The Best Revenge

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

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

And torturers they were.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder how well it worked for them.

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

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

And Speaking of Prejudice…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wops. Dagos.  Italian Americans.

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

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

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

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

It still bothers me.

And it should.

Grief and Prejudice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Hope

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

And nothing will have changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But never stop hoping that it will.

Roses of the Soul

I often wonder why we Americans, claiming to value individuality, are so heavily invested in making others think just as we do.

This concept struck me forcibly once, years ago, when a supervisor at the office was polling female staff members on what he should get his wife for their anniversary. He was thinking roses.  But he wasn’t certain that would be impressive enough.

“Does she have a favorite color of rose?” I queried him. “White, for instance, or something unusual, like Tropicana?  Or even another favorite flower.  Lilies, orchids? Something that smells magnificent, like lilac or lavender? That might make flowers a more special gesture than just the same old red roses.”  I could tell by his face that the question of rose color or even other favorite flowers had never entered his mind.  He stood, mulling it over, when another coworker jumped in, exclaiming, “Oh, no, no!  Red roses! You have to get red roses!  Only red roses are right.”

“I like pink, myself,” I commented, “but these aren’t my roses. What does your wife like best?” I persisted to our supervisor. He wrinkled his brow and ambled off into his office to consider the question.  I never learned exactly what flowers his wife eventually received.  But my coworker could not let the subject go.  Determined to convince me, she perched on the edge of her seat and held forth at length about the perfection of a gift of long-stemmed red roses.  “There’s just something about a red rose….” she concluded, sighing, with a dreamy expression on her face.  Unconvinced and unimpressed, I shrugged and responded, “For you, that’s the right gift.  But his wife might like something else best. Me, I’d adore pink roses mixed with lilac or lavender. Those would be flowers worth having.  They’d mean something.”

My coworker rolled her eyes, and I dropped the subject, at least verbally. But the question continued to swirl in my mine.  Why, I wondered, couldn’t she just understand that there were other viewpoints than hers?  That my preference for pink roses, or his wife’s potentially different favorite flowers, were equally valid?

Yet there I sat, totally dismissive of her point of view, and just as determined as she that my own opinion was the correct one.

But that realization didn’t occur to me until much later.

This conversation was just one tiny blip in the annals of humans doing their utmost to convince other humans to think “just like me”. Extrapolated to further degrees, our attempts to force others into our mold include innocuous things such as debates, or all the way to the unspeakable atrocity of ethnic “cleansings”.  We welcome others into our country only if they dissolve into a “melting pot”. We claim to be open-minded, but strike people from our lives because they chose a different faith or no faith at all – or because of their skin color – or background and culture –or country of origin – or political party — or sexual orientation. We insist that our is “the one true faith”—or assert that faith itself is the cause of all the world’s ills. We bandy about titles like “conservative” or “liberal” as though they were obscenities rather than points of view. We claim to appreciate individuality, yet clearly despise those who choose to live an individual life, bounded only by their own understanding of the way in which life works.

Will we ever simply accept our individuality, or, even more unlikely, even rejoice in it? Is it possible that we will ever come to true appreciation of each other’s differences, be they spiritual, physical, mental or emotional?  That we might someday allow each other to appreciate all roses, red or yellow, pink or white?

I wonder, and, sadly, I look at the state of humanity, and I doubt.

But I still prefer pink roses.

Another Talking Stick Ceremony

(I wrote these words just over a year ago….)

For the second time in as many years, I am preparing a Talking Stick for a friend’s memorial service.

For those unfamiliar with the practice, a Talking Stick service, sometimes called a Crossing Ceremony, is a way of allowing survivors to speak at a memorial service without having to endure the formality of rising to address a crowd, many of whom may be strangers. It speaks to our need to discuss memories of a loved one without invoking the fear of public speaking that so many of us endure.

The Talking Stick itself is a simple thing—genuinely, a stick, a branch, a piece of wood, of the right height and width to be easily held. Smoothed and sanded, perhaps, or even varnished, it is decorated with small items that represent the individual who has passed.  For instance, for a friend who loved the color purple, I tied purple scarf onto a branched stick, glossy and smooth.  I glued on crystals in colors she loved.   For the Talking Stick I am creating today, I chose the thick branch of an old rose, because the person who is gone was truly a rare rose in the garden of life.  I removed all but a few thorns. Those thorns left attached were meant to represent both the suffering and the fight she endured at the end of her difficult passage to the next life.  There are several small branches on her Talking Stick, because she took so many paths in a life that was vibrant and well-lived.  And I will be adding a silk butterfly to the top of her Talking Stick, to represent both the transformation in which I know she wholly believed, and the mutual friend, herself enamored of butterflies, who passed on earlier, and whom I know was there to meet her on the other side of the Veil.

