I Want to Know the End of My Story

Shortly after my brush with cancer, the mother of one of my daughter’s oldest friends passed away, dying in her sleep. Marilyn had gone through surgery a few months earlier, but was recovering, so her unexpected death was shocking to everyone–not in the least to me, for she was seven years younger than I.

That event, combined with my own experience of a potentially terminal illness, has left an indelible impression on me.

I’ve never been one of those people who go blithely through adult life, never once considering the reality of their own mortality. As a new mother, one of my first actions was to write a will and name both a  guardian and trustee for my child, should she lose both her father and me.  As the newly-divorced mother of a young teenager, purchasing a new car, I was easily persuaded to add the extra few dollars to my monthly payment for insurance that would pay off the car if I died, reducing any debt that might be left to my daughter. Throughout my working years, for much the same reason, I carried all the additional life insurance my employer offered,  because I might die at any time, and my child would need the money.

Shortly after retiring, having researched the laws concerning the subject in the state where I live, I purchased an urn for my own ashes, finding a lovely, large lidded vase at (of all places) a flea market. Although I’ve made it clear to all and sundry that I’d prefer my ashes be scattered, I’d seen the “temporary urn” provided for  my mother’s cremation, and was appalled; it looked like a Hershey’s cocoa box!  One way or another, I decided, I was going out in style. Still, I wasn’t about to have my family paying the inflated prices of a mortuary urn. And so my crackle-glazed, bird of paradise-decorated ceramic vase reposes on my closet shelf, carefully marked as to its future use.

And then there was the wracking asthma attack in the middle of the night that had, just a few months prior to my cancer diagnosis, come close to taking me across the Veil. The realization that night that, “I might not make it out of this one!” had dismayed but not shocked me; nor did the tumble down my stairwell a few months later, which might have had such terrible results.

However much I may want to stick around for awhile yet, I am completely comfortable with the knowledge of my own mortality.

But, as I said in a previous post (I Want to Know the End of the Story, 07/06/18), I do want to know.  I want to know the end of my story.

I am the person who often flips to the final pages of my mystery novel to read the dénouement.   I can’t stand waiting to see if I’ve actually fingered the murderer.  During Downtown Abbey’s first run, I knew about the upcoming death of character Matthew because I’d sneakily read a British website describing the episode long before the show aired in America. I always want to know the end of the story.

I once attended a lecture by a Buddhist monk who explained that we should choose the manner of our going—to meditate upon it, and to announce our choice to the universe. I found this an interesting concept, and gave it a good deal of thought, but made no decision.  Later, a friend explained that she plans to die in her sleep when she is age 85.  I admired her resolution, but I don’t want to give myself an expiration date; the Divine might have plans for me beyond what I consider a reasonable life span.

But I am incredibly well-organized and orderly, and it bothers me that so much of life, and death, is not. I do not like chaos.  I don’t like surprises.  I dislike bedlam and confusion.

And so I am finally meditating upon the manner of my own passing, as that Buddhist monk once taught that we should do. I won’t, as my friend has done, accord myself an expiration date. But if that monk was right, and it is possible, then I want to decide what my going will someday be.

After all, as I have said once before: I want to know the end of my own story.

 

Being THAT Person

We all know one: the person who is incredibly thin-skinned. Whose feelings brim close to the surface and who is constantly, easily hurt. Who almost seeks out reasons for offense.

And, of course, at one point or another during our lives, many (most?) of us have been that person.

Thoughts of this behavior hovered in my mind recently when the Universe seemed to have declared a “pick on Beckett” day. One friend, not at all meaning to be unkind (and specifically saying so), pointed out a physical flaw that was likely to worsen due to a minor medical problem I was experiencing. While making this point only with the intention of providing helpful advice, it was, nevertheless, said in front of others, and so embarrassed me slightly.  I said nothing, allowing the feeling to slide off, but it arose like a buried demon and came back to haunt me when I woke in the middle of the night, hovering before me and forcing me to deal with the unpleasant emotions evoked by my friend’s comment.

Later that same day, another acquaintance used a pair of topics from this very blog to press a point in a very negative manner. Once again, the words were said in front of others; this time, I was both startled and taken aback, hardly knowing how to respond. And, once more, I let those feelings slide off, telling myself sternly that no harm was actually intended, and saying nothing. But that memory, coupled with the other incident, haunted me in wakeful moments in the small hours of the night, robbing me of sleep and causing self-doubt and unhappiness.

