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.

 

 

 

Vanity of Vanities

§   I’m so often bewildered, not just by what I see as a lack of grooming as people go about their business in public, but by those of my own age group who seem, to put it bluntly, to have given up on giving a damn.  §

Because I am and have always been a plain woman, I am usually meticulous about my grooming. Having no beauty to present to a judgmental world, I at least strive to present a tidy appearance. My hair, dyed these days to disguise the whitening roots, is colored with monotonous regularity; the roots are touched up between dye jobs. Peach fuzz on my upper lip and chin is removed weekly from my face. It’s rare for me to leave the house without at least lip gloss and mascara, and never without brushing my long hair into some semblance of order. In fact, the only time during the past two years when I have disregarded all these self-imposed rules was the dreadful winter morning when a friend called, begging help. Another of our group had awakened to find her beloved pet dog dead. Help was needed, and needed as quickly as possible. I hopped out of the shower to answer this early-morning distress call; only a few minutes later, having paused just long enough to run a towel over my sopping wet hair and throw the first clothes I could grab onto my body, I was speeding over ice-glazed roads to her home.

But dreadful events like that are rare. I can usually find, or at least make the time to present an orderly appearance. It’s my standing joke that, if I’m so ill that I haven’t at least gotten out of bed to put on clothes and brush my hair, it’s too late to call a doctor; call an undertaker.

I suppose that’s why I’m so often bewildered, not just by what I see as a lack of grooming as people go about their business in public, but by those of my own age group who seem, to put it bluntly, to have given up on giving a damn. Inch-long visible roots on women and grubby feet in flip-flops with chipped polish on their toes; men sporting chins thick with stubble and ripped, stained shirts…  I find myself ashamed, not of them, but for them. Why, I wonder, do they think so little of themselves, to present themselves to the world in so careless a manner?

Pride is a funny thing, though. I’ve been accused a few times of being quite vain, although that is, I feel, the furthest possible thing from the truth. I know that I have always been unbeautiful; now I am aging, as well. I have absolutely no vanity.

But I do have pride. That is why, looks aside, I always strive to be both neat and orderly, well-groomed and tidy. And since I also endure an on-going struggle with feelings of insecurity, I find in myself the need to always put my best face forward to a censorious world.

Standards of just what comprises that best face, though, do change. I recall my paternal Grandmother bemoaning the fact that dressing for church no longer meant a fine hat, pumps, and white gloves. In Grandma’s worldview, standards had undeniably slipped; I thought the lack of fuss refreshing. She would be utterly horrified by today’s come-as-you-are churches, where I have even seen young people arrive in pajama pants. (“Well,” I’ve sighed, explaining this phenomenon to my Grandmother’s shade, sitting there beside me in that pew, shaking her head in disgust. “Well, Gramma, at least they showed up.” )

But now, looking at my own attitudes through the lens of time, I wonder if I have not become my Grandmother. Are the strictures, I put myself through, the grooming I require of myself, really necessary? I no longer attend a church, but I certainly wouldn’t be arriving for services in pajama pants and a tank top. Long after most women had given up pantyhose, I still wore them, knowing that my tan-less legs look a helluva lot better when encased in nylons (and my stockinged feet felt a lot more comfortable in my shoes, too). But my other personal rules about appearance: Are they truly necessary? Am I lying to myself when I claim that I am not vain, but merely proud and insecure?

Perhaps my answer lies in something that happened when my mother died. As Dad and I chose clothing for her body to be dressed in prior to cremation, he objected as I dug through her mounds shoes for heels that matched the dress I’d chosen.

“It’s not like she’s going to be walking anywhere!” he protested.

“I am not sending my mother into the afterlife without proper shoes on her feet!” I retorted.

Standards of appearance. Pride or vanity or insecurity, it does not matter. I adhere to them, hold myself to them, even in the face of that final appearance in this world.

 

 

 

 

The Reality of that “Great Romance”

§   My cynical nod to this Friday’s Valentine’s Day–better (and more realistically) known to so many of us as Singles Awareness Day!  §

A few years ago, I sat reading an adventure book by a prolific male author. I’d read a few of his works before—male romance novels, I call them, because, just as in the female version, the adventure teems with an unbearably attractive main character who spreads him or herself around like water in a six-buck carwash. Characters fall in and out of bed, somehow always escaping the perils of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy just as they escape the dangers of the adventure. Mind trash, I think of these books; escapism, and enjoyable if well-written, but hardly literature.

However, in this adventure (and, I need to point out, just as I have done previously with female romance/adventure novels), I reached the end of my tether. Because this novel was blatant in a scenario which, sadly, so many people cling to as reality.

