I Am a Retired…Me

§  I read an article claiming the importance of outside work, employment, to each individual’s self-concept.  I don’t agree!  §

Not long ago I read an article stating how important outside work, employment,  is to each person’s self-concept. People never, the essay claimed, say merely, “I am retired”.  No, the author asserted, these individuals state “I am a retired (whatever).” Architect, programmer, office support staff, police officer, pilot, teacher, activist, politician….

That’s not true! I thought to myself, putting down the magazine and never finishing the article. (Well, actually, what I thought was, “What a crock!”)

When asked, I tell people, “I am retired.” If they request more details, I reply that I worked for the State of Indiana for 37 years, and briefly for a few other companies prior to my career with the state. In response to those who are nosy enough to ask, “What did you do there?” (What business is it of yours? If  I’d wanted to say, I would have told you!) I tend to get a bit touchy and, yes, perhaps just a wee bit snotty. (Okay, a lot snotty.) Although I have been heard to snap just, “I worked!”, I sometimes reply, “Well, I was a file clerk, a clerk typist, a low level secretary, a high level secretary, an office-group Working Leader, a low level Administrative Assistant, a high level Administrative Assistant, and finally, an Office Manager.”

This usually shuts them down and me up!

The truth is, all those titles, all that employment, really had nothing to do with “me”. They were just jobs that I held to support myself and later my daughter—to put a roof over our heads, food on our table, clothes on our backs; to buy our cars and insurance and occasionally even a meal out or a movie, while still paying taxes and purchasing necessities and settling medical bills. Sticking it out in unpalatable jobs, working for often-unreasonable, difficult and sometimes downright obnoxious supervisors (and, in all honesty, a few really great managers, too), was the way I functioned as a responsible adult. My work was never a career, and, other than drawing upon my strong organizational skills and caretaking core personality, it had little to do with who I was, or am. Perhaps had I been able to follow through on my youthful desire to become an English teacher and a free-lance writer, I might have considered my employment a career. (Then again, knowing how schools and teaching have changed in the years since I was a child–then again, perhaps not.)

These days, this blog suffices as an outlet for the writing that I never found time to do while raising my daughter and working in situations that were sometimes humiliating and occasionally even soul-destroying.   The book reviews that I now write so continually also fill in that gap, too; I sometimes consider myself an unpaid literary critic (and probably am as much hated, and with as much justification, as most such critics are). I strive continually to educate myself, compensating for the higher education of which I was deprived, reminding myself that education is not something one gets, but a gift which one gives to the self.

But the simple truth behind all these occupations remains: I have not, will never, retire from the true work of my lifetime. My greatest life’s work was and still is to be a mother (and anyone who denies that being a parent is the most difficult and most rewarding job they’ve ever done, well, that person is simply not a very good parent). Over the years, though, my work has also been to be a wife for the time I was able to do so, before my spouse’s affairs and drug addiction put an end to our relationship. My job was to be a “working mother” (show me the mother who doesn’t work, whether she holds an outside job or not!) a good homemaker who also held an outside job to support my family. My work has been and still is to grow emotionally, to continually mature, and to become more truly spiritual. My work has been to constantly question all that I have been taught, all that I believe, and from that questioning, derive my own, firmer, beliefs; my morals, ethics and complete value system.

I am genuinely a work in progress—and from that, I hope, I will never retire, not in this lifetime, nor the next.

If you enjoyed this post, you might want to check the archives for
“The Retirement Guilt Monster”, from 01/12/2018, or
“Retirement Is…” , posted on 03/13/2019

Feeling Our Feelings

§  Others will always endure life situations, grief, and loss far worse than anything each of us has borne or can even imagine  §

Some years ago, a few days before my birthday, I mentioned to the man I was then dating that each year when my birthday rolled around, I felt a little sad.  Before I could expound on what I meant (that my melancholy was comprised of many factors: regret for goals not achieved during the year; memories of past birthdays that were composed more of pain than of celebration; even the fear of aging without having accomplished anything more in life than “just getting by”), my date responded by forcefully rebuking me.  How could I have the gall to say this to him, he demanded angrily. His life was so much worse, so much difficult, than mine—in fact, than anything I had ever been through.  I had no reason, no right, to feel sad, he declared.

Although today I would mount a spirited rejoinder to his words, at the time, victimized by his constant emotional abuse of me, I was effectively muzzled.  I did not even dare offer in response the unpalatable truth that nothing in the problems he was enduring—and they were many—was the result of a capricious and unjust fate.  He had, by his own poor behavior, drawn every one of his difficulties down upon his own head.

But I kept this and my other thoughts to myself, and went home to cry in solitude.

That decade-old memory came sharply to mind, though, not long ago when an old friend lost both of her beloved pets within a few days of one another.  Heartbroken, she grieved openly for a long while—whereupon an unhelpful acquaintance pointed out to her that others had lost pets, too; in fact, in the middle of pandemic, others were enduring griefs that were far worse than mere pet loss.

