Seasons of Light, Seasons of Darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two very special parties, then.

And so many transitions to the next life.

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

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

Parties. Death.

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

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

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

 

Clearing the Clutter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My 2019 Word of the Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uh….

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apples of Gold

§   As the Thanksgiving holiday is fast approaching, I decided to re-run this essay, (originally posted on January 6, 2018), about the importance of thanking those who give to us.   §

“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.”   Proverbs 25:11  KJV

I first read that proverb many years ago in a book of daily prayer, and it caught my imagination and lodged there. I visualized a tiny, beautifully-crafted, three-dimensional, 24-karat golden apple, suspended within a shining circlet of silver.

If I had start-up funds, I would produce a thousand such pendants, and around the edge of each silver circle would be inscribed the words, “Thank You”.

It strikes me that saying thank you, either in words or writing, is fast going the way of the dodo. I genuinely doubt that toddlers are taught these days to sing the little rhyme that small children of my generation sang repeatedly: There are two little magic words / that will open any door with ease / One little word is “thanks” / And the other little word is “please”.

Thinking on the lack of gratitude displayed by recipients today, I vividly recall the dismay that I felt, years ago, when a coworker for whom we’d given a baby shower came in the following week with a single thank-you card which she proceeded to hang on the office bulletin board. Thirty people had gone to a great deal of trouble for this woman: provided plenty of food and funds for decorations; bought and wrapped lovely gifts.  They had each individually done a good deal of work to make the event special for her.  Yet not one of them received, even verbally, personal thanks—merely a cheap card, without even a personal message–just quickly signed and stuck to a corkboard with a pushpin.

Years later, as I discussed this upsetting recollection with a friend, she related to me an even worse incident: A family had moved into the area, and one thoughtful neighbor had stopped by to welcome the newcomers to the neighborhood with a home-baked pie. Standing there on the doorstep with her offering in her hands and smiling words of welcome on her lips, she was told by the new neighbor, “Well, if I’d wanted a pie, I would have baked one!”

I’d barely recovered from my shock at this story when my friend went on to describe a further incident of rudeness in place of thanks and courtesy. Acting out of appreciation for several helpful things he’d done, she’d taken a loaf of home-baked bread to a neighbor.  Weeks later, not having heard even so much as what he thought of the bread, she innocently asked him if he’d enjoyed it.  “It was awfully dense,” was all he said to her.  Not, “Thanks, can’t remember the last time I had home-baked bread”, nor even, “It was nice of you to go to so much trouble.”  Just a criticism of the food’s texture.

These and a dozen other incidents are the reason that I feel saying “thank you” is, like so many other common courtesies, becoming a dying art. And that saddens me, for it speaks badly of our civilization as a whole.  If we cannot express gratitude to the giver, do we even truly experience feelings of appreciation?

I don’t give myself a free pass on this situation, either, for I know there are all too many times when I’ve forgotten to at least speak words of thanks. Those memories shame me.  But I have a few other recollections, perhaps balancing the shameful ones, in which I’ve gone the extra mile to thank someone.  I especially remember the time when my teenage daughter, driving home late at night with three friends in the car, was t-boned by a driver who ran a red light.  A witness to the accident not only called 911, but stopped and got out of his car to direct traffic around the accident scene until the police arrived.  He then provided the officer with a description of the accident, absolving my daughter of blame.

Days later when the police report became available, I found the name and address of the witness. I sat down immediately to write him a thank-you note for his actions, concluding my words with, “You helped keep those kids safe, and I’m so grateful”.

I hoped then, and still hope, that he felt he’d received an apple of gold in a setting of silver.

 

29 Things

§   With very few exceptions, I have tried to avoid politics in my thoughtful essays.  But since in just under a year we will be electing a President, I offer this catalogue of wishes.  Numerous Presidents in the 20th and 21st centuries have failed in many of these considerations, but only the current President has failed at all of them.   §