In this case, the adventurer learned that he had grown children—twins, a son and daughter, by a woman who he believed had died. The presumably-dead woman was his “one true love”. Since she so conveniently kicked the bucket early on in the adventure series, Mr. Hero was able to spend years being faithful to her memory, meanwhile cavorting with every available nubile female. (“I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion…”). Finally, 20-odd years later, his true love having finally succumbed for real, he is sought out by his unknown children–her dying wish, of course.

She (noble and utterly self-sacrificing—isn’t that what all good women are?) never let him know that she had survived, pregnant but with injuries that rendered her paraplegic—shades of “An Affair to Remember”!!  Instead, while bearing and raising his children, she never burdened him with a need for child support or shared parenting time. He never had to change a diaper or soothe a scraped knee, attend a parent-teacher conference, or help with homework. He never stayed up, sweating bullets, waiting on an overdue teenager’s arrival home; never had to hold onto his temper as he listened to backtalk. He did not ante up college funds, or buy a car, or sit with a new driver, hanging onto the panic strap and stomping the “parent brake”. Our hero never, in fact, had to do any parenting at all.

Instead, he’s presented with two fully-grown, perfectly matured, well-educated and attractive offspring for whom he never had to take a lick of responsibility—and who do not, of course, bear him any resentment for his abandonment of their mother, since he was kept in ignorance of her continued existence the entire length of their lifetimes.

I put the book aside, shaking my head and feeling discouragement and dismay.

I’d had the same reaction to a popular romance novel (also written, I should point out, by a male) in the 1990s, one made into an equally-popular movie. In that fantasy scenario, a couple shares just a brief time of “perfect love”, which they remember and pine for ever after, all the while going on with their lives. No commitment is required of either of them beyond fond memories; neither of the characters ever has to deal with the onerous tasks of compromising or getting along, or raising children; of dealing with a drunken spouse or a financial crisis, or holding their tongues to prevent a quarrel. All they have to do is have one wild, mad fling, and then gallantly surrender that moment to move on with the commitments they’ve already made, all the while recalling their “true love” in daydreams for the rest of their lives.

And women—women, heaven help me, made this book and movie popular.

I will say it straightforwardly: These scenarios are not just nonsense; they are discouraging and repellant. Discouraging because these fantasies of love without responsibility or commitment are a travesty of the reality of love; repellant because genuine self-sacrifice does not comprise either releasing another individual of all their responsibilities, or covertly living out an inner fantasy involving another lover to which one’s current partner could never measure up.

Love is many different things to many different people, but the scenarios described in these and so many other novels and movies has nothing, nothing at all to do with the reality of love as it is lived out, plodding and ponderous, but genuine and reliable, by thousands of couples every day. Wallis Simpson, wife to the abdicated King Edward VIII, is said to have famously remarked, “You have no idea how hard it is to live out a great romance.” It’s too bad that reality is so rarely incorporated into novels.

Seasons of Light, Seasons of Darkness

§  Parties. Death.  The two will forever be inextricably intertwined when I remember the year 2019. §

As I pointed out in a 2019 essay (The Name of My Year, January 30, 2019), most of us find that the years slip by in our memories not by a numerical designation but with a verbal title recalling events pertinent to us: The Year Mom Died. The Year Amanda Was Born. The Year of the Flood, the Tornado, the Hurricane. The Year I Bought the Condo. The Year of My Divorce. The Year of Job Hell. These titles lend a richness and flavor to our memories as no numerical equivalent could possibly ever do.

It’s especially true that the years since my retirement have become a series of chapter titles in the book of my life. Beneath each follow subtitles and paragraphs of meaning and explanation, tracing details and events quite unrelated, one would think, to that chapter title. I tick them off across my fingers as The Year I Retired, followed by The Year of the Cookbooks. Hard on their heels follows The Year of the Wedding, and then My Dickens Year (which is subtitled The Year of Cancer and of Morrigan’s Birth: Season of Light; Season of Darkness.)

And so now, looking back, I realize I have invested 2019 with a macabre little title by which I will forevermore recall it: A Year of Parties and Death.

Parties… Twice now, I’ve thrown myself my own birthday party, once for my 60th and then for my 65th birthdays. Milestones, these, that I felt should be marked, so, following the lead of an elderly relative who’d done so for her own 80th birthday, I didn’t wait for someone else to do it; I threw myself a party. For my 60th birthday, I decked myself out in a red hat and purple shirt and called all my women friends to come celebrate with me at my home with food and cake and friendship and gossip and laughter. Placing candles on my cake that bore wild animal markings—tigers and leopards and cheetahs—to represent the courage and strength with which I hoped to begin the final decades of my life, I blew them out with gusto.

