Lessons Learned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Yes, it still makes me mad.)

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

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

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

Happy first day of preschool, sweet Morrigan Lynn!

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

Hiding in Jane Austen

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

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

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

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

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

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

The worse the world becomes, the more I hide.

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

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

And it comforts me.

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

Everything Ends, and So Will This Tea Party

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

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

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

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

Everything ends, and so would this tea party.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A History of Queen Anne’s Lace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love Travels Backward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love travelled backward in time to mend my broken heart.

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

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

Vintage Treasure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Many Faces of Hate

I’d originally planned a different post for today. But in honor of the innocent victims of the Uvalde mass shooting, I chose to rerun this post from June 24, 2020. It may not seem apropos at first, but please just keep reading

While a young woman, I had a coworker—let’s call her Angela–who endured troubling memories of her paternal grandmother. At the time I knew Angela, I’d just begun re-establishing a close relationship with my own paternal grandmother; years of family squabbles had kept us apart. So I was shocked to hear of the treatment this likeable woman had received from her grandmother.

Angela explained that Grandmother absolutely despised Angela’s mother—had hated her from the very day Mom and Dad began dating. It’s been 40-odd years since our conversation, but I still recall the troubled expression on Angela’s face as she told me that her mother and father tried countless times to heal the sorry situation. Sadly, nothing had ever worked.

But Grandmother’s hatred extended to, when they arrived, the children of the marriage. She never put aside her contempt for her daughter-in-law for the sake of her grandchildren, who were, after all, her son’s children. No, in ways both overt and subtle, Grandmother made certain that those youngsters knew that they did not measure up to her other grandchildren. Her favored grandchildren were not “contaminated” by a birth relationship to the despised daughter-in-law.

Angela recounted Mean Grandmother’s worst insult, which centered on the kids’ school photos. One wall of Grandmother’s house displayed her grandchildren’s school pictures. But the photos of Angela and her siblings were not flaunted among the rest. Instead, they were hung in the bathroom, facing the toilet.

Hearing the ache and indignation in Angela’s voice as she described this stinging memory, I felt heartsick on her behalf. To be the victim of such spite and cruelty from a person who should have loved her unconditionally—well, it stunned me.

The memory of that conversation has never left me. Many times after our discussion I daydreamed, inventing scenarios to bring resolution and revenge to my coworker’s bitter experience: Of all the Grandmother’s children, only the marriage of her son and despised daughter-in-law thrived. The marriages of all her other children failed, and bitter divorces meant that she was separated from her favorite grandchildren. Or: Mean Grandmother lived out her final days quite alone and helpless in a substandard nursing home, visited by no one except the despised daughter-in-law. Or, best of all: Those other, favored grandkids all grew up to be ungrateful little wastrels who scammed Grandmother for money, became drug addicts and alcoholics, and were jailed for multiple crimes. Meanwhile, Angela and her siblings lived quietly successful, happy lives, but obviously never bothered with the Mean Grandmother who had treated them so badly.

That’s not the way life works, of course. Mean Grandmother probably wound down her life warmly surrounded by the love and attention of the children, in-laws and grandkids she preferred, smugly self-satisfied with her contemptible treatment of her reviled daughter-in-law and unloved grandchildren.

Hatred can wear so many faces! It can be disguised as the face of a grandparent or an in-law; someone who should be both loving and beloved, but is instead malevolent. It can wear the face of an abusive spouse or parent, or even a job supervisor. It can focus on skin color, or ethnic origin. It can manifest as religious or even generational intolerance. It can be masked in passive aggression, calling itself teasing when it is in fact intentional torment and insults.

Or it can wear the face of a total stranger.

This last really struck me, and is the reason I recalled my former coworker’s sad little tale, as I sat one recent morning watching a video examining the causes and motives behind the many mass shootings of recent times. Unlike the malicious Grandmother, these cases so often involve total strangers who go on a rampage, wounding and murdering innocents with whom they have absolutely no connection. Is it easier, I wondered, to do so? To harm those with whom a person has absolutely no relationship? To wear the mask of a stranger, and see, not other human beings with lives and loves of their own, but merely unimportant specks on the rim of the mask’s limited vision? Is exterminating unknown strangers guilt-free?

Or does it all—murdering strangers or murdering the spirit of those who should be loved ones—come with consequence?