In the morning, I took time to fully consider my reaction, shining the light of day into my wounded places. Was I really reacting just to my friends’ words, I wondered?  Or was I actually responding to past events of intentional bullying–situations that wrought havoc in my life and left emotional scars. Should I have spoken up at the time to each of these people? By keeping silent, was I behaving masochistically? Would the memory of these events cause difficulty in my future relationships with these friends, resentment casting a pall over our interactions? Was I actually even doing each of my acquaintances no favor by failing to point out that they had distressed me? For if they did not realize they had unintentionally offended, I reasoned, they might easily do this again, to someone else—someone perhaps less prepared to deal with the resultant emotional turmoil.

Or (and this was the hardest thing to consider) was I simply being too thin-skinned, seeking out reason to feel hurt feelings; seeking out cause for offense?

My thoughts ping-ponged in this manner for the better part of a day, until I finally decided that I had wasted enough valuable time thinking through a very minor set of events. In the end, I decided, because no offense had been intended—in the first case, quite the opposite, in fact—I needed to take no offense. To do otherwise would place me in the category of being that person: the one who is always offended, always upset, always drowning in a welter of hurt feelings, always affronted and angry and miserable.

That person, I realized—the hypersensitive, prickly, overly-emotional, constantly aching bundle of nerve endings, has one trait that I shared and was quickly spiraling into as I overthought the events I’d just experienced: an over-inflated sense of self-importance. A unreasonable belief that everyone around me should “just know” what might upset me, and therefore either avoid such circumstances entirely, or, having stumbled into them, immediately apologize.

I am not that important.

Neither are you.

Those around us—friends, acquaintances, coworkers, family members, neighbors—will sometimes, inevitably, inadvertently, hurt our feelings. But if these events are not malicious, nor continual and pervasive—not slyly abusive, nor subtlely cruel– then we, adults all, need to relinquish our over-inflated sense of self importance and just get over it. Shrug. Consider the source. Let it roll off. Save our high dudgeon for the really critical problems of relationships. But, most importantly, we must be certain of our genuine selves: certain of the person who we each are at our core and center, so that the thoughtless remarks of others have no ability to cast a pall over our spirit.

That sure self-knowledge is, after all, the ability that comprises a true sense of self worth: the sure center of our spirit; the Self that can never be harmed by the thoughtless, careless words or behavior of another.

Laughter in the Midst of Grief

Few people understood humor better than Mark Twain, who is said to have remarked, “The source of all humor is not laughter, but sorrow.”

I know that to be true.

Thinking on his quote, I recall a long, long day spent with friends helping one of our number pack her possessions for a cross-country move. Late afternoon found two of us, tired to the bone, but working steadily away in the kitchen.  We both sat on the floor, wrapping breakable items and putting them into boxes.  We had finished kitchenware from nearly all the drawers and cabinets when one further drawer, suddenly visible from our position on the linoleum, caught my friend’s eye.  As I was closest, she asked me to see what we had missed.  I rose to my knees to open the drawer, but it was stuck.  I tugged a bit, and then a bit more, and finally gave one walloping giant yank to the handle…which came right off in my hand, sending me tumbling backwards to the floor.

It was a false drawer.

I lay there on the floor, waving the broken handle above me, completely helpless with laughter, my bones seeming to have dissolved to jellyfish, while my partner in crime laughed until tears streaked down her face. After several minutes of hilarity, we finally composed ourselves and went on a secret mission to hunt down some glue and put the handle back in place—a undertaking that induced another round of stealthy, hysterical laughter.

Not exactly sorrow, that event, but certainly sheer slapstick comedy, accompanied by utter, laugh-until-you-ache hysterics. Later, driving home from that tiring day, I recalled a Dick Van Dyke routine about slapstick comedy, in which he proclaimed such base humor not to be amusing even as he stumbled about, tripping and smashing fingers and generally pretending clumsiness while the audience howled with laughter.  Why, I  wondered, was it funny, clowning about that way?  But it was, just as my misadventure with the drawer handle had been comical.