IMG_20190228_072333378_HDR (2)But in 2019, my 65th birthday was different. As I recounted in My Totally Un-Grownup Coloring and Tea Party, having survived uterine cancer the year before, I wanted something simply fun. Thus, gathering family and friends together again, I invited them to dive into the childhood pleasures of coloring books and tea parties. Blessed with fine weather and great food, the party was simply wonderful.

Six months later found another major party in my sights: my first grandchild’s first birthday party. My daughter chose a luau theme, so I shopped for every coconut cup, grass skirt, and flamingo-decorated plate that was to be found in the mile square.IMG_1162 We invited everyone, simply everyone, renting a shelter house at a local park for the event. Again, we were blessed with wonderful weather and food and fun. It was a magnificent day.

Two very special parties, then.

And so many transitions to the next life.

One by one, they left this earth: former coworkers and their spouses—like me, older people whose deaths were perhaps not unexpected, but brought home to me the fragility of each day that I still draw breath. The passing of a dear friend’s elderly grandmother just prior to the holiday season. The terrible loss of a young life when the grandson of a former coworker was shot to death. The sudden death of a friend of many years in an auto accident. The painful, soul-searing loss, too early, too soon, of a young life, when the 30-year-old son of an friend died alone in his home of an asthma attack.

So many times during 2019 I received the phone calls or e-mails or sat in shock, as someone told me of yet another passing.

Parties. Death.

The two will forever be inextricably intertwined when I remember the year 2019.

Dickens said it perfectly: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

And now I wonder—oh, how I wonder!—what my year of 2020 will be titled.

 

Clearing the Clutter

§   In the years of dealing with my Cleaning Lady personality quirk, I’ve learned one important thing: If you’re going to have an “episode”, clearing the clutter and disorder in your own home is the least problematical way to deal with what is, in truth, the need to clear something in your own spirit. §

A friend has been in the throes of a start-of-the-year Clear the Clutter episode, and e-mailed me about the mess, the lack of serenity in the process, and the things that are driving her to sheer madness, such as a water spot on the ceiling and a broken cabinet door. She took down all her wall hangings, she explained, because they were no longer (in the popular parlance of the day) “giving her joy”, and now there are little holes all over the wall. Pain, and yet still no gain!

I sympathized. I regularly endure the pain of clearing the clutter. In fact, a favorite cousin and I, each raised in similar childhood circumstances of dealing with an alcoholic parent, have, as a result, a few (well, perhaps in my case, more than a few) control issues. This might be a problem except that, for each of us, we have channeled our control issues into what we consider the healthiest possible outlet: We are OCD housekeepers. Cleaning Freaks. Totally, almost unforgiveably, neat. I have even been heard to say–totally without irony–that my house, dirty, is cleaner than most people’s homes are when clean.

In the scheme of things, there are far worse ways that we could have channeled our need for control.

But, as I counseled my distracted friend, in the years of dealing with my Cleaning Lady personality quirk, I’ve learned one important thing: If you’re going to have an “episode”, clearing the clutter and disorder in your own home is the least problematical way to deal with what is, in truth, the need to clear something in your own spirit.

The best way to handle my need for clean control is, I’ve discovered, to use the time as a sort of meditation. Yes, that water spot on the ceiling is incredibly ugly, but does it represent something more to me?  Does its ugliness evoke an ugly memory? Is that stain caused by falling raindrops evocative of tears? More than I need to plaster and paint, do I really just need to cry?

Yes, my cabinet door is broken; why, then, haven’t I either fixed it, or called a repairman, or just saved up the money to replace it?  Okay, so there are now little holes everywhere in the walls where I took down the photos of relatives who caused me pain, deciding that a family connection was not worth the reality of having to look at their faces and remember how they abused me. And, yes, I know that a dab of putty and a lick of paint will fix those holes, so why am I so absolutely furious about having to do that?  Is it because it’s just one more damn thing I have to do? One more problem they caused me? Or because I know I’ll be doing this, as I do everything, all alone and without any help?

And why, in the name of heaven, have I been keeping all this crap?! Why didn’t I get rid of it a long time ago; in fact, why did I ever keep it in the first place? It isn’t just a case of “Well, this is actually useful, and I might need it”, now is it? No. It’s fear. It’s fear because so much has been taken from me in my lifetime that hanging on to something I don’t really need—something that could possibly be of use to another person—seems to smother that uncomfortable, burning feeling deep within my spirit that I won’t have enough. It’s a barrier, this clutter of stuff I don’t really need and am not using, and don’t even particularly like. It’s a moat against emotional attack.

