with the usual adolescent tendency to smart-aleck remarks and snappishness, we were carefully restrained in our behavior.  And when I vented my fury on paper, my diary was sought out and read, and then used against me.

I learned to be very cautious of anger: to tuck it away, hidden within burning resentment; to avoid confrontation. I learned to bark in irritation over things that didn’t really matter rather than to say what had truly upset me; to fume silently.  Even through the crumbling of my 19-year marriage, I can recall only two occasions where I  was driven to shouting at my husband.

None of this is healthy or conducive to good relationships, but unlearning such early training is difficult. Just how difficult was driven home to me when I found myself unable to identify my anger over a friend’s needless death.

Anger will always frighten me, will always be a specter to be carefully controlled. Yet perhaps that is not entirely a bad thing.  The world might well be a safer place if more children were, from an early age, taught techniques to identify and properly deal with anger–to control its expression; to find healthy ways to express rage.

But not to learn, as I learned, to entirely deny it. Not to spend a lifetime hiding from their own rage and negating it.

I am angry over Debbe’s wasteful, needless death. And I am proud of that just and righteous anger.

Tough Love for the Prodigal Son

I hate the parable of The Prodigal Son.

I realize that this is a very unpopular position to hold, absolutely detesting one of the best-loved of all the parables in the New Testament. But there you have it: I dislike it. I always have, and I always will.

You recall the story, I’m sure, of course: A certain man had two sons… Son Number One takes his inheritance, traipses off, and blows it to hellangonagin.  Then, having (as they say in AA) finally hit rock bottom, he makes his way back to good old Dad and confesses the error of his ways.  Dad not only forgives him, but throws a mammoth party to welcome the wastrel back. (A party, I might add, to which Dad somehow forgets to invite Son Number Two. Very telling, that point.)

In the meantime, Son Number Two, who has spent the intervening years (while his brother was off carousing) laboring for Dad on the old home farm, arrives one evening from a hard day and stumbles into the big welcome home feast. Stung, Son Number Two complains bitterly to his father that, despite all his years of loyalty and service, Daddy Dearest never threw a bash for him, nor even gave him the wherewithal to throw a party of his own for himself and his friends.

To which complaint Dad basically responds by saying, “Hey, yeah, you’ve always been here, hanging around, but I really missed your brother.”  Proving once again that many an otherwise-discerning parent will tumble to the appeal of the runt of the litter.

Or so I interpret the story.

And it’s wrong. Absolutely, treacherously, cruelly wrong.

I have seen this story play out in real life, time and time again; I suspect many of us have done so. The wastrel, the drug addict, the alcoholic, the ne’er-do-well, rambles off to roust and revel, showing up now and again on Mom and Dad’s doorstep when the cash reserves run low, occasionally confessing the error of his or her ways and perhaps even briefly establishing a sensible existence.  Then, having been replenished, Wastrel heads right back out into that singular lifestyle once again–or simply hangs around for free room and board, sponging off the Parents indefinitely.

Meanwhile, Plain Jane and TomDickHarry get an education and begin working boring 9-to-5 jobs. They show up for family gatherings, bring birthday and holiday gifts to family gatherings, acquire spouses, and produce grandchildren. Eventually they begin caring for aging, ailing parents, shuttling them to doctor visits and hospital stays, mowing their lawns and straightening out their checking accounts.  They, Plain Jane and TomDickHarry, are just there—always there, doing the job of being good offspring and doing it well, but rarely lauded for a job well done.

And then the Parents pass on, and the sad truth comes out: they have left everything—every last cent, every fatted calf–to the ne’er-do-well. To the child they rarely saw and to whom they were no more than a revolving wallet.  To the runt of the litter.

Because, as they will sometimes have the grace to explain, “He just can’t take care of himself.” Because, “You’ll be okay, but she’ll need the money.”

And I say again, it is wrong. The parable is wrong; the real-life scenarios are wrong.

We need to give our love, our recognition, our gratitude and our appreciation to the sons and daughters who, like Son Number Two, “lo, these many years” serve and attend and care and demonstrate their affection–daily, weekly, continually. The ones who run their own lives well; who stick around and do the job of being good offspring.  The ones who are there every day; or who, if they live miles or states or countries away, are still constantly in touch.

The ones who are hardly noticed, because they don’t create chaos; don’t demand attention and bail money. The good sons and daughters, who deserve a fatted calf and a huge blowout party and acknowledgement–who should be cherished, just for being themselves.