  1. I want a President who willingly releases his or her taxes to the American people. 1
  2. I want a President who is totally unconcerned about the number of people who attend the inauguration, knowing that has nothing whatever to do with the actual work of the Presidency. 2
  3. I want a President who will respect and obey the emoluments clause of the Constitution; who will divest him/herself of business interests which might result or appear to result in a potential conflict of interest between the duties of a President and personal gain. 3, a & b
  4. I want a President who knows that “The Buck Stops Here”; who will say, “I take responsibility”. 4
  5. I want a President about whom past business associates cannot claim to have been defrauded of legally-earned payment. 5
  6. I want a President who will fire staff, when necessary, face-to-face, in person, in an appropriate and businesslike manner—not by Tweet. 6, a & b
  7. I want a President who totally eschews name-calling, vicious labels, hate speech, mockery, and all manner of bullying commentary. 7
  8. I want a President who does not pander to nor ingratiate him/herself with dictators or the leaders of oppressive regimes. 8, a & b
  9. I want a President who, to avoid even the slightest appearance of favoritism and to demonstrate truly ethical behavior, does not appoint family members to positions within the administration. 9
  10. I want a President who fully believes that the free American Press is one of the greatest strengths of this republic, and who shows them respect, even when they disagree with and lambaste him or her; who would never, under any circumstances, refer to the press by the fascist label of “Enemy of the People”. 10, a & b
  11. I want a President who recognizes that we are a nation of immigrants, and therefore welcomes those who are fleeing oppression; who takes ultimate responsibility for any separation of refugee parents and children; who would never subject children to prison-like conditions. 11, a & b
  12. I want a President who respects the rights and humanity of LGBTQ individuals. 12
  13. I want a President who issues all national policy in the appropriate businesslike manner, in conjunction with his/her staff, and not by Tweet. 13
  14. I want a President who respects the environment and works to preserve it for the safety and health of both current and future generations; who puts environmental concerns above business and financial interests. 14, a & b
  15. I want a President who demonstrates the utmost respect for the opposite sex; who, if faced with disclosure of past inappropriate speech or behavior toward the opposite sex, does not attempt to minimize the unpardonable behavior as merely “locker room talk”. 15
  16. I want a President who is faithful to his or her spouse. 16
  17. I want a President who behaves with dignity: who would not, under any circumstances, push another world leader aside; who would never, ever turn his or her back upon or walk in front of the Queen of England (not just because she is the Queen, but because she is a 93-year-old woman and deserving of courtesy). 17, a & b
  18. I want a President who will stand in the rain in order to hold the umbrella over his or her spouse.18
  19. I want a President who will not welcome world leaders and representatives to hotels that he or she personally owns, thereby being seen as open to or attempting to create undue influence. 19
  20. I want a President who, if faced with video evidence of a statement made previously, honestly acknowledges his or her words. 20
  21. I want a President who is consistent; who, if reaching new conclusions, states that he or she has done so and presents the logical and factual reasoning behind the reversal. 21 a & b
  22. I want a President who would never, under any circumstances, ask a subordinate to lie in order to protect him/herself. 22, a, b & c
  23. I want a President who travels to visit the military in conflict areas without first being shamed into doing so by military press coverage of his or her failure to appear. 23
  24. I want a President who, if he or she did not personally serve in the military, does not provide a sham and bogus excuse for that lack. 24
  25. I want a President who will stand in the pouring rain to honor the brave men and women who died the World Wars to preserve freedom. 25
  26. I want a President who, despite disagreements, will honor and speak with respect of a fallen comrade; who would never disrespectfully raise the American flag during that individual’s funeral; who will not permit staff to speak rudely of deceased, gracious First Ladies of this country; who will not allow foreign dictators to disparage former American leaders in his or her presence. 26 a, b & c
  27. I want a President who will not obstruct justice. 27
  28. I want a President who will not abandon allies due to a financial conflict of interest.28
  29. I want, in fact, a genuine President: an honorable leader, who will demonstrate dignity, truth, courtesy, kindness, patience, composure, ethics, morality, and, above all, integrity.