But in truth, there is no moat, for the real emotional attack is within myself: my habit of castigating myself with cruel words; of rerunning dark videos in my brain of old, damaging scripts; of hearing the voices of abusers, some now long dead, forever muttering criticisms and invective, all within my head. And there is no moat, no barrier, tall enough, deep enough, wide enough, to stifle those soft, invidious whispers of pain.

I have developed a word for myself, one less prejudicial than being OCD or a compulsive housekeeper: I am a “Clear-ing” Lady. I am constantly processing old emotional damage through the method of cleaning my physical surroundings. And that, I’ve decided, is okay. It is just who and what I am, and I am no longer going to chastise myself for a personality quirk that at least results in pleasant and orderly surroundings.

But the most useful technique of handling an episode of clutter clearing, is, I’ve discovered, to go deeper, and to use both the time and my actions to put my soul in order, as well as my home.

My 2019 Word of the Year

§  My intentions were laudable. (And, yes, I am very familiar with that saying about just what the road to Hell is paved with!) §

Several years ago I began foregoing New Year’s Resolutions in favor of a “Word of the Year”. Having tried and failed at many a resolution, I saw no point in setting myself up for certain failure; it was simply depressing, and merely reinforced my bad opinion of myself. (I feel the same way about goals.  Goals are something I set simply to prove to myself that I am a failure.  I don’t set goals anymore, either.)

So, casting about for some way to create some type of resolution-that-wasn’t, I’d been struck by an idea: I could forego a resolution, yet choose a focus: a character-building, life changing focus for the coming year.  Not a goal, I decided; a focus.  (God is in the semantics, I told myself.)  I could chose just one meaningful word, and I need not attempt to accomplish it so much as to merely keep it at the forefront of my mind, making it active in my life.

I found creative ways to bring my attention to bear upon my Focus Word. That first year, I hid post-it notes and scraps of paper throughout my home in places where I knew they would not be easily found, yet were sure, sooner or later, to be discovered.  Since it was unlikely I would turn the heavy mattress on the bed more than once during the year, a note emblazoned “My Focus This Year Is” was pushed into the thin hollow between the mattress and box springs.  Another went under the couch cushions—I had been known, from time to time, to actually lift them up and vacuum beneath them (or at least search for loose change). I wrote my word on random pages of my blank diary.  I secreted one beneath a throw rug. And, yes, one note, slipped into a plastic bag, went into the bottom of the vegetable bin in the frig!

Amazingly, it worked. I came across those notes again and again throughout that first year, forcing me to keep my attention centered on my Focus Word, and gauge how well it was working.

I’ve used many Focus Words in the intervening years, and I’ve learned to choose them with immense care. The Universe, I’ve learned to my great dismay, will cooperate with me—oh, yes, will it ever!  Choose Peace as a focus word, and every possible non-peaceful situation imaginable will be tossed at me like errant baseballs.  And, for the love of heaven, never, ever, choose Patience !

So one would think that, at the start of 2019, I would have displayed better sense. I would never have chosen to focus on the word Restful.

Uh….

My intentions were laudable. (Stop right here! Yes, I am very familiar with that saying about precisely what the road to Hell is paved with!) Nevertheless, I felt I was doing the right thing. As an apprehensive person, easily anxious, often subject to panic attacks, I could learn to be Restful at the core and center of my being, no matter what the Universe happened to toss my way on any given day.

Yeah, sure. And the sun will begin rising in the west; the earth stop spinning on its axis. President Trump will stop tweeting, and my cats will never again wake me for breakfast long before I want to roll my butt out of bed.

I will say only that having chosen Restful as my 2019 Focus Word has been, ummm, interesting. (And, yes, I am also well acquainted with that other saying, the one about the Chinese curse!) I was certainly not aware that so many simple, everyday situations could roll themselves like a snowball heading down the Matterhorn, cascading into an avalanche and scattering destruction in its wake.

Did I, as planned, learn to find ways to feel Restful despite the chaos stirring all about me? Not so much. But I can say unequivocally that my success lay in realizing how often I compound that same chaos, frothing it like foam overflowing the top of the coffee mug. I was startled to discover just how little I rely on the tools available to me: deep breathing,  positive self-talk, meditation, or even just using the word “No” when needed to protect myself. Slowly, ever so slowly, I have discovered that I am sometimes capable of reaching a state of calm; that serenity is available to me, despite the fact that everything about me is overflowing with frenzied motion, with fear, or with stress.

In the end, I think that the gift of this year’s Focus Word was awareness. I am, as never before, aware of, cognizant of, the ways in which I contribute to the disorder of my own life. I am aware of the ways, also, in which I can mend that situation.

I wouldn’t ever again willingly choose Restful as my Word of the Year! But perhaps having done so once wasn’t such a mistake, after all.