I wish that, when the Prodigal Son returned, his father had handed him a hoe and a shepherd’s crook and ordered, “Get out there and show me exactly how sorry you are that you threw away everything I ever gave you. And you can have a room in the servant’s quarters and daily rations, but don’t ask for anything more until you’ve given me at least as much help as your brother has.  And I don’t want to see your face again until that happens.”

And then I wish he’d called Son Number Two to his presence and said, “Kid, put on your party duds. I am going to throw you the most amazing bash that’s ever been seen outside of the Pharaohs’ palace!”

That’s how the parable should have ended.

Judge Not…Sort of

At a summer gathering I attended some years ago, I overheard a young guest berating another for having worn pantyhose with her open-toed shoes.  Totally without shame, I sidled over and eavesdropped while the condescending young person explained that this was a complete fashion faux pas; no one wore pantyhose anymore, and certainly not with open-toed shoes.

It horrifies me to see anyone publicly belittled this way, so, despite the fact that I’m rarely assertive, I decided discourtesy was justified. I rudely interrupted the Fashion Policewoman to compliment her victim’s shoes, which were not the ubiquitous flip-flops but retro heeled sandals.  The girl under fire looked grateful for the change of subject and commented that both the shoes and her cute sundress had come from a vintage shop, and were classic 70s style.  She did not even attempt to explain the pantyhose, but she didn’t need to do so; it took very little effort to see a fresh surgical scar down one calf, partially-disguised by the sheer material.  At that point I glared at the self-righteous critic and said bluntly, “I think the pantyhose were a great idea.  I’m giving away my age by saying this, but that’s exactly how we wore open-toed shoes in the 70s.  Pantyhose without a reinforced toe were a new fashion then, designed just to be worn with shoes like yours.” I smiled at both young women and melted back into the crowd.  But what I really longed to do was grab the sanctimonious little faultfinder by her over-styled hair and yank her right along with me, possibly bitch-slapping her a few times as I did so.

I experience pretty much the same reaction when reading stories about the various shenanigans of the Westboro Baptist Church members. Administering a few head slaps and hair yanks to those people, perhaps accompanied by a kick or two, would be eminently satisfying, as would being able to reach into the computer to dispense a few good wallops to some of those posting cruel comments at the end of news stories.

I admit it: I am completely judgmental about judgmental people. I am unforgiving about condemnatory, negative, disapproving, disparaging and pejorative commentary, especially that made by individuals who don’t have all the facts at their disposal.  It infuriates me.

No matter how well-intentioned, publically criticizing another person in a social situation is an unnecessary cruelty—and, yes, that includes all the pejorative commentary heaped upon celebrities. It is hard enough, I imagine, to live one’s life under a microscope, without having the very hand adjusting the lens also writing vicious rhetoric for public consumption (fully half of it untrue or inaccurate). Let their agents tell them that there is no such thing as bad publicity; I’m not swallowing it.  Having hurtful and scathing things said about one in public forums is rude and miserable.

But (and here is my shameful admission) the simple truth is that I am so intolerant of judgmental behavior, not just because I’ve been the victim of it numerous times in my life, but because I have also practiced it.  It’s true: The bad behavior of others that we hate most is conduct we dislike in our own selves.  I am absolutely as guilty as anyone of sitting in public making casually cruel comments about various public figures, based solely on my own supposition of their probable characters.  Doing this—and I’ve done it a lot–is essentially slander.  And the fact that my victims are not, will never be, present to hear my comments is not the point.  It’s just bad behavior.  And to justify that bad behavior would be to be wrong twice.

There is a place, a proper place and time, for constructive criticism, which should be given gently and with consideration. A garden party, surrounded by other guests, is not such a place.  I’ve often wondered if the Fashion Policewoman took heed of my interruption and learned something from it.  Sadly, I doubt so.

Reincarnate

I have believed in human reincarnation throughout most of my conscious life. Amazingly, I can even pinpoint in memory the day when, as an eight-year-old, I realized that I completely accepted the concept.

It was spring, near Easter, and I was sitting in church on a weekday morning, attending Mass at my Roman Catholic school. I was seated near one of the beautiful stained glass windows that frequently took my mind off the incomprehensible, still-in-Latin mass.  I even recall what I was wearing (as we didn’t wear uniforms at Holy Name in the early 1960s): a little yellow-striped seersucker skirt and top, brand-new, of which I was inordinately proud.

