The Secular Light Show

November 13 will be World Kindness Day, and so I am revisiting this very applicable post from 2020.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you enjoyed this, then you might also want to read, “The Ghosts of Christmas Trees Past”, which you can locate by scrolling to the Archives, below on this page. It was published on December 18, 2019.

Rules to Live By

The rules I live by are so ingrained that I rarely recognize them as such.

Like most people, I live according to many small, particular (one might say petty) rules and belief systems that are now so ingrained that I rarely even recognize them as such. I’ve mentioned some of these in a previous essay, but a few examples of my personal rule/belief system are:

Beds should be made every day;

If I particularly enjoy a TV show, it won’t last beyond one season;

and

Toenails should always be painted bright, pretty colors during sandal season.

But, as I also mentioned in that earlier essay, I do not constrain anyone to adhere to my rules and beliefs, since my overarching conviction, the one that informs my entire life, is that compromise is essential to peaceful human interaction. This is made easier by the fact that I live alone; my cats rarely argue with me, and, when they do, I’m the Mom; I win. But I still consider the ability to compromise to be a vital element of human maturity. (Unfortunately, the state of current society in America indicates all too sadly that this essential principle has been pretty well abandoned.)

Anyway, being easily entertained, I recently wasted a little time considering the other rules and beliefs under which I operate, and compiling a list of them. I found this activity enlightening, especially when I began comparing my personal “Life System” to those of my friends. It was astounding not just how many factors we agreed upon, but disagreed on. (That whole compromise thing again; that is why we remain friends.)

So here is a brief list of just a few of the vital rules and beliefs by which I discovered I live. To wit:

Bedsheets should be changed every week.

Dishes don’t have to be done until there are a sinkful—and when one lives alone, that takes awhile, so dirty dishes in the sink are a given.

Toilet lids should be put down before you flush. (Have you ever read about what gets sprayed around if you don’t do this?! Eeeewwwwww.)

If you’ve never used it and you throw it out, you will need it.

If a man has to tell you how great he is in bed…he isn’t.

If it’s Amazon’s Choice, avoid it like the plague.

Cats will always walk off the linoleum to throw up on the carpet. Having thrown up on the carpet once, they will walk to a fresh spot and throw up again. They will always do this if the carpet has just been cleaned. They will definitely do this as soon as guests arrive in your home.

If you’re barefoot in the morning, you will always step in cat barf. Somehow this will happen even if you don’t own a cat.

If you are looking forward to a day of just relaxing with nothing urgent to do, 25 different chores will rear their ugly heads.

An old friend who you haven’t seen for years will show up unexpectedly on your doorstep on a Sunday afternoon, especially if you are lazing about in your PJs with uncombed hair while the house is a complete mess.

If a particular public or historical figure is your hero, you will learn something horrific about their behavior that will forever tarnish them in your eyes.

If you really liked a movie, the critics will savage it, and you will look like an idiot for saying you enjoyed it.

The family crisis will always happen while you are out of town or otherwise unavailable.

If you finally discover the perfect shade of lipstick or nail polish, the manufacturer will discontinue it the very next month.

If you belittle a dish at a potluck dinner, the person who brought it will be standing right next to you.

The elegant paper invitation you’re sending to the most important person will always be lost by the post office.

If you plan an outdoor activity involving many people, it will rain.

The pet you love best will die young.

If you hesitate to buy it, it will be gone the next time you’re in the store.

You will realize someday with total dismay that there is always going to be at least one person who will be glad to hear that you’ve died.

If you have to be up by 5:00 a.m. to make it to an early work shift, your neighbors will be having a loud party that keeps you awake until at least 2:00 a.m.

The people you love best will be the ones who hurt you most. The very fact that you love them gives them this power over your heart.

If you’ve been waiting for three months for a vital appointment with a medical specialist, you will get a jury duty notice for the day of the appointment.

The power will go out when you are in the midst of attending a critical on-line meeting.

If you make a disparaging remark about someone, they will be standing within hearing range.

There is absolutely no way to make brussels sprouts taste good.

You will get desperately sick just prior to, or during, your long-awaited vacation.

And, finally, (no, Jack!) it is NOT all small stuff!

I’m sure I’ve many other rules and hardcore beliefs under which I operate my life, but these are the most essential.

Now, what are yours?