 

  1. https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/15/politics/donald-trump-tax-returns-white-house-sarah-sanders/
  2. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/1/21/14347298/trump-inauguration-crowd-size
  3. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/IF11086.pdf
    https://www.citizensforethics.org/trumps-ethics-promises-have-not-been-kept
  4. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-donald-trump-russia-blame-20180319-story.html
  5. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/09/28/i-sold-trump-100000-worth-of-pianos-then-he-stiffed-me/?utm_term=.6ab2e9c42d4d
  6. https://www.theverge.com/2018/3/13/17113950/trump-state-department-rex-tillerson-fired-tweet-twitter
    https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/trump-fired-kirstjen-nielsen-by-tweet
  7. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/01/28/upshot/donald-trump-twitter-insults.html
  8. https://www.npr.org/2017/05/02/526520042/6-strongmen-trumps-praised-and-the-conflicts-it-presents
    https://www.cbsnews.com/news/who-is-viktor-orban-hungary-prime-minister-trump-meeting-white-house-today-2019-05-13/
  9. https://www.thedailybeast.com/meet-the-trump-officials-making-government-a-family-business
  10. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/10/29/18037894/donald-trump-twitter-media-enemy-pittsburgh
    https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/437610-trump-calls-press-the-enemy-of-the-people
  11. https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/03/06/after-locking-migrant-children-cages-dhs-chief-tells-congress-theyre-not-cages
    https://www.npr.org/2019/03/09/701935587/judge-immigration-must-identify-thousands-more-migrant-kids-separated-from-paren
  12. https://democrats.org/press/15-things-the-trump-administration-has-done-to-roll-back-protections-for-lgbtq-people/
  13. http://time.com/5099544/donald-trump-tweets-first-year/
  14. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/05/02/offshore-drilling-donald-trump-administration-safety-rules/3657752002/
    https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/trump-rsquo-s-epa-made-it-easier-for-coal-plants-to-pollute-waterways/
  15. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/28/us/politics/donald-trump-tape.html
  16. https://www.businessinsider.com/trump-melania-stormy-daniels-affairs-marriages-timeline-2018-3
  17. https://www.nbcnews.com/video/icymi-president-trump-walks-in-front-of-queen-elizabeth-ii-1277051971981
    https://www.cnn.com/2017/05/25/politics/trump-pushes-prime-minister-nato-summit/          
  18. https://people.com/politics/donald-trump-wife-melania-rain-umbrella/
  19. http://time.com/donald-trumps-suite-of-power/
  20. https://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2019/04/11/wikileaks-julian-assange-arrest-donald-trump-sot-vpx.cnn
  21. https://www.statnews.com/2019/04/26/trump-vaccinations-measles/
    https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2016-election/full-list-donald-trump-s-rapidly-changing-policy-positions-n547801
  22. https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2019/05/barr-not-a-crime-for-trump-to-demand-staffers-lie-to-investigators?verso=true
    https://www.wsj.com/livecoverage/mueller-report-release-latest-news/card/1555608005
    https://www.justsecurity.org/62785/trump-told-cohen-lie-congress-collusion-general-not-moscow-tower-deal/
  23. https://www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2018/10/17/top-senate-democrat-urges-trump-to-visit-troops-fighting-overseas/
  24. https://www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2019/02/27/trumps-lawyer-no-basis-for-presidents-medical-deferment-from-vietnam/
  25. https://abcnews.go.com/US/trumps-rain-check-honoring-americans-killed-wwi-prompts/story?id=59119504
  26. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/onpolitics/2018/08/27/john-mccain-flags-white-house-full-staff/1108717002/ https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/04/06/donald-trump-adviser-roger-stone-mocks-barbara-bush-death-after-book/3386028002/ https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/28/us/politics/trump-biden-north-korea.html
  27. https://www.foxnews.com/opinion/judge-andrew-napolitano-did-president-trump-obstruct-justice
  28. https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2019/10/reminder-trump-has-a-massive-conflict-of-interest-in-turkey/

 

 

 

 

 

My Last Leaf

§  If you have never read it, then I will not give away the ending; you must find the story on-line somewhere and read it for yourself. Suffice it to say, though, that I have thought of that story many times in the 50-odd years since I first read it.  §

When I was a young teenager, around the ages of 13 and 14, I was enamored of the stories of O’Henry. I thrilled to the surprise endings, and, being of an emotional age group, I loved the almost sappy sentimentality of many of the stories, as well as the rollicking humor. No matter how badgered and belittled O’Henry’s stories were and often still are by literary critics (all of whom probably have some type of stick up their butts), I enjoy these rare little gems to this day. If I could find somewhere a book containing all 600-some of O’Henry’s short stories, I wouldn’t jib for a minute at the cost; I’d purchase it immediately. For years I’ve found that, when my world seems dreary to the point of misery and difficult beyond bearing, I can turn to the pages of my old O’Henry books and escape to that world of 100 years ago: to love and laughter and surprise. Each year on Christmas eve, I re-read The Gift of the Magi, always feeling my throat tighten and tears sparkling behind my eyes as I reach the well-known ending.