And as I sat there, mind wandering from the Mass, I realized that I didn’t question whether I had lived before; I only wondered, “But if I’ve lived before, why can’t I remember?”

I reached my 20s before I actually researched the concept of human rebirth, learned the difference between a belief in reincarnation and transmigration, read the multitude of accounts of those who had proof of an earlier life, and, finally, began to experience dreams which seemed to reveal brief moments of my own past existences.

For someone who does not accept the theory, all of this undoubtedly seems like a great deal of nonsense. And that’s fine. It would be a very boring world indeed if we all followed precisely the same path.  I’ve also reached the conclusion that some of us do choose to live but a single existence in this human plane (which is, after all, sometimes pretty close to Hell).  I’m sure there are souls which select the path of personal spiritual growth working wholly on the Other Side.

But the gift I have been given by a lifelong belief in human rebirth is a source of knowledge and a sense of comfort. I have a clear explanation for why certain individuals, certain situations, have been drawn into my life, sometimes over and over.  I understand that there are reasons, causes, and motivations behind the seemingly-random and often cruel events of life.  And I accept complete responsibility for my situation, knowing that I chose this life and these lessons – that my life is, in a sense, a do-over, and one which I requested.

I recall reading of one author in the 1950s who, having experienced memories of a past life that she found it impossible to deny, nevertheless found the whole concept horrifying. She used her memories in writing a novel, but she wasn’t at all happy with the idea. I understood her aversion.  The knowledge that we have made the choice to return to this life, might choose to do so again, can be harsh.  But there it is: I cannot un-believe something which walked into my consciousness in early childhood, and which simply makes such good sense to me.

Yet sometimes, I admit, when in the midst of grief and utter misery, I must acknowledge the sad truth: that believing we have only one life to live would actually be easier.

So very much easier.

My Life in Photos

There is shortcut file on my computer desktop titled, “My Life in Photos”.

This is a fairly unusual file to be maintained by a person who is well-known among all her friends and family, to hide her face from every camera. (“Point that camera at me,” I have been heard to say, “and I will turn you into a frog.” And, if they persist, I instruct, “Start picking out your lily pad!”)

The simple truth is that I take horrifically bad pictures. Some individuals are gifted with just that flawless bone structure, that enviable arrangement of facial features, so that the play of light and shadow in the two-dimensional image of a photo results in loveliness. In fact, years ago when I lived in Charleston, I knew such a woman.  To meet her on the street, one would have said she was plain, even unattractive.  Yet in photographs,  even without makeup,  her face was striking and remarkable.

I am not such a woman. I’m as plain as the proverbial mud fence—except in photographs, in which I look like a bowl of undercooked oatmeal.

So for me to have a file representing the highlights of my 64 years of life through photographic evidence is not only unusual, but was damned difficult to assemble. Nevertheless, I put it together and am even now in the process of turning it into a PowerPoint show, a storytelling event, eventually to be (I hope, and when I’ve acquired a few technical skills now absent) recreated as a video slide show, complete with music.

But the important aspect of this project is the reason I am doing it: because, several times in the past years, I’ve had to hunt through my collections of photographs for pictures of friends or family members who have recently died. To do this is to be assaulted by mixed emotions—heavy feelings that are hard to bear when one is already grieving.  Each time, too, I’ve wondered if the pictures I’ve chosen were the ones that this person would really have wanted to represent her life.  Which of these, I pondered, would have been her favorite photo of herself?

Which might she not have really much liked?  Is this a photo she would have preferred had never been taken?  An event she wanted to forget?

And while the act of looking through old photographs was wondrous and painful, time constraints limited what might have been a nostalgic journey through another’s life. The photos had to be located and selected quickly to be prepared for a funeral or memorial service.  There just wasn’t time to pick the perfect set of pictures to represent someone’s entire existence on this earth.

2000 Rebecca Xmas Crop

And so, for my survivors, this job will be already done. The photos will be chosen, the stories behind each of them told.  The one photo of my adult self that I have ever truly liked will be there and labeled as such; the events that I saw as the highlights of my existence will be arranged chronologically. If others choose to add to those memories with photographs representing memories of their own, they’ll be free to do so.  But the difficult work of recreating the important moments of my life  will be done.

It will be a special and loving farewell to those I love best, demonstrating how much I cared for them: that there exists an album of photographs of the woman who, always and forever, simply hated to have her picture taken.