Let me know in the Comments what rules you live by! If you missed it, you might also want to read the post “Consider Compromise” which sparked this silly little missive. You can find it in the Archives, published October 12.

When the Queen Died

Hatred does not cease by hatred, ever.

As an adolescent constantly searching to discover the appropriate spiritual path for my life, I came across a book titled The World’s Great Religions. One line from that book would remain with me the rest of my life: Verse 5 of the Buddhist Dhammapada. The translation was given as, “Hatred does not cease by hatred, ever. Hatred ceases by love.” (I’ve read other translations of the verse in the intervening years, but they are in essence the same.)

I had reason to recall this favorite quote when, like many people, I was shocked to read the controversial tweet by Carnegie Mellon Professor Uju Anya as news broke of Queen Elizabeth II’s imminent death. Dr. Anya wrote, “I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating.” Twitter removed the post for violating its community guidelines, but not before it had circulated worldwide.

A short time later, Professor Anya followed her disturbing tweet with a factual, painful explanation. She described the genocide endured by the Igbo people, her people, when they attempted to separate from Nigeria to form the independent nation of Biafra. She detailed British involvement, wholly for financial reasons, in support of Nigeria during the ensuing war.

The child I had once been, reading that Buddhist quote at about the same time this war occurred, knew nothing of that conflict; Vietnam dominated the headlines for my young self. It was only after reading Dr. Anya’s explanatory remarks that I researched the history of the Biafra war. I found her description of British support of Nigeria in the war to be accurate, although the struggle was far more complex than she alluded; racism and wildly differing cultures helped ignite holocaust.

Nevertheless, after reading her explanation, Dr. Anya’s original tweet made far better sense to me. Filled with anguish for what her people had endured, she fastened upon the Queen as the singular object of her revulsion; the symbol of that past evil. I still could not, did not, approve of Dr. Anya’s spiteful words (hatred does not cease by hatred, ever), but I could certainly understand why she’d said them.

Yet I still had a real problem with Dr. Anya’s tweet. Those words, written by an educator, who claimed that they were, as she later remarked, “designed to educate people”, were simply inexcusable. The explanation that followed her outburst was educational; her malicious statement was not. Not in any way.

I do not pretend to be well-educated; in fact, my formal education is very slight. In consequence, I require more, a great deal more, of those who style themselves, by reason of years of study and position, to be educators. It was in that regard, as an educator, that Dr. Anya failed miserably.

Her outburst was, the professor asserted, an “unplanned, spontaneous” reaction when she learned that Queen Elizabeth was dying. That, too, did not wash. Anyone with a few functioning neural connections (and that would certainly include Carnegie Mellon professors!) knew for a good while that Elizabeth II hadn’t long to live. The Queen was 96 years old. She was the surviving spouse of a 74-year marriage—and Widowhood Effect has been understood for decades. She’d had Covid. When appointing Liz Truss as Prime Minister, she’d had to stand using a cane. Unplanned? Spontaneous? In my opinion, Dr. Anya’s vicious tweet was long planned, and anything but spontaneous. I simply could not accept her glib explanation that she was “triggered” upon learning that Queen Elizabeth was close to passing, and to my mind, that made the professor’s failure to first post the historical reasons for her fury even a greater failure of her position as an educator. She had ample time, during the Queen’s slow decline, to disseminate the terrible history of Britain’s behavior during the war, and engage her followers in frank discussion; to state why she held Queen Elizabeth, who was merely the titular head of the nation, personally responsible.

Put simply, Dr. Anya started at the wrong end of the stick. How many people saw only her first, inflamed tweet, and, disgusted, never read further to discover the very valid reasons behind her fury? How many more people might she have educated on the history of genocide had she first spoken factually, with restraint?

Professor Anya, an intelligent, well-educated woman, was so blinded by hate that she introduced her remarks in completely the wrong order, thereby garnering some sympathy, but also a great deal of antipathy.

Hatred does that. It blinds us and makes us behave poorly. And it does not cease.

Having struggled my whole life, though, with recurring bouts of rage and impotent fury for past abuse, I empathize with, while still not condoning, Dr. Anya’s reaction to the Queen’s passing.

Nevertheless, I persist in admiring Queen Elizabeth II for many reasons, not the least of which is the remarkable self-discipline that she demonstrated throughout her lifetime: her careful words and calm demeanor.

