Touching the Angel’s Hand

Aged not-quite 19, I moved out of my parents’ home to a basement apartment in a slum. Years later, that same slum area would undergo urban renovation, and the once-gracious mansion, restored to dignity, would become a psychiatric clinic, located on a street of other restored mansions not far from the President Benjamin Harrison home.  But at the time I and a roommate lived there, it was decidedly a slum.

And that was okay. We were young, and, like all the very young, totally believed ourselves to be invincible. We ignored or laughed off the very real dangers of the area in which we lived.

Unlike my roommate, however, I did not see my newfound freedom and my escape from the rigors of my family’s problems as license to live riotously. Disturbed by her use of drugs and alcohol and her sexual promiscuity, only three months later I moved once more, this time to a tiny studio apartment  just a few blocks away, carved out of what had been a hotel in the 1930s.  It had lovely parquet floors, a gigantic, time-worn old bathtub, and a miniature kitchen fashioned from what had once been a closet.  Most of the population of the building were elderly pensioners, living in this low-rent district to eke out their Social Security, and the local hooligans, aware of the dates when then-paper checks were delivered, lay in wait and regularly mugged residents in the front hall.  My youth helped me to avoid such a fate, but more than once I was unfortunate enough to walk in just after such a frightening assault had taken place.

Despite the ever-present threat of robbery and muggings, though, I often found myself walking to my job. For the same reason that I lived in the low-rent district, I had to forego taking the bus; I could not always afford the 35-cent bus fare.  I earned only minimum wage at my job as a file clerk, and most of my salary went to pay my rent while saving for the required deposit and installation fees to the phone company, a monopoly which had a stranglehold on communications and could charge whatever it pleased.  It took me months to save enough cash to have a landline phone installed.  My groceries each week, purchased after a long walk to the only grocer in the area were, again, all I could afford, and numbingly the same: a gallon of milk, a loaf of bread, a box of cereal, seven cans of soup, two packages of cold cuts, a carton of eggs, and some salad goods.  When my brother and sister-in-law brought me a kitten, I added a few cans of the cheapest pet food and cat litter to my purchases.  Each week I carefully hoarded quarters so that I could do my laundry using the machines in the scary basement (also the site of many an assault—I learned to do my laundry at the crack of dawn on Sunday morning, when the muggers were sleeping off the previous night’s excesses).  The uniforms that I wore to my job, which were supposed to be dry-cleaned, I carefully hand-laundered in the bathtub, hanging them over it to dry.  Dry cleaning would have been an expensive luxury, even had there been a cleaners within walking distance.

Oddly enough, although the rigors of my existence at that time were trying, frightening and heartbreakingly lonely, I don’t regret a moment of it. What I learned from those two years of poverty and isolation was resilience. I learned that I could take complete care of and responsibility for myself, and even for another helpless little creature.  I found that I could be so terrifyingly lonely that suicide seemed a viable option—yet that I was strong enough to resist that lure, to fight despair, and to carry on.  I learned that I was competent.  I discovered that I was a survivor.

The experience gained in those two years of living on the raw edge of life, aged only 18 to 19, was incredibly powerful and contributed to my later hardiness in a life that has often been filled, as are most lives, with anguish, tragedy, fear, and difficulty.

I will never claim that I enjoyed that period of my existence, but I will always recognize that it gave me many undeniable and precious gifts. Because of those two rigorous years, and the lessons I learned from them,  I can agree, wholly and completely, with what Fra Giovanni wrote centuries ago in 1513, counseling about the vicissitudes of life:  “Welcome it; grasp it and you touch the angel’s hand that brings it to you. Everything we call a trial, a duty, or a sorrow, believe me, that angel’s hand is there; the gift is there….”

The gift was, truly, there, and I touched the angel’s hand.

Pieces of Your Soul

As we sat talking one day in my lovely little condo which is decorated to my, and only my taste, a friend looked about and, sighing a bit, commented on all the compromises–starting with home décor–that she has made in her household. “When you marry,” she said, “you give up a little piece of yourself.”

Wedding Photo ColorI understood. I was married for 19 years, and (leaving entirely aside the difficulty of a marriage that crumbled due to my partner’s alcoholism, drug use and infidelity), I made any number of  concessions and compromises—as I’m sure he did, also.  The very act of spending your life with another person is a commitment to cooperation and negotiation.  Many couples never learn to navigate their way through the thorny path of such concessions, though, without one partner giving up too much of her or himself.