But love The Gift of the Magi as I most certainly do, one of my favorite O’Henry stories is one less well known: The Last Leaf. If you have never read it, then I will not give away the ending; you must find it on-line somewhere and read it for yourself. Suffice it to say, though, that I have thought of that story many times in the 50-odd years since I first read it—thought of it, and of the lessons it taught my young self about surrender and survival, courage and compassion,  true talent and recognition, ultimate sacrifice, and genuine acts of love.

But The Last Leaf  wasn’t really on my mind a few weeks ago as I trotted out my front door to wander down the drive and pick up my mail from the box. I didn’t really get very far on my mission, for as I stepped down from the porch to the walk, I glanced at the ground and saw a single fallen autumn leaf.

IMG_20191004_170142266It was astonishingly beautiful. It could not have fallen from any of the nearby trees, all of which are soft maples, so it had to have been swept there on the wind—swept to just that perfect, bare patch of earth where I would glance down and see it.

I stooped and picked up the leaf, turning it gently in my hands, holding it to the soft and fading afternoon light. Had I been a Millennial, I suppose I would have just reached for my phone and snapped a photo of the leaf, posted it to various social media and picture sites, and gone on my merry way. But a Millennial I am not; I stopped for the leaf.  I picked it up and held it and admired it—communed with it, if you will. I don’t know how long I stood there, enjoying its delicate beauty and amazed by the fact that it had lain there, waiting for me, but I do know that for as long as I stood there, holding that leaf, wondering over its brilliant colors and tracing the tiny veins with my finger—for those moments, I was mindful. Truly mindful. My last leaf became a meditation of sorts.

Eventually, I continued on my way down the drive to pick up my mail…but I did not let go of my leaf. I carried it with me, brought it into my house, and finally photographed it, so that I would have not just a reminder of its beauty, but of those few moments when the world slipped away and I became genuinely one with the Spirit of Nature.

It was then that I recalled the O’Henry story The Last Leaf, and considered that this little gift from the gods and goddesses of Autumn had waited there to teach me a lesson that I–that we all–too often forget: to stop. To stop for just one moment, and be mindful. To notice. To marvel and wonder and admire, for just an instant, all the incredible, astounding and overwhelming loveliness of this world wherein we dwell. To appreciate.

To (like the heroine of the story) learn to live.

A Bra of a Different Color

§  This column is sure to offend someone, somewhere. But, even if you begin to think it offensive or even racist, please give it the benefit of the doubt and read all the way to the end!  §

Although my personal skin color might best be described as a very pale peach-tone, my casual race description is “white”. Now, I am no more the color of typing paper than a black person is the color of the night sky. But, there you have it. I’m “white”; they’re “black”, while those of Asian descent are “yellow”, despite the fact that their skin tones have nothing to do with a daffodil. Native Americans aren’t the color of stoplights, either. “Yellow” and “red” are ridiculous descriptions of skin tones, as are white and black.

Perhaps that’s why I found it difficult to understand an article I read several years ago complaining about the dearth of appropriately-tinted brassieres for women of color; an article that claimed this lack was due to racism. My reaction to this was my oft-repeated, “Huh?” Being Vintage myself, I’d grown up in an era when all bras were white. Stark white. Typing paper white. Bleach white. That’s it. Period. No other choices. And those stark-paper-bleach white bras no more closely matched my pale peachy pale skin tone than they matched the flesh of any woman of any race. When lingerie departments finally began to stock bras in a shade they titled “nude”—now that was racist!–I bought one, and found that it, too, came nowhere near to resembling my skin tone. It was nothing at all like my nude “white” skin.

Confusing me even more was the fact that, at the time I read this article (about a decade ago), I didn’t possess a single bra that resembled any skin color. I owned a bras in bright red, ink black, pale blue, steel grey, and a final one in pale pink. Some might think that last shade came in somewhere close to my skin tone, but, no, not even close. When I dressed in the morning, I matched my bra to my clothing, not my skin. I’d never in my lifetime had a bra that matched my skin tone, and I thought nothing of it.