Had Dr. Anya been able to put aside her antipathy, even for a brief moment, might she have learned something from the Queen’s iron-willed self-control? Perhaps…

At any rate, Professor Anya, you successfully exacted belated vengeance upon a dying elderly woman and those who loved her, and I genuinely hope (although I doubt) that it helped you to heal at last. (Hatred does not cease by hatred, ever.)

Yet I somehow doubt that a double rainbow will split the sky at the hour of your own death.

If you appreciated this essay, you might also find something to like in “Princess Diana Saved My Life”, recently re-posted on August 31, 2022. You may locate it by scrolling to the Archives, below.

Consider Compromise

Our personal rules range from the silly and inconsequential to the very serious.

I don’t personally like the look of square-cut fingernails. I don’t argue with anyone’s preference to have that type of manicure; I just find them unattractive, as I do the very long, claw-like nails. I feel the same way about pearl-color nail polish, which is really surprising, seeing that I wore it constantly as a teenager. But now I think it looks like an advertisement for anemia, or perhaps zombieism. I simply don’t like it.

But pondering over my personal idiosyncrasies concerning manicures made me realize that each of us operates under these little individual rules: things we do or don’t practice ourselves; things we will or will not say; can or cannot accept; like or dislike. Our rules range from the silly and inconsequential, such as my obsession with acceptable manicure management, to the very serious, such as one’s personal spirituality.

This really came home to me recently when, while browsing an antique market, I overheard two customers and the owners, all of whom obviously attended the same church, critiquing their pastor’s latest sermon. All were incensed that, rather than use a scriptural passage as the basis for his lesson, he had chosen a poem on a spiritual theme. Listening to one of the women quote the line from the poem (several times, increasingly wrathful with each repetition), I thought to myself how eloquent and meaningful the words were. But it was obvious that their pastor had, unwittingly, broken the rules under which this small group of people operated. No matter how profound the source, they felt that a sermon in their church was to be based only on words from the Bible. Anything else was, in their view, quite unacceptable.

Eavesdropping quite unashamedly at this point, I listened in as they planned to confront their pastor on the necessity of following this rule.

I left the store feeling sorry for the benighted pastor, and wondering why they so were determined to impose their personal preferences on the entire congregation; why they could not be open to any deviation from their partialities, or to the magnificence of devotional material from another source. I also wondered what the consequences of their action would be, both immediate and long-term, and whether the rest of the congregation shared their dismay, or whether others, as I had done, considered the quote that founded the sermon to be exceptional. I imagined that quite a fracas was about to ensue from the pastor’s innocent desire to share with his parishioners words that he found evocative and eloquent.

That is the real danger of our personal rules: when we attempt to impose them upon others. Enforcing our rules doesn’t allow for individuality, or free speech, or even others’ personal preferences. For instance, that my rule is that beds must be made neatly every morning is not something I can reasonably expect others to follow; and while it might seem a minor penchant, if I were living with another person, it could cause a lot of friction.

I suppose the ultimate example of this quirk of imposing our personal rules on others is the operation of local Homeowner’s Associations. Originally begun with the noble intention of keeping areas free of, say, neighbors who reduce property values by parking four junker cars on blocks in their front yard, these groups have mutated into Neighborhood Nazis, sparking news stories concerning the persecution of harmless veterans who plunk a miniature American flag into a flowerpot, or couples who innocently feed the ducks.

Compromise is an essential function of interacting with other human beings. Sadly, we each seem to forget this on an individual basis. Is it any wonder, then, that nations find it impossible to manage this on a worldwide scale?

I’m always going to wonder how the “improper basis for a sermon” discussion fell out. Did the pastor accept the argument of his small group of parishioners, or was he dismayed, or even incensed, at their position? Was he able to convert them to compromising, however unwillingly, with his viewpoint? Did he listen carefully to their concerns, but in the end maintain his own position? Did the debate result in a fracturing of the congregation, or even the pastor’s departure?

I’ll never know. But for my own part, although, I will always maintain my preferences, I will never require that others adhere to my penchant for fingernails that are no longer than a quarter-inch long in gently rounded ovals; nails that, if polished, are painted only in shades ranging from pale to deep pinks and rich reds, while the wearer’s corresponding toenails are brightly painted in rosy tones or even sparkling shades.