And therein lies the rock upon which so many marriages and partnerships and perhaps even international negotiations stumble, never to recover. There must be give-and-take in any relationship. Yet, all too often, one partner becomes the giver, the other the taker. Taking can eventually become a self-fulfilling premise.  From the color one paints the walls to the type of car, to the amount of a mortgage, to the number of evenings out for one partner, to who will be the person attending parent-teacher conferences or helping with homework, who pays the bills or takes the taxes to be figured, who mows the lawn or gets up with the baby, the Taking partner can become so accustomed to the compromise and conciliation of the other that he or she retreats into a sort of childhood cocoon, where everything done is done by a parent-like figure who has only one’s best interests at heart.

The Giver, meanwhile, waits continually for just a word of recognition and appreciation, which comes rarely, or, after some time, not at all. Overburdened, or perhaps just feeling that more and more pieces of oneself have been handed over to a vacuum and vortex of need, resentment begins to replace the contentment of mature compromise.  And resentment is the most vicious enemy of love.

It is hard, sometimes impossible, to strike a balance between two disparate personalities and negotiate a pathway to shared responsibility and decision-making. And perhaps that is why I, divorced now the same number of years as I was once married, continue to live alone.  I know my tendency to try to make another love me by giving until there is almost nothing left of myself—and then, having wrung myself out, beaten myself dry on a flat rock beneath a burning sun—to know the experience of having love gutter into bitterness and resentment; to be, despite it all, left alone because the “me” that the other once knew and appreciated has disintegrated, like damp tissue paper, into nothingness.

It is one thing to give up a tiny piece of yourself for the sake of cooperation and agreement. But let it always be a two-way street.  And save the largest piece of yourself for yourself.  No partner is worth your soul.

A Work in Progress

In my path to healing old emotional wounds, I spent a lot of time attending groups such as Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics, as well as an excellent but now-defunct journaling group called SEAS.  In the long run, I did derive some good from each of the meetings I attended. But in many cases I was not what one might call an optimal member.  In fact, with one exception, most of the groups I graced with my presence were probably really glad to see the back of me when I finally decided to pull out.

Let me say it without shame: I could never stand what I considered the time-wasting and nit-picking traditions of so many of these associations.  There were minutes to be reported and treasurer’s statements to be announced and chapters to be read aloud, often by people who could barely read, and altogether too much nonsense that bore no relation whatever to the stated reason for everyone’s presence: recovery.   The plethora of formalities seemed just an extrapolation of the burden carried by every codependent; that is, the need to control, due to having lived in uncontrollable situations.

I grew tired of the repetitive and downright silly statement required of each member prior to speaking: “Hi! I’m Whatshername, and I’m a co-dependent!”  To be followed, of course, by a cheery group chorus of,  “Hi, Whatshername!”  After one or two meetings, everyone knew who Whatshername was, up to and including some of those vague people who barely seemed certain of their own names.  And we all knew we were co-dependents or an associate thereof, or we wouldn’t have been there in the first place.  Not to mention that repeating the statement prior to every single word one uttered  was time-wasting overkill.  But never will I forget the tongue-lashing I took from a group leader when I side-stepped all the silliness and announced, “Hey, you all know me now and we all know why I’m here.”  Everyone laughed, several members nodded, but Group Leader puffed up like an adder about to strike. After heaping scathing verbal abuse upon my unbowed head, she ordered me out unless I was prepared to “take tradition seriously!” I gathered up my purse and left,  suddenly realizing that, although still in need of recovery, I was actually a bit more mentally healthy than a lot of these people (Group Leader being one of them).  When I dared return the following week, that same Group Leader failed to show, and the rest of us ran a meeting totally free of tradition, hunkering down to essentials in open and free discussion so thoroughly that we overran our allotted time by an hour.

Control issues aside, however, my greatest problem with the groups I attended was their insistence that I say such terrible things of myself. “I am a co-dependent”.  “I am the adult child of an alcoholic”.  Oh, it wasn’t that the names themselves weren’t the truth—the problem I had with the phrase was in its way of diminishing me.

“I am that I am”.  That was the name given by God in answer to Moses’ question.  The church I attended for many years taught that to say “I am” was to recognize the spark of divinity within that made one a child of God.  Therefore, one never diminished oneself by adding a negative to the words “I am”.

I learned not to say, “I am angry”, but “I feel angry.”  Depressed, bitter, frightened, ugly, a bad person…  I learned not to connect negatives with the Divine within me.  So I simply could not say, “I am a co-dependent”.  I could rephrase my truth and say, “I am currently expressing co-dependence”— “I have learned co-dependence and am trying to heal”–“I demonstrate the effects of growing up in an alcoholic’s household”.  But I simply could not state the required phrase about myself by attaching a negative label to my acknowledgement of the Divine within me.  And that fact brought me into conflict with one recovery group after another, usually after only a few meetings.  So I would take whatever good I had gleaned from yet another disappointment and move on.