The Best Revenge

Their names were (I think) Emily and Linda. Since the events that I recall transpired 50 years ago I may, perhaps, be forgiven for my uncertainty over the names of these two young women–especially as the only reason I have to recall them is that they bullied me—cruelly, continually, mercilessly, and without reason–throughout my first year of high school.

I no longer hate Emily and Linda, although achieving emotional distance took me at least 25 or more years. As adolescents, we are at our most fragile, most sensitive, and the distress induced by viciousness during that period is more telling, and harder to cope with, than it would be later in life.  As mature adults, we have usually learned wisdom, detachment, and survival skills.  Nevertheless, I’m sorry now that I wasted so much precious emotional energy on hating Emily and Linda.  Nothing I ever thought of them—none of my fury, none of my hatred—ever harmed them;  none of things I wished upon them (pain, anguish, failure) did anything more than keep me emotionally bound to my torturers.

And torturers they were.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me!” we used to chant as children when taunted by another child.

It’s a brave, wise shield thrown up in the face of unspeakable cruelty, but it isn’t true. Words hurt.  They wound.  They scar us, less visibly but just as deeply,  as physical assault.  And those wounds and scars can last a lifetime.

I began high school already at a psychological disadvantage, coming as I did from the household of a Borderline Personality Disorder parent.   I had begun developing acne at the early age of 11, and (although I was perfectly proportioned, as I now know from looking at old photos) was told repeatedly by my mother that I was fat.  Neither pretty nor ugly, I might have been called average.  But at 12 and 13, one doesn’t want to be average.  One longs to be pretty, and to be popular, or at least accepted, among one’s peers.

Added to the burden I would carry was the fact that I was just leaving an 8th grade in a parochial school where we girls wore uniforms; I needed all new school clothes.  This was during the height of the hippie era.  Clothes were “psychedelic”, in hot pinks and shrieking lime, and paisley; skirts were short, boots were “go-go”,  and dresses were A-line.  In the midst of all this very definitive and silly fashion, my mother decided to clothe me in my grandmother’s used Chanel knit suits. Those suits were the height of fashion—for a 40-something working woman.  On a 13-year-old teenager, they were the kiss of death.

Plain, covered in acne, in clothes that made me a laughingstock, I entered high school. And Emily and Linda, popular girls leading their clique of sycophants, made the most of it.

There is no point any longer to recalling the things they said, they did to me; the degrading tricks they played on me, the humiliation and mortification piled upon me. day after day . There is no longer any reason to recall how hard it was for me to hold my head up and pretend to ignore their bullying, nor the bitter, gulping sobs that engulfed me when I was alone, nor the many, many hours I spent plotting and visualizing terrible revenge and promising myself that it would happen.  There is no point to any of that, because I was fortunate.  In that era, the local school system considered 7th, 8th, and 9th graders to be “junior” high school.  Emily and Linda were a year younger than I.  When I began my sophomore year in the 10th grade, I was stationed across the street from them, in the high school building.  I no longer rode the same bus.  I moved on, and they were left behind, to torture some other sad victim.  And by the time they arrived at the high school, we were worlds apart, absorbed in a school of almost two thousand young people, in different classes, different rooms. I never saw them again.

Except that I did. For decades,  Emily and Linda lurked in the corner of my mind’s eye, at the periphery of my inner vision, undermining my confidence, dimming my achievements, continuing to torture me–but only, I understand now, because I allowed it.  Trapped in the memories of those painful days, continually rehearsing old grievances, I remained a helpless fly caught in their spiteful web.

Forgiveness, I have learned, does not mean forgiving what was done, but forgiving only the person. Decades later, I realized that Emily and Linda were, in a way, just as trapped in their own web as I was.  Frightened; angry as all adolescents are angry, they chose to victimize me in order to make themselves feel less vulnerable and more whole.

I wonder how well it worked for them.

I was able, eventually, to forgive Emily and Linda, and in doing so, I moved on. And yet I have finally had the revenge I promised myself all those years ago.

The best revenge, after all, is in living well.

And Speaking of Prejudice…

Marie Gregory

My paternal grandmother, Marie, was a full-blooded Italian American and Roman Catholic. Those two traits define her, in my mind, more than anything else.  “Grandma Gregory” was a grand old matriarch who laughed as easily at herself as at others and whose humor was often mildly bawdy, peppered with Italian phrases that I (at least as a child) rarely understood.  She taught me most of what I know about cooking, and was perfectly comfortable when I left the Catholic church because, as she explained, “I don’t care where you go to church as long as you go.”