Those are, though, just my personal preferences. In the end, just as with my choices regarding spirituality, I recognize that I must never unnecessarily impose my will and my decisions on another entity.

If you found something to like in this essay, you might also enjoy, “Roses of the Soul”. You can locate it by scrolling to the Archives, below; it was published December 16, 2017.

Lessons Learned

With the youngest memory of our family taking the first step of her educational journey today, I was reminded of this post from January 25, 2018.

As I mentioned in a long-ago post, we all have memories of teachers we idolized, and others whom we absolutely despised. Sometimes, too, those memories are a mixed bag, such as when we received shabby treatment from a teacher we liked.  We all have those stories.  These are two of mine.

I adored my fifth grade teacher, Miss Shireman. Looking back through time using the eyes of an adult, I can see that she was one of those rare teachers who not only genuinely enjoyed teaching, but liked children, as well.  She devised endless wonderful projects and creative ways to engage us in learning.

But what eluded me completely in childhood was that, like all of us, my beloved teacher was human.  She had good and bad days, and sometimes those feelings affected her teaching.

One such bad day occurred during our study of Indiana history. Miss Shireman had assigned us to draw a map of Indiana and its counties, and given us a weekend to complete the assignment.

Draw a map of Wyoming or New Mexico – a cinch. But draw a map of Indiana, with its squiggly lower border and 92 counties?  Not so simple.

I sweated over that map. I carefully drew and erased and redrew that noxious bottom border, and struggled to fit in all the weirdly-shaped counties.  I worked as hard on it as I had ever done on any assignment, and felt pretty proud when I turned it in that Monday.

A few days later, I was shocked when Miss Shireman stood in front of us and slammed the handful of maps down on her desk, declaring her disgust over the poor work we’d all done. We were going to do the maps over, she announced, and this time, we’d better do them well.

I was devastated. I had tried so hard! I’d been so proud!  It took everything in me not to cry. But pride came to my aid.  I redid my map by tracing the one I’d already done.  I knew it was already my best work, and I wasn’t about to redraw the whole darned thing.

It was not the first time I’d been scolded by a teacher for poor work when I knew I had tried my hardest, but, probably due to how well I liked Miss Shireman, it is the most painfully memorable.

Then came seventh grade.  Our teacher, Mr. Phillips (whom I didn’t dislike, but had no special liking for, either) encouraged our creativity and language development by having us write short stories.  In this, I was in my element.  I loved it…until the day he told us to choose an incident from American history as the basis for our story.

Wham! Writer’s block. I HATED American history.  It seemed to me nothing but a series of bloody battles and hypocritical old white men trying to circumvent the Constitution and get rich by trampling the bodies and spirits of others (sort of like a recent Administration).  I finally landed on one possible theme: the mysterious disappearance of the entire colony of Roanoke, Virginia.  That incident did intrigue me.

Once again, I sweated over the assignment. I wrote and rewrote that story, quickly learning that writing without inspiration was like slogging through knee-deep swamp mud.  I wasn’t precisely proud of the version I at last submitted, but I was satisfied.  So it was quite a slap in the face to receive my graded story back with a poor mark and the caustic comment written across it: “This is a very poor effort for you.”

Poor effort?! Did that jerk not understand how hard I had worked on that story?  It was my absolute very best damned effort under the circumstances, and he didn’t have the sense to appreciate it.

(Yes, it still makes me mad.)

There are numerous other memories of unhappy moments with teachers bopping about my memories of my years in school. I daresay everyone has memories like that.  And if these two stand out so prominently in my thoughts, it is mostly because of a sense of injustice.  I had done my very best, and was belittled despite it. But that in itself was a really important lesson for life, although probably not in the school syllabus.

I would need to use my fingers and my toes and then start on the strands of my hair to count the number of times in my working years that I was unjustly reprimanded. Small people given a little bit of authority often prove Lord Acton’s statement about the corrupting qualities of power. Being unjustly reprimanded by a boss at the office is a sad fact of life for most workers.

The most important lessons we learn in school are often not part of the curriculum. But they are probably the lessons we most need to prepare us for reality and for our future.

Happy first day of preschool, sweet Morrigan Lynn!