And then there was the incident with the mailbox post…  My Evil Neighbor (about whom the less said the better) was at that time the president of our condo owners association.  So when my mailbox post rotted one summer and crashed to the ground, I propped it up as best I could with bricks and waited for the association, whose responsibility it was, to make repairs.  The darned thing was so wobbly that it was only with extreme caution that I could ease it open each afternoon to retrieve my mail, fearful that it would topple over once more.  This situation went on for 18 months, as I grew increasingly irritated.  Then, late one afternoon, as I was weeding the flowerbed that surrounded the mailboxes, I reached about to lever my aging hips up from the ground, and grabbed at Evil Neighbor’s own mailbox post to balance myself.

It went crashing to the ground.

I’ve often wished I had a video of my own face at that moment! I swiftly scanned the area and saw no one watching—no cars going by in the street, no faces at windows—so I scurried hastily into my garage, hopped in the car, and got the hell outta Dodge!  I drove to my daughter’s home, wheezing with laughter, and I told her and my son-in-law the whole sorry tale, all to the accompaniment of gales of laughter.  (And, yes, both mailbox posts were repaired shortly thereafter.)

I’ve noticed that funerals and wakes are also bastions of hilarity. I experienced this for the first time when I was about 11 years old, and my grandfather died.  My Aunt Diana gathered several of us children around her in a corner of the room far from the casket, and began to tell us hilarious true stories.  Time has dimmed my memories of the tales she told us that evening; I don’t know if they were stories of my PopPop or just funny events from her own life.  What I do recall clearly, though, is the comfort  and protection that laughter provided us children as we dealt with incredible sorrow. I remember, too, the glares of disgust from our more staid and sedate relatives.  Obviously, Diana’s efforts to provide us children and herself a path out of pain were not appreciated by all. But I have thought many times since on what a kindness she did us, gifting us with laughter in the midst of grief.

I don’t really remember too many comical misadventures in my own life, aside from the incidents of the fake drawer and the mailbox post…oh, yes, and the Great Paint Can Head Splash, which is probably best saved for another blog post. Yet we rarely see ourselves as other see us. So I hope that at my own memorial service someday, there will be hilarious, comical tales told.  I hope people will smile, chuckle, and giggle at memories of my silliest moments.  For while the ancient Egyptians believed that, without a name, our soul could not survive,  I believe it cannot only be our name, for everything that we truly are resides in the glorious laughter limning others’ memories of us.

The Word of Your Year

(Note: This post originally appeared on December 31, 2017, under the title “Word of the Year”.  An afterword follows this re-posting.)

I stopped making New Year’s resolutions well over a decade ago. 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 just to prove to myself that I am a failure.  I don’t set goals anymore, either.)

For a long time prior to that decision, I’d followed Robert Fulghum’s sterling advice: On New Year’s day, I sat down and wrote a list of every good thing I’d done in the previous year, backdated it, and called it my resolutions. This was eminently satisfying for a number of years, even though I knew I was sort of missing the whole “resolution thing” point.

So, casting about for some way to set myself some type of goal-yet-not-a-goal, I was struck by an idea: I could still forego a resolution, yet choose something—some character-building, life changing something, to focus on during the coming year.  Not a goal, I decided; a focus.  With that in mind, what if I chose just one word, one meaningful word, and attempted to concentrate on it throughout the coming year?  Not to accomplish it—simply keep it at the forefront of my mind, and make it active in my life.  One word was so little.  Surely I could do that much.

I liked the concept. One word, one focus, seemed like a challenge I could meet.  The trick, I realized, would be finding a way to make myself remember to focus on that word— to keep adding it to my life.  (Well, that, and picking my word in the first place.)

Amazingly, having come up with the concept, I found that my answers came easily.  I’d recently discovered that a lack of assertiveness had caused me a number of problems; assertiveness, then, seemed like a very good first focus word.  But how to keep it at the forefront of my mind?  How not to forget, not just the word itself, but the need to concentrate upon my focus word?  Ha!  That was going to be the real challenge of my not-resolution.

During that first year, I found that tricking myself into remembering my focus word was the best way to go. I took post-its and scraps of note paper and proceeded to hide them throughout my home in places where I knew I would not find them to easily, yet was sure to look.  Since I wasn’t about to turn the heavy mattress on the bed more than once a year, one of the notes emblazoned with “My Focus This Year Is Assertiveness” 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).  And, yes, one note, slipped into a plastic bag, went into the bottom of the vegetable bin in the frig!