Like a chain of disturbing links, that led me to remember another such situation–a family affair described to me by a friend—one a thousand times more awful than the loss of a pet.  The friend’s relative had given birth to a premature baby who survived only a few weeks. The young woman struggled through, but was, as are all who endure such an agonizing event, indelibly marked by it.  Yet, rather than giving her greater compassion toward others who were enduring pain, she instead crowned herself with a halo of martyrdom. When another family member confessed to seeking therapy for emotional challenges, the bereaved mother remarked scathingly, “Well, if I could get through what I did, I’m sure you can put up with a few little problems!”

I never find any of this—this scolding and shaming, the rebuking or minimizing another’s sorrow or difficulty–to be at all a helpful attitude, neither to the suffering individual, nor even to ourselves.  Yes, it is absolutely true that others can and will and do endure life situations, grief, and loss, far worse than anything each of us has borne or can even imagine. But none of that alters the truth of our individual situation, nor demands that we relinquish our own sadness on behalf of their pain.  If we were to always surrender our right to our feelings because some other person endured a worse event, then none of us, ever, would be permitted to feel or acknowledge any negative emotion, from the most minor upset to the most unbearable loss. 

Nor can we personally experience amother person’s response to a problem.  Even if we endure a similar situation, each of us will find that we not only have different reactions—reactions built both on our own past experiences and our personality—but different levels of support or abandonment in our travail, as well.  No two human beings, enduring precisely equivalent incidents, will have a comparable experience.

The truth of the matter is that someone, somewhere, always endures something worse than we do.  Someone is always in more pain: physical, mental, emotional.  Someone has always had a worse childhood, a more abusive spouse or devastating financial ruin, a graver illness, a more terrible addiction—something more wholly dreadful than anything we have known.  Their agony does not, however, deny us our own sorrow, or preclude our need to acknowledge unhappiness.

We are each diamonds, rough diamonds, with personal stress points that, if tapped, will not result in a strong, beautiful and faceted stone, but will instead shatter us into broken bits—mere shards of ourselves.  We need to acknowledge this fact when someone of our acquaintance speaks their sorrow aloud; to permit them to feel their feelings, fully and completely.  It is not necessary that we join them in their emotional low point.  All that is ever needed is to say, gently and with genuine compassion, “I can see that you’re troubled.”  “I really regret that you’re stressed.”  “I’m truly sorry that you are grieving.”  “I care that you feel sad.”

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “The Best Revenge, Part 2”, which you can find in the Archives from August 5, 2020.

The Trials and Tribulations of Houseguests

§  A young friend won’t be making her annual trip to stay with me and visit her “Indiana Family” during this difficult year.  But I hope she will get a smile from this essay!  §

Listening to a radio show as I drove one afternoon, I caught part of a discussion on the topic of appropriate behavior by houseguests when making visits.  The subject intrigued me because  it had often been covered by those original Agony Aunt columnists, Dear Abby and Ann Landers, to whose advice I’d been devoted in adolescence.

The interviewee, asked to explain what houseguests should not do during a visit, launched into a total bitchfest about guests who, having risen in the morning before their hosts, proceeded to brew themselves a cup of coffee and (horror of horrors!) use the mug which was sitting out beside the coffeemaker for that morning cup…their host’s favorite coffee mug!

 Now, I rarely have houseguests, and I don’t even own a coffeemaker; anyone unfortunate enough to be lodging with me is going to discover that instant coffee is the best available.  Tea, now, tea is a different matter.  Depending on their preferences, they might get a good quality teabag of regular or flavored tea, or even loose tea brewed properly using a tea ball in a china teapot.  But, those facts aside, the truth is that, as a good hostess, if I was providing for a houseguest who I knew might be waiting for a “cuppa” before I rose in the morning, I would have set out not only a cup, but a spoon and a spoon rest and real sugar and sweeteners and a napkin, all awaiting their use.  I’d have made certain they knew where all the other accoutrements were to be found too: the toaster, the bread, butter, jam, and milk.  And, even though I do, yes, have a favorite mug, I damn sure wouldn’t have gone on public radio making an ass of myself because a guest in my home had availed her or himself of simple accommodations.  To do so would be disrespectful.

Respect, as I learned from those long ago Agony Aunt columns, is what smooths the relationship between host and guest.  Both acknowledge the disruption to their usual lives, and treat one another with courtesy, making an effort to be especially respectful to smooth over any bumps in the road during a visit.

A much younger but extremely wise friend once related to me that her mother, having come to visit, was both very surprised and complimentary when she found the apartment beautifully cleaned prior to her visit.  My young friend, while admitting that her home was rarely in that condition, remarked that it was simply respectful to prepare for a guest’s visit by cleaning her home.