If you appreciated this essay, then you’d probably enjoy a post related to the many times in my working life that I had to rely on that childhood lesson of being unjustly reprimanded.  You can find “Tales of the Office: Jackass Bosses I Survived!” by scrolling to the Archives, below. It was published April 27, 2022 

Hiding in Jane Austen

I hide from reality in well-loved stories that gloss over all the evil of those bygone centuries.

A lifetime ago, when I was a little girl in the third grade, astronaut John Glenn orbited the earth three times. And despite the dust and decrepitude that has settled over me in the intervening decades, I still recall that morning (oh!) so clearly. I vividly picture my mother, sitting on the right side (her side) of that ugly Nile green brocade couch in the living room, eyes glued to the old black-and-white TV, as she braided my long hair. I can almost hear the voice of the announcer (Walter Cronkite?), talking, talking, talking, as the mission ensued. I remember my dismay at having to leave to catch the school bus—a dismay that, for once, had very little to do with how much I disliked school or the fact that I wanted to concentrate on my upcoming birthday, just two days away. I recall the almost-contagious excitement of my teacher, Mrs. Dryer. And finally, I remember my mother describing to us children the wonderful gesture of the residents of Perth, Australia, who turned on every light in the city, hoping that Glenn would be able to see the illumination from space.

But beyond all my memories of that day, I recall a feeling of pride; intense pride, and hope. Hope for the future—my future, the future of my someday-children; the future of the world. Space, the final frontier….

The world has turned many, many times since the day of Glenn’s orbit, and the once-astronaut, later Senator, has passed on, while I have grown old and, well, beneath the L’Oreal, white-haired, not grey. But my spirit—my spirit has greyed. The pride I once felt in my nation has evaporated, bludgeoned from existence by undeclared wars and unending lies; by revelations of historical genocide; by horrific mass shootings; by the hypocrisy of generations of politicians; by watching miserably as the democratic experiment that was America crumbles in waves of divisiveness and burgeoning fascism. And despite the recent, magnificent photos from the Webb space telescope, the hope my child-self once experienced for the future has dwindled. Space exploration has done nothing to prevent the glaciers melting, the forests burning, while we remain trapped on this scorched pale blue marble, winging its way through the solar winds.

Depressive, I know. Grim. But grim is what I feel most mornings, as I scan the latest news coverage. Oh, there is the occasional heart-warming human interest story scattered here and there throughout the carnage. But the rare story of kindness or environmental protection fails to overwhelm the simple, unutterable awfulness of it all.

And so, unable to continue, I ditch both the reports and the TV (where breaking news might interrupt any pleasant viewing I manage to find) and pick up my books. Eschewing even my favorite, light-hearted cozy mysteries, I take refuge in tales written a century or two ago: Jane Austen, and the Bronte sisters; Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Lucy Maud Montgomery. I escape to Avonlea and Pemberley; to Mansfield Park and Misselthwaite. I keep company with Anne-with-an-E Shirley, and young Mary Lennox. I worry not over the latest police brutality, but whether Sunday travel is really a permissible activity. I weep over the death of Anne’s firstborn, rather than children dead in a school shooting. I empathize with Jane Eyre’s inability to capture her visions in her paintings, rather than stress over how poorly my own written words convey my meaning.

The worse the world becomes, the more I hide.

When Covid was in ascendancy—when there were no home testing kits, no vaccines, and the only available masks were those we cobbled together from teeshirts and elastic and coffee filters—when we all dwelt in our separate spaces in lockdown, I hid in movies; specifically, superhero movies. The Avengers, Wonderwoman, Thor, Guardians…. Again and again, in 90 minutes, they saved the universe, the planet, their friends; struggling their way through battles, joking their way past villains. But watching movies palled; there are no superheroes to rescue us, and I can only suspend my disbelief so far, even for the purpose of respite and entertainment.

And so, now, as the world around me contracts and worsens; as forests burn and species dwindle; as the curtain is pulled back on revelation upon revelation of treasonous behavior by a former national leader; as blood and death are visited in my own backyard in such innocent venues as the mall where I shopped as a teenager and the park around the corner from my home–I hide. I hide in well-loved stories that gloss over all the evil of those bygone centuries; that touch only lightly upon lies and hypocrisy and faithlessness and cruelty and wrongdoing. I hide in a gentler version of life that probably never, in truth, existed beyond those printed pages.

And it comforts me.