And, amazingly, it worked. I came across those notes again and again throughout that first year and was forced to remember that I was supposed to be keeping my attention on becoming more assertive.  And while I cannot now say that it changed my life, I can say with certainty that it made a difference.  By the end of the year, I knew that I still had a very long way to go on learning to be assertive, but I was no longer quite the wimp I’d been twelve months earlier, either.

I’ve used many Focus Words in the intervening years, and I’ve learned to choose them carefully. The Universe, I’ve discovered, 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 !

But, defiant in the face of overreaching myself, the focus word I chose for 2017 was Magnificent.

And it was.

Afterword: In 2018, the Word I chose was “Kindness”.  I learned, quite amazingly, that kindness is not just something we extend to others, but also that we must, humbly and with gratitude,  receive.  It is also something we must extend to ourselves.  I learned, too, that though I may behave in a kindly manner to another, requiring of myself that I treat them with courtesy and consideration, I’m often shamed to admit that true kindness from within my heart is absent.  I will carry this knowledge with me into another year, and hope to create and extend more true loving kindness to all.

 I’d love to have you share in the Comments what you choose as your Word of the Year for the upcoming change of the calendar.

 

Reindeer and Bullies

Since my earliest childhood, I have hated the Christmas song, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”.

I associate my distaste for the carol with the fact that I am now and always have been sensitive to the effects of bullying. Bullying was a culturally accepted child-rearing and social practice during my childhood, and, while still extremely common (and if you doubt that, just glance at the comments bandied about at the end of news stories!), is slowly being recognized as the abuse that it is. Nevertheless, when I was a child, no one, neither other children nor adults, thought a thing of verbal bullying.  Parents who did not hesitate to label their own children “dumbass”, “blockhead”, “idiot” or far worse things paid lip service to the ideal that “name calling is not nice”. Those same verbally abusive parents scolded their children when the kids mirrored adult behavior and mocked their playmates. This dichotomy probably resulted in many a psychologically screwed-up adult.

Perhaps it was because I was labeled “skinny” by adults that I felt such a distaste for verbal bullying. (Ah, to have that problem now!)    In the late 1950s, when my adult relatives and my parents’ friends felt perfectly comfortable discussing my physical defects, thoughtlessly and loudly, right in front of me, it was not considered a good thing to be “skinny”.  Like Anne of Green Gables, I had “not a pick on my bones”, and was consequently humiliated in a world of plump, dimpled girls.

But on to Rudolph. I encountered the carol in my first-grade classroom, and I to this day I remember my distress on hearing the lyrics sung so cheerfully by Miss Markey, my teacher.  “All of the other reindeer/used to laugh and call him names…”  The shock I felt at hearing those words echoed right to my bones, but I (always the well-behaved little student) bit my tongue.  At home, I’d been known to occasionally use a word or phrase picked up from my adult male relatives, and, had I been a few years older, I might not have restrained myself.  I’d have burst out with my Pop-Pop’s well known phrase, “The hell you say!”

Uh…if we laughed and called someone names on the school playground, we got at least a token scolding.  So exactly why were we singing about it?

Bewildered, I listened to the rest of the words of the song, feeling even more confused. Mind you, this was 1960.  Civil rights were but a glimmer in the eye of Dr. Martin Luther King, and racial prejudice, even in the nominally-northern state of Indiana, was rife.  But, due to early encounters (see the post of 06/01/2018, “Amosandra”), I, although fish-belly white, was personally familiar with racial prejudice.  And it seemed to me quite clear that  this was what the song was about. Rudolph’s nose was a different color. That made him fair game for exclusion and humiliation.  To reach the status of any other reindeer he had, in fact, to prove that he was better than they were–sort of like Jesse Owens winning the Olympics.

To me, a six-year-old child attempting to make sense of the lyrics, this song was not about his eventual triumph over humiliation and abuse…because the humiliation and abuse should never have happened at all in the first place. Why, my child-mind demanded to know, didn’t anyone protect poor Rudolph?  What was Santa thinking?!

It was a rotten song, a song that glorified rudeness and humiliation and prejudice, and I just didn’t like it. I didn’t like it at all.  After that, I mouthed the words, but I refused to sing along.

And in my heart, I’m still that astounded six-year-old, sitting in my classroom, shocked to my core about a song which laughingly portrays bullying and bias. To this day, as each holiday season rolls around, I refuse to watch the classic Claymation show, and I switch off the radio the minute “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” begins to play. My heart will always ache for poor Rudolph, bullied and shunned and rejected for nothing but a physical characteristic.  For me, that pathetic little Christmas carol will never be about Rudolph’s eventual triumph over adversity, for he should never, never ever, have had to prove himself in the first place.