I have no answers. I only know that I clicked off that video, and sat, remembering Angela’s long-lasting emotional wounds. Then I sighed and selected some financial work I needed to do on my computer. But as I tapped the mouse, I noticed in surprise that my face was wet, and that tears had splashed onto my keyboard.

I had not even realized that I was crying.

Hard as it is to believe sometimes, there are also faces of kindness in this world. If you want to believe in that, please read the true story of “The Miracle on Route 16”. You may locate it by scrolling to the Archives, below. It was published on November 4, 2017.

Rude Words!

Our words have power.  Guard well what we say.

When I was a child, we were constantly instructed in the adage, “If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.”

Now, to be quite honest, absolutely no one followed this sage advice (or, if they did, they were considered to be an unbearable prig!)  We all said, and thought, plenty of not-nice things, and not a few really malicious, cruel and vicious things.  But we were careful about whom we said them to, usually saving our nastiest remarks for a limited circle of like-thinking friends.  It was rare that any of these companions would admonish someone for cruel statements, and even then, the criticism was pallid:  “That’s not nice!”, usually followed by a giggle or occasionally the comment, “But true!”

Nevertheless, it wasn’t really a bad bit of life advice, that learning to keep spiteful or mean observations either in the privacy of one’s own mind or at least among a narrow group of people.  Mannerly behavior, however hypocritical, ruled; courtesy was valued, and those who failed to keep even a modicum of a civil tongue in their heads were reviled as malicious and disgusting, and widely avoided. One did not want the taint of their bad behavior to rub off on one’s own reputation, any more than one wanted to become a target of their vicious contempt.

Not so now, when every bit of mind garbage is spewed out to the entire populace, into every corner of the world, via a keyboard or voice-to-text, accumulating Likes from equally vile-minded strangers.  The nastier one can be, it seems, the more judgmental, rude, cruel, or despicable, the better.  Abhorrent speech is no longer scorned as evidence of a small-minded person, or of someone with a size 12 ego and a size 2 soul.  Maliciousness is encouraged as funny or entertaining. Compassion, civility, empathy, kindness, courtesy, caring…those have become the calling cards of the truly old-fashioned—traits that are despised, rather than emulated.

As a society, it appears, we have sunk to the lowest common denominator, urged on by the sick cohesion of social media and even by vulgar and vicious national leaders. And that saddens me.  It breaks my heart.

Yet it was not that long ago (and in a possibly mythic era) that the concept of chivalry was touted.  Ballads were sung about such exemplary behavior; legends were written and repeated.  And for all the flaws inherent within the chivalric code (and there were many), there was still something to be said for many of those ideals: To live with loyalty and honor.  To protect the weak and defenseless.  To fight for the welfare of all.  To speak the truth at all times.  To avoid meanness and deceit.  To respect and honor women.  Chivalry, though, was merely a European concept.  Other cultures worldwide taught similar values to their young: Courage. Respect for and appreciation of the wisdom of one’s elders.  Courtesy. Honor. Compassion. Charity. Deportment.   And while it is true that not one culture, anywhere, at any time in the history of human civilization, can claim that all its members lived their lives in coherence with those teachings, the important factor is that such concepts were imparted.  The very teaching of these ideals inculcated conscience in the students.  It gave them a map, a pathway to life establishing consideration for others as a foundation.

Perhaps, then, that is the main factor missing in today’s society.  The trappings of courtesy, of manners; the slightly hypocritical keeping of impertinent thoughts to oneself, that were once a stable groundwork for behavior that demonstrated consideration for the feelings and needs of others—those concepts are no longer taught.  Rarely do individuals learn a foundation for kindness, or establish personal integrity.

Words, some say, are in and of themselves a form of energy.  To speak a word aloud; to type it into a forum; to write it, as I write these essays–to disseminate any word, in any way, is to give an energetic life to that word.  When we speak, write, type, or promulgate vile and cruel and vicious, or untrue, unkind or uncivil words, we contribute to the jangling dissonance of negativity, the misunderstanding and malice that seem to hover constantly over current social interaction.

But when we make a concerted effort to remove hateful speech from our personal lexicons; when we intentionally infuse our words with benevolence and consideration, with gentleness, courtesy and understanding, we go more than halfway toward meeting others with a handclasp acknowledging our shared humanity.