I agreed wholeheartedly.  Having a houseguest means that one looks at one’s home differently.  The worn but still useable bath towels that are perfectly suitable for my own bathtime would be disrespectful if put out for a guest to use. The chipped mug is placed to the back of the cabinet, and the nicer ones, including that favored mug—why wouldn’t I want a friend to have the best?– set forward prominently.  Bedsheets are fresh, TVs are turned down low when a guest has retired for the night, and favorite foods are offered.

But, returning to the memory of those Agony Aunts columns, I recall long, serious deliberations on whether a guest should, on the final day of their visit, make the bed (because that’s simply a nice gesture to one’s hostess) or remove the sheets and pile them on the mattress (since they now have to be washed).  Silly debates such as this enthralled me when I was a mere teenager, years always from having a home of my own, much less a houseguest.  Even more interesting (and often hilarious), were the disputes—many of which flamed into fury—over nosy houseguests, those people who snooped and pried into places they had no business being, and how they should be handled.

Putting a jack-in-the-box into a drawer to pop out and send the prying houseguest shrieking, was often favored. I particularly loved the suggestion by one host who claimed to have hidden notes in each drawer which said, “Too bad you decided to snoop here.  I put poison on the handle, and I have the only antidote.”

But then came the rejoinder from a woman who was obviously suspected by her friend of being one of those very sneaks, a charge which she strenuously denied.  While staying there, she related, she’d needed a thread of dental floss, something which she hadn’t packed.  She opened the medicine cabinet to search for some, and was sent screaming back from the sink as a cascade of glass marbles came tumbling out of the cupboard, pouring like a loud river onto the sink and bouncing across the bathroom floor.  When her host came charging up, ready accusation at her lips, the terrified guest was crouched in a corner, surrounded by marbles, stuttering, “I just wanted dental floss!  Just dental floss!”

I seriously doubted that the friendship between the paranoid host and the shocked houseguest continued following this fracas.  After all, it appeared that, just like that belligerent radio show speaker, someone had forgotten the first rule of having or being a houseguest: Respect.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Agony Aunts”,
to be found in the archives from February 16, 2018. 

Folding the Laundry

§ If recognition, praise or approval are the reasons that we are working so hard for others, then we are lying to ourselves. §

A man I once dated was in dire straights. He’d been unemployed for quite a while following a series of life disasters (all, let it be said, of his own making), so he’d been forced to move into his sister’s home. Unable to pay rent to her, he took on (with, let it be noted, no little grumbling) all the household chores—cleaning, cooking, laundry, repairs, lawn care. His sister was working long hours of overtime at her retail job, so the arrangement suited them both. They barely saw one another, yet money was earned and necessary household work got done.

But one weekend Boyfriend needed to attend a meeting, one that he hoped might lead to a job. His sister would not be home, he explained, but his elderly cat was seriously ill and likely to pass soon. He did not want the animal to be alone, so he asked me to come out and look after the kitty for a few hours. I agreed.

Now, I am simply not one to sit idly. Even while watching TV, my hands are usually occupied with some chore—sewing, mending, crocheting, paying bills, or even just giving myself a manicure. So while I sat beside the poor sick little cat, stroking him occasionally and trying to convince him to drink or eat, I cast about for something to do. That was made fairly easy by the fact that several baskets of laundry were sitting there, clean but waiting to be folded.

And so I folded laundry, as I always do: carefully, precisely; sorting it all into categories so that it could be put away easily—socks here, towels and washcloths there, bedsheets and pillowcases in a separate stack. Shirts strung onto hangers with the top button fastened; jeans smoothed into a flat square so they could fit tidily into a drawer. I demolished those four baskets of laundry in no time and set them near the hall door so everything could be put away.

Arriving home in due course, Boyfriend noticed the baskets of finished laundry. He flung a “Oh, good!” in my general direction and grabbed them up to put the clothes away. (And if you’re thinking his behavior says something about the unhealthy quality of our relationship, you would be correct. But that’s a story for another blog post.)

I walked over, thinking I would help him store the clothes…and watched in disbelief and dismay as all my carefully, precisely, beautifully folded laundry was flung haphazardly onto shelves and pitched into drawers. The towels, washcloths, sheets and pillowcases were lobbed into a closet in which the linens were not even sorted by item, where nothing was folded at all, but simply wadded up in piles. The jeans were pitched into a pyramid at the bottom of the closet, and the shirts flung in the general direction of the rod, their hangers tangling together and dangling askew. The socks, neatly matched and sorted between dress and athletic socks, were tumbled together into a drawer atop a mess of other unmatched and unsorted footwear.

Worst of all, not even a word of genuine appreciation—something along the lines of, “It was nice of you to do this”—was spoken.

All my hard work was not only unappreciated, but totally for naught. Quietly fuming, I considered heaving the empty baskets across the room! Only the sight of the miserable kitty lying there on the couch kept me from doing so.