Unpretentious Words

Awhile ago, I included a poem as part of one of these blog posts: Epitaph In An Elevator.  It was hardly an example of shining verse, being unsophisticated in its composition and stark in the emotion it presented through the medium of gossiping voices.  And yet that simple, naïve little poem received multiple views and likes by readers.

Since then, I’ve spent a good deal of time pondering why a work so basic and unpretentious “spoke” to so many people.

Considering this, I recalled a line from a Mary Stewart novel, Nine Coaches Waiting.  Ms. Stewart’s light mystery/romance novels, written at the end of the 20th century, were (and are) unappreciated gems; literary works of art, beautifully-researched, marvelously plotted, with vivid, memorable characters.  One of the things I recall most about her books, though, is that they often included quotes from classic poetry; lines that enhanced and augmented the story.  In the mystery Nine Coaches Waiting, the main character, recalling her late poet father, recollects and confirms the lessons she learned from him about poetry being “awfully good material to think with”.

Truer words were never spoken. Poetry—good poetry—brilliantly twists language to evoke emotion, and consequently reaches out to us in the hours when our feelings brim close to the surface. As I pointed out in the post Mathematics Makes a…What?!, the very best poetry tosses all the rules of grammar right out the window, superbly weaving words to fit feeling.  Our minds react with the abrupt recognition, “Yes!  Yes, that’s how I feel!” and we are immediately connected to something larger than ourselves; a universal knowledge, a link to all humanity.

So as I sat considering why it might be that my very un-brilliant and simple poem reached out slender fingers to touch so many readers, I finally realized that many of my own favorite poems—memorized, and recited to myself numerous times–are also incredibly simple. They are brief and straightforward, and two, especially, have an almost O’Henry-ish twist to the final lines.  (And I desperately hope they are not under copyright, for I intend to quote them here, trusting that their very age means these works are in the public domain, and apologizing if they are not.  A search for the terms, “How to determine if a poem is under copyright” produced few useable results, other than that poems published before 1923, which these certainly are, are likely to be public domain works).

Both poems, perhaps not surprisingly, concern the most difficult emotion of all: grief.

Lines By Taj Mahomed

This passion is but an ember
Of a Sun, of a Fire, long set;
I could not live and remember,
And so I love and forget.

You say, and the tone is fretful,
That my mourning days were few,
You call me over forgetful–
My God, if you only knew!

 Laurence Hope

and

She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:

A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
—Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!

William Wordsworth

Poetry is very good material to think with.  And for that reason, no matter how poorly you or anyone else believes your works to be, continue writing it–because any words that evoke human feeling connect us to a larger view of humanity.  And in today’s sad and hate-filled world, that cannot but help be a good thing.

A Crystal Inkwell Pendant

A few years ago I participated in a jewelry exchange. As the rarely-worn but lovely pieces were handed around a circle of women, I was particularly taken with one that no one else seemed to want.  A single golden feather protruded from a large round, faceted crystal with a small gold top.  It was, I realized, an inkwell—an old fashioned inkwell and quill pen.

I loved it instantly and chose it as my gift in the exchange. And then I took it home and never wore it.  For I told myself that this quill-and-inkwell (made of that crystal that no one can pronounce) was meant for a writer.  And I, despite my best of intentions, was not.

Oh, I’d tried to write—or rather, to become a published writer—a number of times. Six of my poems had been published (genuinely published—none of that, “Poetry Contest!” nonsense, where everyone submitting an entry “wins”, and then pays the publisher for the privilege of buying the overpriced compilation in which the poem appears).  No, I had received payment for the six poems printed by Unity’s publishing house in their monthly magazine, and even seen one of my works later reprinted, with permission, in a hardback compilation titled, Truth the Poet Sings.

But none of my other writing projects succeeded. I tried my hand at writing a romance novel, completing several chapters…but since I didn’t actually enjoy reading them myself, I just couldn’t bring myself to finish the book.  I wrote a book of letters to my daughter, recording the wonder of her first year of life.  Melon Patch Letters was read and enjoyed by several women, many of them strangers to me, but despite the approbation I received from my Beta Readers, no publisher was interested in the work.