And if we genuinely cannot say, speak, write or type anything good or kind or caring, we can always choose to, yes, say nothing at all.

If you found something to like in this essay, you might also appreciate the post, “The Speech of Angels”, which you locate by scrolling below to the Archives.  It was published October 4, 2017.  And, as always, please feel free to republish this blog, with attribution.

It’s All Just Stuff (Mary’s Teacups)

I thought about Mary’s teacups continually as I cleared out my father’s home following his death.

My late mother-in-law, Mary Chifos, had the most marvelous set of teacups. Each of the six cups displayed a single flower on both saucer and cup exterior, as well as within the teacup itself. But the loveliest thing about each of these teacups was that cup and saucer were each fashioned to resemble the flower displayed. The daffodil cup was formed into the trumpet of the flower, with the saucer its crown; the rose cup and saucer were gently sculpted into the shape of petals.

Mary, who loved to give dinner parties, always served after-dinner coffee in those cups. I usually chose the rose teacup for my beverage, appreciating my coffee even more when served in her beautiful china.

But Mary became ill with the utter devastation that is Alzheimer’s disease, and I, by then divorced from her son, had no say in her care. Her lovely little apartment was abandoned, along with most of her things. I never knew what became of her exquisite tea set—the cups that should have been left, if not to me, then to my daughter, Mary’s only grandchild.

I thought about those teacups continually when, throughout the first months of 2022, I endured the difficult process of clearing out my father’s home after his death. Dad was not precisely a hoarder, but disposing of 58 years worth of accumulated household goods and personal possessions is, nevertheless, a substantial effort. It’s a recipe stirred together of packing to move an entire household, blended with nostalgia, and spiced with pinches of grief, disbelief, and sometimes even wrath. Every possible bit of disorder and disorganization is on high display, infuriating to the nth degree (“Dad! For the love of God and little green apples, why did you save EVERY checkbook register from 1964 onward? Why were none of your personal papers filed, so that we could locate the information we need?!”)

There were many things that had been undoubtedly precious to my Dad, but meant nothing to us, his survivors, as well as numerous items that were just the opposite. Not being Roman Catholic, I cared nothing for the silver-and-crystal rosary I discovered in his bedside table, and gifted it to a devout family friend. But I was delighted to have a set of inexpensive turquoise water glasses that he didn’t even use, but which matched my tableware.

I suppose, in the end, that’s what it all comes down to: not the financial value of a possession, but whether it is valued, and by whom. Mary cherished her teacups, and I, had they been given to me, would have done so, also. But the people who inherited them cared nothing for the set. I suppose they were dispersed to a charity or resale shop.

Mary Ellen Set

I, meanwhile, have spent years searching for and collecting similar cups, never finding the precise teacups that were Mary’s, yet reassembling a comparable set in her memory and honor; treasuring them, as she did hers.

But the experience of losing items I would have prized, coupled with that of sifting through nearly 60 years’ worth of my father’s accumulated detritus, has caused me to look at my own home and possessions with a very different eye, and to remember my grandmother’s remarks after having to clean out the home of her three sisters when the last of them passed away. Determined that no one would ever have to endure what she had done in emptying that house, Grandma began to organize her personal property. She collected music boxes; now she went through the entire collection and wrote on the underside of each the name of the person who had given it to her, so that upon her death each could be returned to the giver. Grandma cleaned out paperwork and told trusted people (and, sadly, in one case, someone who could not be trusted) where her few valuable possessions were hidden.

Now I, taking a leaf from my Grandmother’s book, and remembering the all-too-recent experience of cleaning out my father’s home and property, have begun the arduous process of organizing and clearing my own personal possessions. Tons of paperwork has already been shredded, and books sent to a charity shop. A huge box of photos awaits examination, to be pared down to the most precious few that might mean something to my survivors. Notes have been appended to a few books, explaining why they meant something to me, or whether they might have actual monetary value. Information that my survivors might need has been organized and filed.

This will be, I realize, a long, slow process, and one that requires constant upkeep: to make my home orderly for those who will, once I am gone, have to sift through everything I owned. And, with the exception of (I hope) my written works, and no matter what I annotate or explain, I know that they will decide to keep only what is truly meaningful to them, personally.

For now I truly understand that, in the end, no “thing” has importance unless it is appreciated and cherished. In the final estimation, it’s all just stuff.