Putting my resentment on pause gave me a moment to reflect, though. I recalled that I hadn’t done this work for Boyfriend’s sake, but for my own, to keep my hands and mind occupied while I sat there sadly with his dying pet.

That incident was, I think now, a metaphor and a warning for all of us who are caretaker personalities; who continually go above and beyond for our loved ones, hoping, yearning for just a little recognition of our efforts, perhaps even a compliment. If recognition, praise or approval are the reasons that we are working so hard for others, then we are lying to ourselves. We are caring for our own needs, not theirs, and we need to acknowledge that fact; to pull back, and find a better way to take care of ourselves, before resentment and bitterness overcome us.

As for myself, I still fold laundry as I have always done, with precision and care. And in the years since my precious granddaughter was born, I have spent many an hour at my daughter’s home, not only folding the endless baskets of clean laundry as I watched over the little one, but washing dishes and sweeping floors; keeping my hands busy while helping my children, who suffer the overload of most modern parents. And each time they arrive home, seeing the baskets of neatly folded and carefully sorted and organized clean clothing, they inevitably say to me, “Mom, thank you so much for folding the laundry!”

(If you enjoyed this post, you might also like
“The Day the Vacuum Cleaner Rose Up to Smite Me”,
which you may find in the archives on 10/27/2017)

What the Very Best Memories Are Built On

§  Pleasant childhood memories come from the most unexpected sources.  §

While talking with a friend not long ago, something I said triggered a pleasant childhood memory for her.  Reminiscing, she told me that her father had been a salesman, on the road sometimes for a week or longer.   Each time he returned from a sales trip, he brought small, inexpensive gifts to her and her brother—things that cost him little or nothing, but simply delighted his small children.  My friend particularly remembered the little paper parasols from fancy drinks (what little girl doesn’t just love those silly things?)

But time passed and she and her brother grew older.  Cheap little mementos no longer sufficed to entertain them, and Dad probably didn’t want to spend his hard-won cash on more expensive keepsakes.  Finally, her Dad warned the two of them, “Don’t ask me what I brought you, or you won’t get anything!”  Of course, my then-young friend didn’t ask…but the parade of little souvenir gifts stopped, anyway.  Such is life as we grow up. But even though there were no more small presents to be had, my friend never forgot the pleasure and excitement of the special things her Dad had brought home from his travels to his young  daughter.

My friend’s memories triggered recollections of my own, things I hadn’t thought about in years.  When my brothers and I were small, I remembered, Dad would often come home on Friday nights bearing a handful of comic books for us.  Probably he had stopped to fuel up the car, and in that era, an attendant would have run out to pump the gas, clean the windshield, check the oil…  In any case, my Dad had time to run inside and grab a pack of his cigarettes, and then a handful of comic books for his children.  But he always chose the good comic books—not just Superman and Wonder Woman, Adam Strange, or The Legion of Superheroes, but many issues of the Illustrated Classics series; even comics that described fascinating times and events in history, such as the rise of the Viking culture.  I loved these beautifully illustrated “serious” comic books, and read them over and over.  Years later, I would be astonished to meet in actual book form the  stories that I’d enjoyed so much in my comic books, when I finally discovered H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley, Jules Verne and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

I remember, too, that when we had moved to the then-unpopulated far south suburbs of Indianapolis, there were nearly no restaurants in our little corner of the universe—or so it seemed to my disappointed 10-year-old-self.  There were certainly no movie theaters, and even the local grocery store was a far slog from the house. But there was a Dog ‘n Suds drive-in a couple of miles from our new home.  The Friday night comic book fest changed to the thrilling adventure of sitting in the car, devouring a delicious meal of hot dogs and fries and root beer after Dad got home from work.  (More than half a century later, I still love hot dogs and root beer, and be damned to how unhealthy a meal it is!)

Vacations, too, held memories for me that had little or nothing to do with the actual trips.  Of a childhood vacation to meet all of Mom’s relatives in Kentucky, I recall nothing at all about the people to whom I was introduced  except for one memorable incident with my distant cousins, when they and my older brother and I were chased madly down a country lane by an enraged sow after we’d gotten too close to her piglets.

And the long three-week trek my parents took us on one summer covering most of the American southwest, seeing supposedly-memorable scenery and monuments, still does not bear a candle in my memory to the year that we spent our summer vacation trekking from one State park to another, hiking the trails and feeding the wildlife, riding in surreys and marching cautiously across swaying suspension bridges, picnicking and stopping at country restaurants to eat huge platters of fried chicken served family-style, topped off by rainbow sherbet for dessert.

The most precious memories that children carry away from their childhood may well have nothing at all to do with what we, their parents, hope to have created for them.  The simplest of events and seemingly-inconsequential occurrences, totally forgotten by the adults in their lives, stand out limned in a brilliant halo of shining light in the mind of each once-child.  It is those incidents which become the bricks and mortar from which children build their most precious memories. As the adults in their lives, all we  can do is to provide them scraps of building material, and watch in wonder what they create from that offering.