I even compiled a full manuscript of poetry: poems that traced my healing from depression through spiritual growth. I still believe The Shuttle In My Hands to be excellent, but, then, of course, I would. Again, no publishing house found it worthwhile.

Life itself intervened in my aspirations, and I wrote very little until, years later, I completed my intensely personal manuscript, A Diary of My Divorce.  I never submitted it for publication, although, looking through it again after 19 years, I wonder if I should not have done that very thing.

Enter the world of blogging and e-publishing. As these venues initiated and expanded, I considered them…but life itself has a way of interfering  in the actual business of really living.  As much as I wanted to write, as a single mother, working hard to support the two of us and putting my daughter through college, it seemed that the only writing I found time for was helping my offspring and her friends research and edit school essays and compositions and term papers.

And then, at last, I retired. Promising myself—promising everyone I knew—that I would finally begin writing a blog, I found myself totally intimidated not just by the many blogging platforms, but by the paralyzing fear around the thought, “What if I start my blog, and no one wants to read it?”

Assistance arrived in the form of a new friend whose relative suggested a good blogging forum. Nervous and uncertain of unfamiliar technology, I finally took the plunge.  Literally asking my angels for a title and motto for my blog, I found my fingers typing them out.  I struggled through my inexperience and created the first page.  And, finally, pressing the “Publish” button at last, on October 22, 2017, the post Princess Diana Saved My Life finally appeared.

I’ve written well over 100 blog posts since then, on topics encompassing everything from spiritual beliefs to brussels sprouts, from royalty to poverty to pets to toilet paper–essays that I work hard to craft and polish. In the process I’ve gained a few—just a few—followers, and another few dedicated readers who, themselves leery of a form of technology they did not grow up with,  won’t punch the “Follow” button, but still regularly read my maunderings.  Sometimes I acquire a few “Likes”; more often, I hear later from friends who particularly enjoyed a new column.  Oddly, many of my closest friends and family members never once look at anything I’ve written, while complete strangers and other bloggers laud me.

But it doesn’t matter, really, whether I acquire a following or Likes or even readers. For the simple truth is, I write for my own pleasure.  I write out of dedication to the craft of writing.  I write because the act of composition embodies everything that I am.

And now I proudly wear my crystal quill-and-inkwell pendant, recognizing at last that I always deserved to do so; that I have always been an author; that a lack of publication never once dimmed my enthusiasm or desire to write. Poetry, children’s stories, short stories, books—all are gathered within my file cabinet and occupy space on my computer, possibly doing no more than collecting dust, but evidence, nonetheless, of my intense desire, always, to follow my heart and write.

Perhaps, like the poet Emily Dickinson, the body of my works will be discovered someday after my death, and be recognized and published. Perhaps not.  But it doesn’t matter.  I am not writing to please a faceless public; I am writing because it is, inescapably, entwined within my soul.

Mathematics Makes a…WHAT?!

More years ago than I care to remember, during the era in which the Sunday newspaper was a regular establishment and chock-full of information, I always enjoyed reading the small magazine that accompanied the paper. For several years one of my favorite features in that magazine was a column written by a woman acclaimed for her high I.Q. Much as I do with this blog, she simply discussed ideas and events that interested her, and, whether I agreed with her observations or not, I thoroughly enjoyed reading them.

The topic of one such article was the necessity of teaching and learning mathematics. Since math has been my stumbling block since I got to the point of learning (uh, being unable to learn) my “seven plus” tables—I’ve since discovered that I may suffer from dyscalculia, the mathematical equivalent to dyslexia–I read her column with real curiosity.

The author explained her point of view carefully, and her observations made great sense, until I reached a remark near the conclusion of her essay, in which (to the best of my memory; this was decades ago) she stated that “…mathematics makes a better poet”.

Say what?!

I put the article down and pondered. This being the pre-Internet era, I could not easily check my supposition, but I did not recall that anyone had ever mentioned or published Einstein’s shining examples of verse.  (I’ve looked them up since, and the few poems of his I was able to locate on-line were, at best, ordinary; certainly in no way comparable to notable poets such as Byron or Millay.)  I thought further on the subject and realized that, whether one believed that William Shakespeare was, in fact, Shakespeare, or any one of another half-dozen candidates for having written his works, I simply didn’t recall his equally-brilliant ventures into the field of mathematics.  Hmmm. That is, other than his ability to write in iambic pentameter—a feat which basically relies on tossing all the grammar books and rules out the window and brilliantly twisting language to fit emotion.  (In fact, most truly excellent poetry does just that.)  Da Vinci—certainly the ultimate Renaissance man and brilliant at mathematics, as proved by his engineering marvels—Da Vinci wrote quite an essay explaining why poetry simply did not measure up to painting.  He may have loved numbers, but he certainly had little enthusiasm for verse.