But from the tenor of the article, I could see that this lack mattered a lot to many women of color, since they were resorting to dying their underwear with tea and coffee. As this problem was genuinely important to so many women of color, I wondered, why was the author not presenting it as a fantastic business opportunity? Rather than broadcasting suspicions of covert racism, she could, should, have been suggesting that the manufacturing community jump on the solution like a Venus fly trap snapping up an insect.

But complaints like those of that long-ago editorial are why (although I try my utmost to identify and divest myself of any behaviors associated with racial prejudice) I sometimes find myself bewildered by seemingly minor situations escalating into accusations of racism. Back in the days when Crayola named its peach tinted crayon “Flesh”—that was racism! Calling a beige bra “nude”—definitely racist! But when every woman in the Western world, be she black, white, brown, red, yellow or Martian green, had to wear a bleach white bra, that wasn’t racism; it was sheer idiocy on the part of the (probably male) manufacturers.

Today a woman of color can sometimes locate a bra in her shade, and occasionally my not-so-lily-white self can find a skin-tone bra, too. But we can each make the best of an irritating situation and chose a clothing color, not a skin shade, for our brassieres. We can also send strident complaints to the manufacturers, dye our lingerie, or, as I have done for so many years, just shrug and deal with it.

But–and this is me trying my best to walk a mile in another’s moccasins–having been born with “white” skin, I’ve had little cause to experience racism, except for one glaring childhood incident (see the post Amosandra, 06/01/2018) If I had frequently endured the dehumanizing experience of genuine racial discrimination, would I not be more inclined to suspect racist intent at every juncture—even in something as minor as the shade of one’s underwear?  Yes, I must admit it; probably so.

Having been born with this peachy-pale skin of mine, I shall also probably never know. But I will conclude by saying that all my brassieres are currently in a shade called “Champagne”. It’s a sort of ivory yellow beige. It’s nowhere near my skin tone. Instead (having learned a lot over the course of my 65 years), these bras are comfortable. And that’s why I don’t really give a damn what color they are.

The Contribution-by-Guilt Charity Lottery

§   With the best will in the world, I could never fill this aching, endless void of charitable appeals.  §

As I mentioned in an earlier blog (Charity Begins, 06/05/19), I do not tithe to any specific or single organization; I provide funds to various charities as I feel led.  Environmental, animal and children’s charities top that list. But I am growing ever more dismayed by the constant appeals that arrive, both by snail mail, and by e-mail, for yet more funds.

In just one week—one!–I counted appeals from the following agencies:

Wheeler Mission
Arbor Day Foundation
Environmental Defense Fund
Doctors Without Borders
Audubon Society
Smile Train
Hiefer International
Southern Poverty Law Center
ACLU
Planned Parenthood
World Wildlife Fund
Cats Haven
Humane Society

Not even an all-inclusive list, this, of the causes or organizations in which I wholeheartedly believe and to which I have contributed in the past, and it certainly doesn’t include the appeals to which I am subjected through TV commercials and email. But, even with the best will in the world, I could not, cannot, answer all these funding requests. If I had just won the lottery, it’s still unlikely that I could fill this aching, endless void of charitable appeals.

Even more upsetting, years after my initial contribution, I continue to receive funding requests from charities that are not my choice; charities to which I sent a donation only one time. Usually these contributions were made as a memorial for the loved ones of friends; sometimes, the only reason I sent money to a particular organization was that I was once the responsible individual at the office, passing the hat to collect funds and writing the check after a coworker had experienced a loss.

As I open these mailings, so many of which include enclosures–maps and notepads and pens and address labels and little blankets and dream-catchers and greeting cards and tote bags—I’m forced to wonder, how much does all this cost them? All these mailings, all these little bits of bric-a-brac? Can the contributions they acquire from such mailings actually supersede the cost of sending all this stuff out?

And despite all these enclosures, nowhere in those collections of stuff is a simple postcard with an option to check and return, requesting, “Please remove me from your mailing list”. The onus for figuring out whom to contact and then deliberately making that request is put upon the individual being dunned. I cannot help but believe that omission is purposeful. The lack of an uncomplicated “please remove” option is intended keep me on the mailing list ad infinitum, so that I may be guilted into making further contributions. I resent that so much that, even were I inclined to provide more money, I refuse to do so.