Happy Almost-Birthday to you, Morrigan Lynn!
I hope the memories that we, your family, are helping you build will be glorious.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “The Dance At My Daughter’s Wedding”, which can be found in the Archives from May 11, 2018.

Proudly a Cynic

§   An open mind is like a window—you have to put up a screen for the bugs. §

I’m proud of being somewhat cynical.

Never did this fact become more clear to me than when it was chosen as part of our weekly topic at the Monday night meditation and discussion group, Many Hearts, One Spirit, that I attend.  The actual point of that discussion was, I believe, to renounce cynicism–something along the lines of becoming as a little child again.

Happily, our open and receptive discussion group (unlike our nation’s current President) welcomes differing viewpoints, calm, courteous debate, and new insights, because, huh-uh. Nope. Ain’t doing it.

I was, for most of my adult life, profoundly naïve and gullible.  And that—trust me on this one—is not a good path to go strolling down.  I have worked hard to develop a healthy skepticism; hence my motto, “An open mind is like a window—you have to put up a screen for the bugs.”

So I heartily admit it:  I am somewhat skeptical.  I am minutely mistrustful.  I am always ever so slightly suspicious.  And I’m PROUD of it.

Taking people at face value, unquestioningly, trustingly, resulted in many a painful moment in my life: the narcissistic friend who played upon my caretaker personality and constantly gave me veiled commands and orders, all careful cloaked in compliments and kudos, so that I would not realize I was being manipulated; the husband who drank, took drugs and had affairs, all the while looking me directly in the eye and denying that any such things had taken place.  The boss who praised me for showing up, sick and bleeding, during the weeks of my prolonged miscarriage—and then denied me a raise by grading me down on my annual review due to the few sick days I’d taken during this devastating personal disaster. The repentant man who had totally screwed up his life and begged me to trust his transformation, but proved to be a sly emotional abuser; a misogynist and con man who preyed quite effectively on my caretaker tendencies and easily-bruised self-esteem.  The woman at my job who smiled to my face while behind my back claiming I’d stolen money from the office sympathy fund that I managed.

Such lessons did not come easily to me, and had to be repeated time and again before I finally learned not to give my trust until an individual had proved worthy of it.  And I simply don’t believe there is anything wrong with that stance: with requiring that trust be earned, rather than freely given.

Perhaps it is unexpected that I find one wonderful thing about being a skeptic, about mistrust, is that I am, happily, often proved wrong.  These are astounding and delightful moments, when my façade of cynicism is cracked like an ugly plaster mold, revealing the shining statue hidden within.  When that happens, it is more than a pleasant surprise; it feels nothing less than a miracle.

But the converse is also unhappily true. The crash of my spirit, the aching disappointment, when I am confronted, yet one more time, with proof that my lack of trust was appropriate–yes, those repeated disappointments are difficult to endure.

Still, my hardened shell of cynicism provides me with some protection.  No matter how great my disenchantment, if the disillusionment was not totally unexpected, it is less painful.  That is, I find, the greatest benefit of being ever so slightly mistrustful: the mitigation of recurring disappointment.

There are qualities of becoming a little child again that I dearly love to evoke in myself: a sense of wonder, for instance, and awe at the unleashed and unexpected beauty not just of the world, but of many of the people who dwell within it.  But the naïveté of childhood is a condition that I gladly leave behind.  I will always strive to remain, proudly and carefully, just the slightest bit a cynic.

Three Things

§   I learned a lot about myself that evening, writing out a list of gratitude.  §

I was experiencing a fully-justifiable meltdown not long ago, and turned to a trusted friend for advice.  Her reply was not the one I anticipated, and at first I was taken aback: Right this minute, she told me, right now, name three things for which you’re grateful.  Write them down, she advised.

My initial response was resentment.  Was she minimizing my feelings?  Did she believe my depression and fears weren’t warranted?  But I know this woman very well, and trust her even more, so I had to conclude that minimizing or belittling my feelings was in no way part of her agenda.

So I took a deep breath, settled myself down, and picked up a pen and paper.  Three things.  Just three things.

It was hard…and then it wasn’t hard at all.

I was grateful for my family.  Once–for many years, in fact—sundered, we were now united once more.  I was grateful for my toddler granddaughter, whom I love beyond life itself.  I was grateful for my dear little condo, the home I had never thought I would have.  I was grateful for my four porch-rescue cats.  I might have saved them from a life as ferals, but they daily saved me with their love and attention.  I was grateful that my Dad, age 91, was still with us.  Few people get to have a parent in their life that long, and even at the times when he drove me nuts, I still loved him.  I was grateful to have survived cancer, to have had two years cancer-free.