If you found something you liked in this post, then please consider scrolling to the Archives at the bottom of this page, and reading “A Memory Walk” from September 11, 2019. And, as always, feel free to re-post this blog, with attribution, elsewhere.

Feet of Clay

All of us are flawed.

The term ‘feet of clay’ is derived from a troubling dream experienced by the King Nebuchadnezzar, in which he saw an awe-inspiring statue. As recounted in the biblical book of Daniel, the statue’s head was made of gold, while its arms and chest were composed of silver. Its lower torso and thighs were composed of bronze and its calves of Iron. Finally, the feet of the statue were made of a mix of iron and clay. It was this clay that was the undoing of the statue, making it so unstable that, when struck by a stone, the entire sculpture collapsed, all its components fragmenting, until they were blown away like chaff on the wind.

The term feet of clay has come to mean a character flaw or personal weakness in those we consider to be giants among humankind; the great and the mighty; guides and mentors. But the simple truth is that all of us are flawed. We all have feet of clay.

The American author Ambrose Bierce, once defined a saint as “A dead sinner revised and edited”. And so are our heroines, our heroes, our leaders; all those supposedly superior beings. They are all “revised and edited”.

Winston Churchill brilliantly led Britain through World War II. But he openly despised Muslims. Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, was a slave owner, as was George Washington. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony partnered with white supremacists in their struggle to obtain the vote for women. Abraham Lincoln’s administration implemented appalling policies toward Native Americans. Both John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., had extramarital affairs. Mother Teresa’s Kalighat Home for the Dying provided little to no pain management or proper hygiene, so that people suffered needlessly—suffering which she praised.

Peel back the layers on the face of every acclaimed human being, and you will find the shocking reality lurking just beneath the fiction. Often, it is not very pretty; frequently, it is downright ugly.

They were, they are, just like you and me.

There are no saints. Yet saints we demand. We beg for an image, a template, which we can emulate, but then cast the pattern angrily aside when we discover that it is made of shreddable paper rather than polished silver. We forget that a pattern is just that—a design, an outline, an example—rather than a requisite. We fail to understand that we can emulate the best of what we see in others, while forgiving their flaws.

And we also do not live within their minds. Did Lincoln or Jefferson or Washington, in the privacy of their own thoughts, deplore the disparity of their publicly-stated views with their personal actions? Did each question his own motivation or bias and belief? How did JFK and MLK reconcile their high-flown aspirations with the infidelity that caused their spouses so much pain? If our guides and gurus had feet of clay, did they also have psyches cringing from their own contradictions? Did they suffer doubt, or confusion, or shame?

In most cases, we will never know. Rarely are we allowed a glimpse into the workings of another’s mind, and when we do achieve such observation, it is incomplete. Mother Teresa, for instance, never retracted any of her statements about the nobility suffering, or the behavior that led her treat the pain of cancer patients with nothing more than aspirin. Yet in her private diaries she expressed spiritual desolation and a complete disconnect from God. Did she ever link her own spiritual emptiness to her belief in the nobility of pain or her personal responsibility for unnecessary suffering?

Jesus, it is recorded, cleansed the Temple of the money changers: driving them out with a scourge, knocking over tables and kicking over chairs, shouting condemnation. His rage, I was always taught, was justified, because he was acting on behalf of virtue; driving out evil. Even in childhood, I laughed at that claim. I’d seen a lot of rage in my family, and I recognized it. However praise-worthy his motivations, he just got mad. Just plain angry and disgusted; simply raging mad.

He lost his temper.

He walked on feet of clay.

When he was done—when the sheep and oxen had stampeded out, the pigeons flown away—when the money-changers had fled, and their cash boxes been poured out—did he, his chest heaving, look around and say to himself, “I should have done this differently. This was inexcusable behavior. How can people trust me if I lose my temper this way? Will they ever forgive me?”

Those who recorded his history, if not forgiving him, did at least excuse Christ for his out of control behavior. Perhaps in that we can find our answer: If we cannot forgive our guides and mentors who have walked, just as we do, on feet of clay, we can at least acknowledge their humanity, and our common failings, and grant them our pardon and excuse.

Enjoyed this essay? Then you might also like “Tough Love for the Prodigal Son”, which you can locate in the Archives dated March 30, 2018.