The guilt factor is strong in another way, too: only once did I intentionally request to be removed from a mailing list, that of a well-known cancer charity. Fed up after being bombarded with multiple requests in a single week, I finally sought out an e-mail for the right department and sent them a demand that my name be removed from their contact list.  In return, I received the obligatory “It may take us several weeks to process your request” reply—a totally ridiculous statement, and blatantly untrue in an era in which one need only punch a single Delete key on a database to remove contact information. It took almost two months before I was finally free of their incessant mailings, but I still encounter their soul-wrenching commercials on TV every week. I hit “mute” on the remote or walk out of the room each time.

But now, having published this blog, I think I have hit upon the method that I will use in the future to handle requests from repeat offenders in the contribution-by-guilt charity lottery. I will simply print out a copy of this essay and, using their very own return-addressed envelope, mail it, highlighting this note:

“It isn’t that I don’t care. In the past, I may even have supported your endeavors. But I give when I both have the funds and the spirit moves me…and today is not that day. In the meantime, kindly remove me from your contact list.  Please, pleasestop asking me for money!”

It may work. Or it may not. But at least I will have stated my feelings and my preference.

Vintage Treasure

§  I shall never, ever again refer to myself using the word old!   §

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 out-moded 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 desireable.

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

Once More, a Talking Stick

§  For those unfamiliar with the practice, a Talking Stick Ceremony allows survivors to speak at a memorial service without the formality of rising to address a crowd. Instead, a simple thing—a stick, a branch, a piece of wood, decorated to represent the lost individual, is passed from hand to hand, so those seated may speak a few words in kind memory. §

I have created Talking Sticks now for several friends and acquaintances who have passed: Debbe, Mary, Terry, and now Cathy. I did not create one for my mother (see the post My Mother’s Talking Stick, November 17, 2017) only because I was, as I knew I would be, the single person to speak that night. Speaking for a woman who had few mourners, though, was far more difficult than assuming the responsibility for creating a Talking Stick to be spoken through by several people who will be missing someone.

Rather than being difficult or hurtful, there is instead great beauty and release in being the person who is privileged to create another’s Talking Stick. It is a physical meditation, allowing one to think through the value of a friend or loved one’s life, and to say farewell by determining the representative talismans or totems to be included.

IMG_20190725_152444340For Cathy, who loved all things natural and green and growing, the talismans on her Talking Stick (although of necessity made mostly of non-organic substances) will be representative of those passions. A small tree branch, sanded and finished with clear lacquer, will be wound with silk vine to symbolize her history as a farmer. A packet of flower seeds called “Bee Feed” and a rubber honeybee will signify one of the last things she ever spoke about to her friends in our Monday night meditation group: that she was sick with worry over the plunging honeybee population. A copper flower will further denote her delight in the world of growing things, while a silver tree of life will stand for the hundreds of trees she planted in her lifetime. And because she rode her bike everywhere, dying just after returning from having enjoyed a ride with her biking group, a bicycle charm will be prominently displayed.

Having created it, I will once more carry the Talking Stick to a friend’s memorial service, explain its creation, and then encourage those there to pass the stick from hand to hand, each one speaking a pleasant, special, or humorous memory of our friend. I’ll remind them to begin their memory with “I remember Cathy”, because, as the ancient Egyptians believed, if our name is remembered, our soul continues; to speak lovingly or caringly, for if their relationship was rocky or difficult, this is not the time to discuss those problems—respect for the dead really being only consideration for others present who are not in a fit state to hear that sort of bitterness. I’ll mention quietly that, if they haven’t anything pleasant or kind or humorous to say about the soul who has gone on, then there is no shame in merely holding the Talking Stick silently for a moment before handing it off to the next person. Their very silence allows us to acknowledge their own special pain, and serves to remind us that we are all complex creatures; that our view of a person is not necessarily the one which is shared by all who knew her or him.

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

Four times, four times now, I have created a Talking Stick; stood to explain its significance, spoken the formal words of the Crossing Ceremony, and, after the memorial,  passed the Talking Stick on to the person who best loved the one now lost.

Someday I will be the one who is being remembered as the Talking Stick is passed from hand to hand. I wonder what talismans will be on my Talking Stick. I wonder who will create mine.

In Memory Of:

 Debbe Boswell
Mary Cole
Terry Robare
Cathy Dawson