I was grateful, I was grateful….  I filled an entire page with statements of gratitude, and possibly could have kept on going.  But when I put my pen down, I realized that, although nothing that had caused my meltdown had actually changed, I  had changed.  Oh, I was still distressed over a very dreadful situation, but at the core and center of my being, I felt calmer—not relaxed, not at ease, but calmer, and better able to deal with my problems.

I learned a lot about myself that evening, writing out a list of gratitude when what I really wanted to do was write out a list of people whose noses I wanted to punch!  I learned that, as a result of early childhood abuse, ‘fight or flight’ was always my go-to response, even when it was not really warranted; that I felt constantly beleaguered.  I learned that there is a difference between a healthy, justifiable anger, and simple rage.  I learned that my feelings were, actually, under my control.  No one could “make” me feel anything; I chose my responses.

I’d like to say that this exercise taught me a lesson, and that it’s a strategy I now always employ.  I’d like to say that, but it would be a big, fat lie.  Three Things is usually the last thing I remember to do when I’m caught in a distressing situation.

But when I do settle down and remember to do it, it opens a gateway to an entirely new perspective on any situation.

Oddly enough, there had been a time in my life when I spent a few minutes every morning writing out a sentence—or sometimes four or six or more–of gratitude.  I usually chose to do this as I rode the bus into work each morning, putting that empty time to good use.  And then, when I had been engaged in this process for several months, my entire world collapsed around me.  My husband walked out to live with his “true love”, and I became at the stroke of a pen a divorcee and single parent.  I recall now the rage I felt, asking the Universe exactly why, WHY, when I had been practicing daily gratitude, such a load of total crap had fallen upon my head.  Emotional anguish, not just for me, but for our child.  Financial distress times ten, as I paid for the divorce, found us a place to live, acquired used furnishings, moved.  Physical suffering, as the stress I was experiencing led me to fall ill one time after another, so that for over a year, I was constantly sick.  Depression so severe that suicide began to seem a viable option.  Why, when I had been practicing gratitude so unfailingly?  Why did all this evil befall me when I had been doing the right thing?

I don’t recall that the Universe ever answered my questions, but I do remember that, perhaps a year later, I came to the realization that, had I not been making a daily practice of gratitude when my safe and familiar world collapsed around me, I would have been in a far worse mental state than I actually endured. I had not seen at that time—perhaps had not wanted to see—that my practice of gratitude had acted as a shield around my emotional state, buoying me so that I did not completely drown in my own misery.

Three things.  Just three things, on the worst of days, in the most dreadful of situations.  It is hard, sometimes even painful.  But it makes all the difference in the world.

Miss Happiness and Miss Flower

§   Unwrapping my prize from the shipping package, I took a step backwards into my 10-year-old self, rereading in delight the nearly-forgotten trials and tribulations of a little girl so like myself.  §

When I was in the fifth grade, my all-time favorite teacher, Miss Shireman, gave me a book to read titled Miss Happiness and Miss Flower.   That book, written by Rumer Godden, became a lifeline for me.

The story describes the adventures of the eight-year-old Nona, who has been sent home from India to live with her British relatives. Lost in a unfamiliar culture, surrounded by strangers, cut off from everything she has ever known, Nona retreats into herself, terrified and abandoned, until she is given the gift of two Japanese dolls (the Miss Happiness and Miss Flower of the title).

I can say without intentional punning that the book spoke volumes to me.

I still recall Miss Shireman asking me if I was enjoying the book, and my enthusiastic reply. She smiled as she remarked that she’d been sure I would like it. Looking back through the mists of time, now, I wonder—how did she know? How did she know that I, enduring my first year in a new school and feeling so frightened and lonely that I could have died, needed that story? But Miss Shireman always seemed to understand what her young students were thinking and feeling, and did whatever she could to mitigate their distress.

A large part of the book concerns the Japanese doll house which the main character’s cousin builds for her dolls. I remember trying unsuccessfully to convince my older brother to build such a dollhouse for me. I also remember him throwing very cold water on the idea! But not long ago, reminiscing about my own daughter’s childhood dollhouse, now stored in the attic of my father’s home, I unexpectedly recalled the Japanese dollhouse of the story, and the book itself, and how much it meant to the child I’d once been.

Misses Happiness and FlowerIntrigued, I searched for the book, locating a copy on a used book site. The price was not exorbitant, and I could not resist; I immediately slapped down my credit card to order it. The precious book appeared in my mailbox during the weeks of Covid-19 lockdown, and I reverently carried it into the house like the treasure it was.

Already, during the weary hours and days of lockdown, I’d learned that I was resistant to reading anything new. Despite the fact that reading is my passion, I faced hourly headlines summarizing chaos, death and panic.  I couldn’t bear to begin a novel. A new book might kill off a character I liked, or direct a series down a route that I hadn’t wanted it to go. It might be badly written, or irritating or upsetting.