Pondering the article further, I mused that, having written several hundred poems myself–yes, most of them quite ordinary; I am admittedly not a Keats or  Dickinson or Millay–and even published a (pathetically) few, I did not ever recall needing any more mathematical a skill than that of counting out the syllables and establishing the rhythm of verses by tapping my fingers on the desk.  And this drumming occurred only when I was writing verse with rhyme and meter…a skill that wasn’t even necessary on the occasions when I wrote free verse.

Mathematics makes a better poet?

Nonsense. Despite the fact that my own I.Q. was obviously lower than that of the author, her contention was definitely pushing the point due to her personal bias.

The truth, I thought, lay more in the fact that mathematicians absolutely love math, finding it everywhere and searching for it in everything, while those who adore language do the same with words, from “Let there be light” right on down the freeway.

My personal bias is, of course, language. That may very well be why I toss the “mathematics makes a better poet” argument right out the window of the highrise to watch it shatter on the pavement below.  Introduced to poetry at an early age by a mother who loved it and who read it aloud with great skill, I was able to write competent verse by the third grade despite my compromised mathematical skills (and let me tell you right here and now that surviving elementary school while suffering dyscalculia, in an era in which the disorder wasn’t even recognized, was no picnic!)  But all I needed to compose poetry was the kindergarten skill of comprehending rhythm, the ability to count to no more than 14 or 15,  and fingers that could tap out a tempo—a feat that barely involved mathematics.

So while I respect those who regard numbers with the same worship and understanding that I extend to language, I do not share their perspective. I comprehend their view that the entire universe is mathematical…but I do not, cannot, see emotion as based on that theorem. And poetry is inherently emotional.

In any case, I know that there are just as many of us who, respecting mathematics, nevertheless want nothing more to do with numbers than we absolutely must deal with to get by on a daily basis in modern society. To that point, I’ve always recalled the comment of a brilliant young social worker I knew years ago.  He sat with a group of us, laughingly discussing all the courses he’d been forced to take in college that in no way contributed to either his work or the adult life that he actually led.  Having mentioned a laundry list of worthless instruction, he shook his head violently, flung his hands upward and rolled his eyes in an expression of utmost disdain, exclaiming with a bitter sarcasm that I completely understood, “Oh, and calculus!  I’m so glad I put myself through that!”

Assumptions Always Start With An Ass

More years ago than I care to remember, I was a young secretary working in an office directly outside the bank of elevators of our aging building. Sound from the foyer around the elevators seemed to funnel directly into our office; consequently, I was often privy to conversations that weren’t meant for my ears.

During the first weeks that I worked there, several of the conversations I overheard among the younger female staff centered around the behavior of another young woman in a nearby office. All of the comments were critical.  The remark I heard most often was, “She is so stuck up!”  Sometimes I heard elaborations on the theme, such as, “She never talks to anyone”, or, “She thinks she’s too good for us.”

After a few weeks, having gotten to know everyone involved, I ventured to speak up the next time these same old, tired comments were reiterated. “Actually, I don’t think she’s stuck up or a snob,” I remarked gently.  “I think she’s just really shy.”

The looks I received in return for this remark told me that, without doubt, my days as a welcome member of this group of women were distinctly numbered. Nevertheless, I pressed on; I’ve never been very bright about that whole “holding your tongue for social reasons” sort of thing.  Braving the laser-like eyes boring into me, I explained, “Well, you see, I’ve been shy for most of my life, and I think I see that in her.  She has trouble meeting your eye.  Her shoulders hunch up when you speak to her.  I don’t think means to come across as a snob.  I think she’s just really shy.”

I received a volley of protests from each woman present, pressing her point that the person I was defending was a snobbish prig rather than an introvert. I decided to back down; there was obviously nothing to be gained in continuing my unwelcome observations.  The group had made up its collective mind, and nothing I said was going to change that.