But the very traits which most define her in my mind meant that Marie Gregory’s early life was not always comfortable or easy. Few people today remember, or even know, that Roman Catholicism was a reviled religion in America as late as the 1960; the bias against the faith not fading until the 1980s.  I feel sure that (knowing how unpleasant facets of  history are glossed over or rewritten in schoolbooks) young people today aren’t taught about how great a detriment his religion was during the election of John F. Kennedy.  Being a Roman Catholic in America wasn’t at all an easy thing in the first three-quarters of the 20th century.

Nor was being an Italian American. Ask anyone about the largest mass lynching in the more sordid chapters of America’s history, and they will no doubt surmise someplace in the deep south—something probably involving the KKK.  They would not guess 11 Italian Americans in New Orleans in 1891 to have been the victims of this atrocity—nor that the man who orchestrated the lynching later became governor.

My Grandma Marie was born just 14 years later, in 1905.

Indiana was not, thank heavens, New Orleans, but, as she told me many years later when I was a woman in my 20s, that didn’t mean that the Italian American community in Indy escaped prejudice completely unscathed. She had more than a few sad examples of anti-Italian bias.  It was in that light that Grandma narrated a story that has stayed with me for all the intervening decades as the most telling demonstration of the complete illogic of racial prejudice.

In Grandma’s era, children did not attend preschool or nursery school or usually even kindergarten. At age 6, a child began first grade.  And so, clothed in a frilly little dress, ankle socks and Mary Janes, perhaps bows tied into her hair (or so I have always pictured her since hearing this tale), clutching her little sack lunch, Marie Gregory trooped off to her first day at a parochial school in Indianapolis, to be taught by Roman Catholic nuns.

The convents of that time were full and bustling places, and the majority of nuns were trained either to teach or as nursing staff. I’m uncertain of the religious order running the school to which my Grandmother was sent—Benedictine? Franciscan?—but the most of the nuns running her school were of Irish American descent.

And so my then-six-year-old Grandmother entered her first grade classroom and took her assigned seat, eager to begin the new adventure of school.

And was yanked aside by her Irish American nun first-grade teacher to be told hatefully, “We don’t want you Wops in our school!”

Wops. Dagos.  Italian Americans.

This Irish Catholic nun owed her spiritual allegiance to a religion whose titular leader, the Pope, was (and at that time, had been for centuries) an Italian.  Yet she told the little six-year-old Italian American child that she didn’t want Wops in her school.

There was nothing the nun could actually do to expel Marie from the school, but her point had been made: You are the outsider. The other.  Unwanted.  Because of your racial heritage, I (a supposedly spiritual person, as demonstrated by my veil and rosary and the vows I made) hatefully reject you.

I’ve wondered, sometimes, how that selfsame nun would have behaved had the Pope—the Wop Pope, the Dago Pope, the very Italian Pope Pius X–arrived for a visit. But in that era, Popes did not leave the Vatican.  That Irish Catholic nun never had to run smack into the glass that was the illogic of her racism.

As I say, Grandma’s story has stayed with me in all the intervening years as a telling demonstration of the complete insanity of racial prejudice, and of the harm it does. As a 70-something-year-old woman, my Grandma Marie had not forgotten the cruel bias of the Irish Catholic nun.  It still bothered her.

It still bothers me.

And it should.

Grief and Prejudice

A while ago I sat with an acquaintance, a devout Christian, discussing a mutual friend who was grieving the loss of a loved one. Our conversation centered on whether or not the individual’s grief had exceeded the bounds of normal mourning and become debilitating.

I’d held this same discussion only a few days earlier with another acquaintance, one who is Jewish. During that conversation, my Jewish friend had described to me her faith’s designated period of mourning, which, as she explained it, was far longer and more ceremonial than what most Western society considers usual.  As I listened to her explanation, I realized that the Jewish customs of mourning genuinely ministered to the survivors.

I felt as if scales had fallen from my eyes. How wise to accept mourning, even deep and long-lived grieving, as necessary and healthful, and to provide ceremony and time for its passage! Why had I never encountered this civilized concept before?  My friend’s explanation of Jewish mourning rituals forced me to acknowledge that that we as a society were perhaps not doing our loved ones any favor by allowing them only a brief interval of grieving before insisting that they now “get over it”…“get back to normal”…”take an antidepressant med”…“stay busy to take your mind off it”.