Instead, I took comfort in rereading both old and recent favorites: Tracey Quinn’s hilarious Breezy Spoon Diner series and Clara Benson’s marvelous Angela Marchmont mysteries.  The timeless classics of Mary Stewart: Nine Coaches Waiting. The Moonspinners.  I delved into the familiar, fantastic and funny world of Kim Watt’s Beaufort Scales dragon cozies. I travelled once more to Aunt Bessie’s home on the Isle of Mann, and the secretive world of McIntyre’s Gulch in the Canadian north.

And now, unwrapping my prize from the shipping package, I took a step even further back into my comfort zone, communing with my 10-year-old self, rereading in delight the nearly-forgotten trials and tribulations of the little girl I had so resembled. There she was, just as I remembered her: a young girl trying to adapt to a totally unfamiliar setting, friendless and frightened—exactly the situation in which I had lived at that age.

Rereading the book, I was delighted to find it just as enchanting a story as I recalled.  I marveled at the fact that at age 10, I’d been able to work my way without help through unfamiliar British terms and spellings, and to visualize a town so different from those that I, a suburban kid, had always known. How astounding and wonderful to have a bookstore on the same street as one’s home! And my adult-self thanked heaven that the book, written in 1960, predated the British changeover to the metric system, for then I might have been truly lost.

But what I really gained from re-reading this childhood favorite was a surprising realization of my own unquenchable spirit. At age 10, living in a new house that was not yet a home, lost and frightened in an unfamiliar neighborhood, too shy to make friends easily and trapped in a troubled, chaotic family situation, I, like the little girl of the story, somehow still found ways to adapt: to make friends, to be brave.

Half a century later, navigating the unfamiliar waterways of lockdown and pandemic, trapped in a home that’s begun to feel more like a prison than familiar territory, and lonelier than I have ever been throughout a very solitary life, I find it once more necessary to call upon that unquenchable spirit. She is in there still, somewhere, that inner child; that flame of life force reignited by a childhood memory and a beloved story. She is still finding ways to adapt; to be a friend to herself, and, most of all, to be brave.

Handshake, Schmandshake!

§   I originally posted this essay in September, 2018.  Now, with Dr. Fauci suggesting that we may never return to the gesture of the handshake, it seems a great time to repost it.  Ha!  I was ahead of the curve!  §

I’ve never quite gotten the point of the whole “a firm handshake” deal. Judging a person in this manner has always seemed to me like two little boys playing at arm wrestling.  Who cares whether one’s touch is quote-firm-unquote?  I personally suspect that the whole firm handshake concept (which for decades was an exclusively male prerogative) was just something devised in a homophobic era by men who felt a light touch also indicated someone who was “light in the loafers”.

As a young girl in parochial school, occasionally being taught lessons in etiquette (something which, by the way, I would highly recommend be added to the curriculum of every school today), I was instructed that a man did not reach to shake a woman’s hand unless she first extended her own hand.  Unfortunately, this etiquette lesson has gone the way of the dodo, but I truly preferred it.  I dislike touching or being touched by complete strangers.  No, that’s wrong – I despise touching or being touched by complete strangers.  It feels invasive of my personal space, and it takes away my sense of control about a situation – my right to decide whether or not to be handled.  I wasn’t raised in the “good touch, bad touch” era, but not having the right to decide if I want to grasp the hand of a totally unfamiliar person has always felt “bad touch” to me.  After all, how do I know where that hand’s just been?  Is this a person who doesn’t wash after using the bathroom?  What if they have a cold or the flu? Blech.

For that reason, I’ve devised many a trick to avoid shaking hands. My favorite, when I can do it, is to sneeze.  Since allergies are my constant companions, this often isn’t difficult.  And turning completely aside to sneeze, carefully covering one’s face with both hands, is a wonderfully self-deprecating, “Ohmigosh, I can’t believe that happened, let me get a tissue,” moment.

If I’m unable to rustle up a realistic sneeze, I cough. Coughing is much easier, and it still requires turning away and covering one’s face with one’s hand, thereby making it unlikely anyone is going to immediately grasp that hand.  Both coughing and sneezing can include simple explanation and apology: “Sorry, I’m afraid I have a bit of cold; I certainly don’t want to pass it on to you!”, or, “So sorry; the ragweed is in full bloom, and I’m very allergic!”  All said, of course, with an apologetic smile, sometimes while dashing hand sanitizer over one’s palms – no one wants to shake hands with a glob of alcohol gel.

Actually, I rather enjoyed this aspect of the terrible flu season of 2009, when experts recommended that the handshake be foregone in favor of the fist bump. It’s impossible to judge the fleeting gesture of the fist bump, and the touch is so brief that it doesn’t feel invasive.  I only wish the fist bump recommendation was in place every flu season.

I might be happier, though, in a culture in which the bow was the gesture of choice for introduction. Besides being a refined and classic gesture, in those cultures in which people bow rather than shake hands, it’s possible, by the depth of one’s bow, to indicate anything from real pleasure in meeting someone to total rejection and insult.  Now there’s a custom I can appreciate!