And this is the beauty of being the person who is privileged to create another’s Talking Stick: It is a physical meditation, allowing one to think through the value of a friend or loved one’s life, and to say farewell by determining the representative talismans to be included.

I will carry the Talking Stick to my friend’s memorial service, and explain its creation, and then encourage those there, all unfamiliar with this process, to pass the stick from hand to hand, and to each speak one pleasant, special, or even humorous memory of their loved one. To begin their memory with “I remember ( her name)”, because, as the ancient Egyptians believed, if our name is remembered, the soul continues.  To speak only good of the person who has passed, for, if the relationship was rocky or difficult, this is not the time to discuss those problems, not only out of respect not for the dead, but for the others present who are not in a fit state to hear that sort of bitterness…to know that, if they cannot say something pleasant or kind about the soul who has gone on, then there is no shame in merely holding the Talking Stick silently for a moment before passing it on to the next person. Their very silence allows us to acknowledge their own special pain, and to know that our view of a person is not necessarily the one which is shared by all who knew her or him.

And when the memorial is completed, I will gift the Talking Stick to the person who best loved the deceased, so that they might do with it as they please: keep it, cherish it, burn it, bury it—whatever is best for them. It will have served its purpose, which is only to evoke memories to be shared, and make it easy for loved ones to speak, and to recap a life.  To help us say goodbye.

In Memory Of
Debbe Boswell
Mary Cole

 

 

Families, Holidays, and Chaos

A few years ago I stumbled across Dar William’s humorous and touching holiday song, “The Christians and the Pagans”. It was a good natured glimpse into the utter chaos experienced by a  family of very dissimilar individuals, all trying to navigate their way through the minefield of a Christmas dinner without triggering nuclear meltdown.

I found it so delightful and thought-provoking that I forwarded the YouTube video link to most of my contacts. A few of them had encountered the song previously, but were glad to enjoy it again.  To others, as it had been to me, it was a revelation: a couple of laugh-out-loud verses woven into an authentic description of the bedlam relatives endure as they try to practice tolerance and caring for the sake of family at the holidays.

But, to my dismay, a couple of my contacts found the song very offensive. To say that I was bewildered at their reaction is an understatement.  This was a song about tolerance—about the triumph of love over personal differences—about the curiosity of children, as well as their inability to lie for the sake of tact (“The Emperor has no clothes!”)—about finding common ground in the midst of seeming contradictions.

Eventually it became clear to me that, for those who found the song distasteful, their rejection of it lay in the very fact that the song was, indeed, about tolerance: about a Christian family struggling to accept and love their non-Christian and unconventional relatives (it is implied, though never outright stated in the lyrics, that the young niece is in a lesbian partnership) at Christmastime. To some of my very-Christian acquaintances, this concept—that Christians would willingly welcome the company of their non-Christian relatives at Christmas—was anathema.

It is a mindset that I cannot even begin to comprehend. I glory in the traditions of other cultures, so many of which celebrate a religious or secular holiday near the winter solstice.  Soyaluna, Diwali, Christmas, Solstice, The Return of the Wandering Goddess…to me, they are all beautiful traditions, evocative of the universality of the human spirit reaching out to the Divine.  To reject loved ones because they have chosen a different faith (or even no faith at all) is, to my way of thinking, so far from the genuine practice of Christianity, as I understand it, that it boggles the mind.

I was simply stunned to learn that some of my Christian acquaintances thought that their non-Christian counterparts would be encouraged to “find Jesus” if they were cast out and treated as lepers; that they believed children should be shielded from the spiritual differences of those they encounter, instead of simply receiving an explanation as to why the family believes other faiths to be in error. I could not comprehend their feeling that families should not at least try to join together in love and caring at the holidays, no matter what their dissimilarities.

It’s always seemed to me that the surest way to draw others into one’s own belief system is to demonstrate, by the very life one lives, that it is a faith worth emulating. How, I was now forced to ask, could shunning loved ones, subjecting them to rejection and disgust and dislike—how could that in any way inspire them to accept the faith of those who cast them out?  Wouldn’t such behavior just convince them that their own spiritual path was the more noble choice?

In a question between my own belief system of that of others, I will always choose the path of learning; never relying on rumor or medieval bad press or intentional misinformation, but seeking to know the genuine principles surrounding a belief system (or even a rejection of all faith) to find the thread of commonality woven into all that is the human spirit.

But, no matter what they do or do not believe, all those who demonstrate love, acceptance, kindness, courtesy and tolerance will always be welcomed to a seat at my holiday table.