During the second conversation about grief, this time with my Christian acquaintance, I mentioned this (to me) enlightened view of the grieving process. Nodding in response to a comment made by my acquaintance, I explained, “Well, a Jewish friend told me that in her faith…”  And although I know that I continued my explanation intelligently and comprehensively, I cannot now recall anything of what I said from that point forward in the conversation, because I found myself focused on only one thing: the expression of utter distaste that flitted across my Christian friend’s face the moment I said the word “Jewish”.  It was there and gone in an instant, but it was unmistakably there: the grimace of aversion the moment I said the word, “Jewish”.

I’m sure my own eyes must have widened in shock at response to what my brain had so clearly registered. Sitting before me was a sophisticated, intelligent, 21st century individual, one whom I was sure that, if charged with prejudice against Jews, would have vehemently denied it.  And yet a single expression unmistakably crossing a face had just clearly said otherwise.

Prejudice knows no sanity. The spiritual leader to whom my Christian acquaintance declares allegiance was born, raised, and lived a Jew. His name was not actually Jesus Christ; Jesus is a Greek rendering of his name, combined with a Greek title.  His Jewish name was probably Yeshua Ben Yosef.  And he, Yeshua, is the spiritual ancestor from whom all Christian faiths claim descent.  Yet more than 70 years after the horror of the Nazi death camps, I witnessed a Christian’s face betray utter distaste at the thought of a modern Jew.

As I think of it now, remembering, I am no longer shocked, although perhaps even more dismayed. Does prejudice never die?  Do the old hatreds never end?

I began the conversation with my Christian acquaintance discussing the topic of grief. And I ended it grieving — grieving the unbounded, undying continuation of hate and ignorance and prejudice.

Happy New Hope

In a very few days, a few hours, the clocks will tick over one more time, the sun will cycle across the International Date Line, the ball will drop, and all around the Western world we will hear shouts and cries of, “Happy New Year!”.

And nothing will have changed.

Oh, we’ll all awaken a bit wearier, perhaps hung over, a few hours older. Those who still enjoy and use a paper calendar will take down the old publication and hang up the new, possibly admiring the photo on the edition they chose. But the major things, the important things, will be no different.

Our problems from the old year will still be awaiting us, unerased, staring back at us from the bleary face we see in the mirror. Within a few minutes, a few hours of that clock tick, someone, somewhere, will have been born—or died. Bills from the holiday season will sit quietly awaiting payment, mostly on slender funds.  Children and pets and our elderly will require care, possibly needing trips to doctors and veterinarians at the most inconvenient of times.  The furnace will break down, or the water pipes freeze.  The same worthless politicians will sit in office, masquerading as world leaders.  Vicious on-line comments will be posted behind the perceived safety of a veil of anonymity.

The clock ticking, the joyful shouts welcoming a new year, won’t really have changed anything at all.

Except, perhaps, for our perception of hope. Hope is the one real difference made by that clock tick that purports to indicate that something new has begun.  The hope that this year will, truly, be different.  That the good things, the lovely things, the beautiful things will, this year, outnumber the bad.  That we will experience kindness and courtesy, not just from friends and family, but even strangers.  That our world leaders will take a deep breath, stop keying in threats and nastiness and name-calling on social media, and at least pretend to be mature human beings.  That a cure will be found for whatever devastating disease our loved ones are experiencing.  That no one will be homeless, or lonely.  That each of us will be given a fresh start, a second chance.

Hope is the only genuine difference of the new year–the one thing, ancient legend instructs us, left in Pandora’s box once all the evils invented by cruel gods had been unleashed upon humankind.

But in the original matriarchal myth of Pandora, before the shift in her legend created by the misogynistic writer Hesiod, her name meant not “all gifted”, but “all giving”.  She was not created by those same cruel gods to be unbearably gifted and seductive, but was a goddess in her own right, born from the earth itself, who came to bestow upon humans all the things necessary to life.

And, being a goddess, she would have understood that nothing—not fire, not food, not water–nothing is more necessary to life, to the very desire to live, than hope.  It is the very substance of the air we breathe, and just as necessary to our existence.

So, this year, when the clocks tick over, and those shouts of gladness ring in the airwaves, don’t be fooled that anything will have changed.

But never stop hoping that it will.