True to my supposition, though, I was also not often asked to lunch with that group again. My remarks had made them uncomfortable.  I hadn’t intended to be pointing the finger at them, but I’d nevertheless opened up a nasty can of worms in the possibility that they might be behaving in a judgmental manner – or, even worse, just plain wrong.  My viewpoint was distinctly unwelcome.

Those of us who have the bad taste to defend the underdog, or to profess a different belief than the commonly-held thought of the day, I’ve learned, tend to become persona non grata.

I’ve never forgotten that lesson, nor the others that I learned from that long ago incident, the first and most important being that our assumptions about a person—any person–do not constitute reality. I learned that we must be willing to relinquish those assumptions if we are going to truly come to know another person.  Most important of all, though, was that I came to realize that we all continually operate on the assumptions we’ve made about the people we’ve just met, or even those whom we’ve known for years.  We make snap judgments about behaviors and situations.  We categorize groups of individuals.  We make assumptions about our friends, family members, even our pets. Sometimes we call it instinct, such as when we decide, wisely, that there is something not quite right about that person who just approached us at the mall.  Most of the time, we don’t even realize that we are making an assumption; it is done without conscious thought or recognition.  Frequently our suppositions are right on target.  Often, though, they are built only out of our own experience; they have nothing to do with the reality of the person or situation with whom we are dealing.

I am ashamed to admit that I never really made the necessary effort to get to know my extremely shy coworker. Looking back at the situation through the lens of many years and acquired knowledge, though, I suspect that the very introverted woman may have suffered from disorder such as Asperger’s Syndrome.

But that, too, is just my assumption.

Epitaph in an Elevator

“Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone…”  Those lyrics have been running through my head continually, because it was just yesterday I learned that a former coworker, a woman whom I’d worked with long ago, had died.  This is someone who, if I hadn’t known her well, I’d at least interacted with on a daily basis over the course of several years.  Hearing of her passing made me recall, uneasily, some experiences from the long years of my working life.

Working as an administrative assistant, it was often my sad duty to pass the hat and arrange flowers or a memorial gift for a coworker who had died.  At times, when the offices I covered were quite large, I barely knew the person for whom I was making the collection. But I came often to find that each member of the office, especially those who were better acquainted with the deceased, would take a moment to share their recollections when I came to dun them for what we euphemistically termed the “Flower Fund”.  In those brief conversations, I usually learned more than I’d ever before known about the coworker who had died.

In our large agency, I also often heard snippets and snatches of information about individuals in other divisions who had passed on—people whose names I vaguely recognized, knowing nothing else about them beyond that. And so it was that I stood one day at the back of the elevator, listening, as the group of people who’d just entered discussed a coworker who’d died unexpectedly.  Not once, but multiple times that day, I found myself nearby as employees gathered in corners, discussing a woman who had passed.  I found myself so saddened and disturbed by these conversations that, arriving home that evening, I exorcised the demons of my emotional reaction by turning some of what I’d heard into a poem–a simplistic poem, but nonetheless heartfelt.

Epitaph in an Elevator

She died, oh, a week ago Sunday.
Yes, I went, and it all was so sad.
She seemed like a nice enough person.
Well, the whole thing is really too bad!

Oh, you must remember her: short gal,
sort of plump, sort of plain—sort of dull.
She worked here forever and ages,
but I can’t say I knew her at all.

I wouldn’t have known, but I needed
all those files, and that room was a mob!
She always seemed smiling and helpful.
I just wonder who’ll cover her job.

She’s dead? Well, I’ll never pretend that
it upsets me one bit. Truth to tell,
I’m sorry she didn’t die sooner!
And I hope that she’s burning in Hell.

No, I didn’t know much about her.
I just heard that she died from a fall.
She seemed like a nice enough woman,
but I just didn’t know her at all.

I heard that she died—you recall her.
Sort of quiet and plain; not too bright.
It must be so sad for her family.
Takes some time, but then they’ll be all right. 

She couldn’t have died at a worse time!
What the hell will we do with her work?
The whole thing’s just plain inconvenient.
(No, I am NOT being a jerk!)

I can’t say that I really knew her.
She just wasn’t my type. Yes, she fell.
I daresay that someone will miss her.
But I just didn’t know her that well…

All too often, the very people with whom we interact on a daily basis are those who we, indeed, don’t even try to know too well.  It’s possible that we miss so much thereby.  And that is the core of greatest sorrow about any passing.