My Mother’s Talking Stick

On the evening of my mother’s memorial service, I was the only person who rose to speak of her. The sadness of that is ineffable: that no one knew her well enough, or cared enough, to speak a farewell at her passing — or perhaps that no one trusted their painful memories of Betty Jean enough to speak kindly.  Truely, as my father said to me later, all those present at her memorial were there on his behalf.  As she aged, Betty had retreated farther and farther from nearly all social interaction, until she lived primarily lying on her bed, reading and smoking alone, seeing no one, calling no friends or former coworkers, not knowing her neighbors, leaving the house only for doctor appointments.

In the days leading up to Mom’s memorial service, I struggled with what I could say about the woman who gave me life. I adhere always to the principal that it is wrong, at a funeral or memorial, to speak ill of the dead, partially because they are not there to defend themselves, but primarily because there are people present who are wrapped in grief and mourning, and who do not need or deserve the load of another’s unpleasant remarks about the person whom they loved.

But my mother had been a seriously mentally ill woman, challenging to live with and difficult to love. I racked my mind, but most of all my heart, for words that would say farewell calmly, and without condemnation.  And finally, after much soul searching, I realized that I needed to concentrate upon the rare and precious moments when the other woman – the healthy, kind, brilliant and loving woman – peeked out from behind the tormented soul.  The woman, as I thought of her, whom God had actually intended, before whatever concatenation of mental illness and painful experiences set my mother on the path to her own destruction.  And from that perspective, I found words to speak my mother’s memorial.

Although speaking in public is to me absolutely terrifying, I stood before my father’s friends and our relatives on that November evening in 2010, and spoke these words of my Mother with all the kindness and understanding possible.

“As an adult, working with the Bradshaw material, I came to have some understanding of the complex woman who was my mother, and the myriad forces that drove her.

“Also as an adult, I learned that our thoughts do not choose us; we choose our thoughts.

“And so, thinking of my mother, I choose to remember her as she was on the nights when I, as a little child, sometimes could not sleep. She would lay me on the couch beside her and read me poetry.  Not children’s poetry; beautiful, majestic works from books, and things she liked from magazines.  Poems that were far above my head, at that time, and yet,  from how well she read them, I learned the cadence and rhythm and power of the written word.

“And that is how I choose to remember my mother, Betty Jean: She read me poetry.”

It was a brief and simple speech, quickly delivered. My father wept, but no one else cried — not even I, who weep at woeful movies or sad novels or a cross word.  We were all dry-eyed.  No one else rose to speak, either, and sometimes that fact still haunts me.  One should not go down into the darkness with so few people to genuinely mourn.

There is a ceremony used in some NeoPagan communities, called A Crossing, in which a Talking Stick is passed from person to person sitting circled in a room. Each person, taking the stick, describes a pleasant memory of the one who has gone.  And if they have nothing pleasant to remember, nothing kind to say, they merely sit silent as they hold the Talking Stick.

I’ve asked that this ceremony be held for me when I leave this life. I hope that I will not have outlived all those who have known me, and that there will be more than one person to say farewell at my passing.  I hope that there will be more who wish to speak than to merely stay silent as they hold my Talking Stick.  I hope that those who are present will put aside remembered differences, and speak of only pleasant memories, at least for that brief ceremony.

There was no one but me to speak my mother’s Talking Stick. But I hope that was enough.

In Memory of Betty Jean Snoddy Gregory
1930 -2010

Saving Things For Good

My mother died in November, 2010. Following her passing, it took months — quite literally months — for my Dad and I to go through all her hoarded possessions and decide what to do with them.

One of the last things we sorted through was her china cabinet. The shelves were packed with her best china — lovely, thin, translucent white dishes with gold rims. There was expensive glassware, too,  and silver and crystal salt shakers, many of them.  Sadly, although unbroken, everything was in dreadful condition.  Each piece was covered with a pasty, thick film comprised of yellowed nicotine residue and grey dust.  The two prettiest salt shakers, exquisite cut crystal from the former country of Czechoslovakia,  were capped by ruined lids, the silver badly corroded because the seasonings put into them years before had never been removed. Nothing, not one of these lovely pieces of china or crystal, had been used in over twenty years.  They hadn’t even been visible, hidden behind the closed doors of cabinets, slowly gathering dust and grime.

For hours I carefully washed each piece, using a heavy mixture of nose-and-eye searing ammonia blended into scalding water; it was the only way to remove the thick film. Then I rinsed them multiple times and dried them gently until they shone once more, and took the dishes home with me.

A few mornings later, as I prepared my breakfast, serving myself on the pretty white-and-gold china, salting my eggs from the glistening Czechoslovakian crystal shakers, (newly capped with replacement lids that I’d hunted down at a flea market), it struck me forcibly that my mother had lived with these beautiful things all her life, and never enjoyed them.  It wasn’t just that they weren’t used — they weren’t enjoyed.   She took no pleasure in them; she merely owned them. They weren’t cherished, but accumulated.  They weren’t treasures, maintained and conserved; they were merely possessions.