But I am most taken with the classically graceful “Namaste” gesture (the explanation of which so befuddled the current President after his trip to India), in which the head is bowed slightly over one’s steepled hands as the word is spoken. “I bow to the Divine within you,” the word and movement say, acknowledging the totality of the person standing before one, recognizing that they are both body and spirit, whole and perfect and complete.

Handshake, schmandshake. One should be judged by one’s stance (confident and self-assured?  Slouching, unable to meet the other’s eyes?) one’s smile (genuine or nervous?) and general neatness.  All the rest – clothing, accent, makeup, hair, and touch – are just window dressing. Fluff.  In the long run, the immediate judgment we make of another is just that: a snap judgment.  Stop worrying about their handshake and take the time to know the individual.

The Kindly Neighbor and the Generations

§  To imply that today’s youth do not know sacrifice is to minimize and belittle everything they have experienced.  §

A friend asked me—not in an accusatory manner, but just curiously—why none of my recent weekly blogs had discussed the coronavirus pandemic. My initial reaction to her question was, “Dear God, don’t we all have to read and hear enough about it every day?” But, the simple truth is that my blog posts are usually scheduled as many as four to six weeks in advance, leaving them very little probability of corresponding to current events.

Only a day or so after her question, though, I received an e-mail lightly connected to the pandemic which simply set my teeth on edge; so much so that I decided to rearrange some scheduled posts to include an essay about it.

I cannot name the original source of this material, since the e-mail I received did not include it. Here, however, is the article that arrived in my email in-box, along with a note remarking that it was “just beautiful”.

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My reaction to this essay was swift and very negative. I re-read it multiple times in dismay, finally summarizing it for myself as follows: A kindly, thoughtful person makes special effort to ask if an elderly neighbor needs anything during a national crisis, and receives in return a rant, a harangue; a tirade closed by a scathing, condescending remark. And while I have rarely been the recipient of offers of neighborly helpfulness, I am certain that a critical lecture and nasty remarks would not be my first choice of response.

My second reaction to the account was that of weary disgust: I am so tired of generation bashing! Whether it is the self-named Greatest Generation deriding Baby Boomers, or Boomers disparaging Gen X’rs and Millennials, or Millennials ridiculing Boomers and Generation Z…I am sick of it. Each generational group is composed of individuals—individuals who differ greatly from each other despite their shared experiences. There are things we can all learn, wisdom to be gained, from appreciating one another’s viewpoints–but that wisdom cannot be gained so long as we continue to disparage each other.

No generation has a premium on dreadful events.  Each generation endures pain, and war, and sacrifice. Pearl Harbor was no more shocking than 9/11. The “police action” of Korea and the undeclared war of Vietnam were just as horrific for those who fought them as the Second World War. And I feel certain that those soldiers who battled through the First World War could easily have spoken just as scathingly to the man of this story as he did of subsequent generations.

Nor is disease limited to any one generation. A survivor of the Black Death from the Middle Ages, transported through time to the era of Spanish Flu, might well have laughed ironically: people were not, after all, dying while lying on straw pallets, covered with lice and fleas.  Lesser diseases were not under the sole proprietorship of the Greatest Generation, either. A Boomer myself,  I had classmates who survived polio; I endured measles, mumps, chickenpox, and rubella.  I was dreadfully sick with whooping cough as 40-something adult. My daughter, a Millennial, caught chickenpox before a vaccine became available.  I watched two co-workers barely survive MERSA.

Boomer children grew up under the horrifying reality of the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,  and the grip of the Cold War; we daily walked past the radiation insignia of the shelter areas within our schools as we ran practice drills for surviving nuclear annihilation. Sissies?  I feel sure that “duck and cover as you prepare to be vaporized by a nuclear warhead” did not comprise part of childhood  of that 80-something man.

To say that today’s youth do not know sacrifice is to minimize and belittle everything they have experienced. True, they do not recall a world without instantaneous communication, even from the battlefield, but the very world they have been born into is dying: the polar icecaps and Antarctic ice fields melting away; bees, butterflies and bats, all our pollinators, dying off at unprecedented rates. They have grown up in schools drilling not to survive nuclear war, but active shooters; they have watched their classmates mown down before their very eyes. And now they are dealing with the first genuine world-wide plague for 100 years. For them, this will always be the defining moment of their generation: when they had to shroud themselves in a chrysalis of isolation, afraid to hug a loved one or touch their hand; watching their parents and grandparents and even classmates succumb to an invisible enemy and barred from them as they died, gasping for breath.

No, I have reached the conclusion that the real man in the sad little tale I was sent was not, as declared, that full-of-himself 80-year-old, declaiming his one-sided story,  lauding himself while deriding all those whose experiences did not match his particular world view. The real man, was, I think, that kind-hearted neighbor who, unasked, came to see to the needs of an elderly man…and who came away, quite unappreciated and totally belittled.