If this sad little missive appealed to you, you might also appreciate the post, “Miss Happiness and Miss Flower”. You can locate it by scrolling to the Archives, below; it was published on April 22, 2020.

Everything Ends, and So Will This Tea Party

There were other phrases which I could have taken as a lifetime mantra, but…

One of my all-time favorite novels, which I’ve reread multiple times since first discovering it on my mother’s bookshelves over 50 years ago, is Desirée, by Annemarie Selinko. The book (and it’s important to note that I’m speaking of the novel in its original, 1953 translation from German to English; later translations completely lost all the charm of the original), is the fictional diary of the genuine person, Desirée Clary, the first and callously discarded fiancée of Napoleon Bonaparte, who later married General Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte and finally became Queen of Sweden.

I absolutely adore the story, which traces Desirée’s life from the age of 14 until her coronation in 1829. It is, as I said, charming, delightful—and also sad, funny, and thought-provoking. It was a perfect novel for my then-17-year-old self to be reading; it is still the perfect anodyne for my 68-year-old-person to a world now gone as mad as the one in which the real Desirée dwelt.

But of all the captivating scenes in the book (and there are many), one of my favorites is the moment in which Desirée, confronted at an afternoon tea by three still-living former Queens of Sweden, endures a host of censorious and disapproving comments, criticizing every aspect of her behavior, antecedents, and person. Unable to defend herself against their combined and determined condemnation, she simply folds her hands into her lap and shuts out the vitriol by observing silently to herself, “Everything ends, and so would this tea party.”

Everything ends, and so would this tea party.

The first time I read that line, it both drew a smile and a gasp from me. As a victim of both childhood abuse and of school bullying, I’d so often told myself, “It will all be all right when I grow up and get out of here”. (Not true, but that’s a subject for another blog post.) However, at the time, reading those words and smiling just a little over them, I realized that, historical fictional or not, this woman—no, everyone—had something: something awful, something painful, something degrading, something humiliating—to endure in a lifetime. Even being a queen did not protect one from ill-treatment. (Or a princess. But I was still decades away from seeing the abuse that would be heaped upon the heads of Princess Diana and Duchess Meghan, events which simply confirmed the truth of my long-ago teenage analogy.)

I decided then and there to take the line, almost as written, as my mantra. Everything ends, and so will this tea party. Mistreated by teachers and bullied by fellow students; stormed at by temperamental supervisors; verbally abused or neglected in relationships: Everything ends, and so will this tea party.

I found that I could apply those words, also, to my tendency to become easily overwhelmed when responsibilities and onerous tasks piled up seemingly without end. The mantra served me a lot better than a deep breath, or even several deep breaths. I could tell myself, “It will all get done, eventually” until the cows came home, but that did not serve to relax me, or to remove the sometimes-crushing burden of overwhelming responsibility from my shoulders, not half as well as my longtime mantra. I could mutter it under my breath, and nearly laugh.

Administrative Assistant to a group of 103 people, each of whom needed something from me, usually at the same time? Everything ends, and so will this tea party. (It did; the 50-plus temporary staff were discharged when an immense paperwork backlog was at last cleared away.) My mortgage transferred by the lender to what was possibly the worst mortgage servicer in the country? Everything ends, and so will this tea party. (I paid the damn loan off.) Dealing with the drunk who lived next door? Everything ends, and so will this tea party. (He moved, and the new neighbor was, is, a gem.) Bored absolutely out of my mind at a ridiculous required employment training session: Everything ends, and so will this tea party. Wading through the pain of family members who seem bent on controlling and causing hurt and harm? Everything ends, and so will this tea party. Horrified beyond belief at a governmental administration? Everything ends, and so will this tea party. (Unfortunately, not soon enough, and not without immense damage to our country.)

As a lonely teenager, I read constantly; still do, as an adult. Rather than the one I chose, there were many, many phrases I encountered in the endless books that I read which I might have taken as a personal refrain to guide me through the reefs and shoals of my existence.

But I chose the one that spoke most clearly and simply to me. And as lifetime mantras go, it hasn’t been half bad.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Lessons in the Thimble”, which was published July 17, 2018. You may locate it by scrolling to the Archives, below.

A History of Queen Anne’s Lace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love Travels Backward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love travelled backward in time to mend my broken heart.

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

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

Vintage Treasure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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