A dear friend told me of a proverb she’d one heard, from another country, another age: that when something precious breaks, like a piece of valued china or a crystal cup, it is taking upon itself the harm that would otherwise have come to a loved one.  Therefore, when some precious possession shatters, one should rejoice, for now a loved one is safe.  In consequence, there is no point in packing precious things away or refusing to use them, for if they are destroyed, they have served even a greater purpose than the sheer pleasure of appreciating them.

So I use my mother’s fine china every day, and salt my food using her crystal shakers from a vanished country. Most of her plates are chipped now, touched with the “chigger bites” that indicate long use, their gold rims fading. Many have been broken. And often, too, I now use my own personal fine china and lovely pink Depression glass teacups — admiring them, holding them before my eyes and drinking in their beauty with my tea — taking pleasure in them, because no matter how precious they may be, they are valuable only if they are appreciated.  And if, as sometimes happens, one shatters and breaks, then I rejoice, knowing that my loved ones, my true treasures, have been kept safe from harm.

Hoard nothing.  Treasure everything.  And save nothing “for good”, for our good is right now.

My Kindness Journal

I’ve recently begun keeping what I term a “Kindness Journal”. This isn’t a list of kind or thoughtful things I do for others (although, as a caretaker personality, that list would certainly fill a page or two).  No, this is a journal about kind things I do for myself.

Finding fault with myself has been almost an hourly pastime since I was an adolescent. Sometimes this is a helpful trait, sparking new levels of maturity. You weren’t as supportive as you could have been, the Critic in My Mind tells me.  You should not have said that. You should have done this; not have done that.  Was that really necessary? Did you actually listen to your own tone of voice? You were thoughtless and you need to apologize.

When I’m in a rational frame of mind, these self-criticisms are benign and constructive. Questioning my motives and behavior drives me to at least try to improve myself.

The Constructive Critic also reminds me that we most dislike in others the same behaviors that we despise in ourselves. Although I would challenge that concept on the basis of its being a generality, I accept that it’s often true.  The Constructive Critic has become adept at confronting me when I am irritated or furious over something that another person has said or done. Am I actually upset, I ask myself, only because I make similar remarks? Behave in the same manner?  Isn’t that really why I’m angry?  Again, when it comes to moments like these, the Constructive Critic is a genuinely helpful personality quirk.  Uncomfortable, but helpful.

But for me (and I suppose for a lot of people), the Constructive Critic all too often descends into a cruel and vicious faultfinder; a tyrant who sits in judgment from a high throne of hypercritical conviction. Speaking in the voices of actual detractors and censors from my past, the narrator which I term the Nazi Critic descends into bullying and cruelty. You were always plain; now you’re just plain ugly, the Nazi Critic declaims. Stupid bitch; why did you do that? No wonder no one ever loved you—I mean, who could?!

It’s hard to turn off the Nazi Critic in its evil mode of psychological warfare. My emotions spiral downward with each fresh self-administered slap on the ego.  I think of this as the emotional equivalent of a medieval penitent scourging herself across the shoulders with a cat o’ nine tails. Just as the clawed whip tore into flesh, so the Nazi Critic’s malicious words rip apart my self-worth and confidence, strewing them like the dead across the battlefield of my own soul.  The results of this clash soon become physically visible upon my face, in my bearing.

And so to combat the occasional incursions of the Nazi Critic, I’ve begun my Kindness Journal. Each evening I list a few things (sometimes very few) that I’ve done to simply be nice to myself.  Often it’s something physical: a good, long walk, or a relaxing bath with lavender salts instead of a hurried shower.  Occasionally it’s doing something that I find truly difficult, but rewarding, such as saying “No” to a request that I really don’t want to fulfill, all the while reminding myself that it’s better to refuse a request than to agree and nourish resentment.  Sometimes kindness to myself means that I must state plainly but calmly that I disagree with another’s viewpoint—something which I find difficult and scary.  Rarely, it’s standing up for myself, as in those instances when I have to remind someone that they owe me money and I expect repayment.  Those and many other things are now entries in my Kindness Journal.

I realize now that I have spent years of my life when I was at my lowest ebb, hoping and wishing that someone, anyone, would be kind to me, all the while believing the brutal words of the Nazi Critic—my own mind, twisted and tormented, telling me in the voices of cruel people from my past that I am worthless and ugly and useless and uneducated, undeserving of anyone’s attention or affection or courtesy or kindness.

So it is time, at last, to be kind to myself, gentle with myself, courteous toward myself.

It isn’t always easy. But perhaps by writing a few words every day in my Kindness Journal, I can lay the Nazi Critic to rest at last.