And, in the end, moving on was precisely the right choice for me, for I’d learned essential truths about myself from those disappointments: that I was my own best judge of what was necessary for my healing and recovery, and that I was willing to do that hard work, even if I had to do it completely alone.

I’m still a work in progress. But I’ll get there.

Stay Out of the Kitchen

Since I review every book I finish (and even a few that I do not), I’ve learned to speak my piece to my own peril.  State the truth—that this author should be barred not only from a keyboard, but possibly from pens, pencils and paper, as well—and one risks incurring the wrath of the Beta Readers.  These are the half-dozen or more reviewers, probably drawn from the author’s own family and friends, who have written gushingly positive appraisals of the book.  Contradict them to your own dire jeopardy,  I’ve discovered.

I particularly recall a review I wrote of an especially trite novel. I had plowed my way gamely through about three chapters of this book (which included, god help me, talking pets!) centered around a retired schoolteacher turned amateur detective.  Unfortunately for the reader, punctuation, as well as plotting, was hardly the author’s forte.  After the umpteenth incorrect use of quotation marks, I gave up on the book, which was growing increasingly more clichéd.

I included all of these criticisms in my review of the story, awarding it only one star. Bam!  In fewer than 24 hours, I received a comment on my review, one furiously criticizing my own grammar.  From the tone of the comment, one could almost visualize the incensed tears through which it had been written.

I sighed and forbore to ask the Commenter if she was the friend, daughter, granddaughter or other relation of the author—or even the author herself–and merely asked that she specify exactly which rules of grammar I myself had broken.

There was no reply to my question from the Commenter, although some days later another person joined the discussion, to quibble over whether or not a period should always be enclosed in quotation marks. We got into a very lively debate on the subject, courtesy of the grammar lessons as I had once been taught based on the definitive work,  The King’s English, in which this question was determined by whether the period punctuated the entire sentence, or the quote only. But that discussion is neither here nor there.

Writing a book–even a lighthearted novel–is, as I have pointed out previously,  a serious business, and should not be undertaken by those unequipped for the job. But, having committed to the work, writers must be prepared for the simple reality that not everyone is going to like what they’ve written.

Three of my own favorite novels, Katherine, by Anya Seton, Desirée, (in the original translation only) by Annemarie Selinko, and Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier, have literally hundreds of reviews on-line.  These are books that I first read at about the age of 17, and have re-read dozens of times since.  I can quote entire passages from each of these novels.  I’m absolutely passionate about them.  And the very age of the books makes them fall into the “Classics” category.

But, according to the on-line reviews,  many people hate each of those novels with a loathing just as strong as that I bear for Moby Dick and Lord of the Flies.    I despise both of those books, and not just because I was forced to read them in high school.  I have nothing good to say about those books—nothing at all.  If I were to be required to write a review of each of them, it would not be pretty.  Yet these are classic novels, about which professors and the educated rave.

It doesn’t matter. I simply can’t stand them.

And so it is with lesser literature: the books written merely to entertain and to garner a living for the authors. Some people will like them.  Some will enjoy them, dreadful grammar and punctuation notwithstanding.  And others of us will totally despise the books the authors had such fun writing–and we won’t refrain from saying so.

Yes, writing is hard work; witness these essays.  Each post takes me a minimum of an hour to write. Hours more work go into rewriting multiple drafts and editing.  Yet still, I miss many of my own errors; hell is well-paved with my best of intentions.  And sometimes people don’t like what I’ve written.  They don’t like it at all.

But, if I can’t stand the heat, I should stay out of the kitchen. And so it is with book authors.  If they dislike negative reviews, they should not be writing.  And they certainly should not respond with vitriol and reproach when their work is criticized.

Antiquated Thought

I began my working career, aged 18, in the lowly position of File Clerk. Since desktop computers were not yet a glimmer in the eye of Bill Gates and every record was typed on an electric typewriter or laboriously entered by hand in a thick ledger before being arranged into orderly files, the mortgage company for which I worked had a spacious room entirely devoted to the files it kept on its customers.  It was there I toiled, clambering up ladders or squatting and kneeling to pull out requested files or placing them back into their slots when completed.

The attitudes of the company were more antique than their filing system now sounds. In 1973, at the height of the feminist movement, this company required that its female employees—only the women, not the men–wear uniforms.  Women, it was patiently explained, could not be trusted to dress professionally.  And so we were coerced into uniforms made of nubby, heavy woven polyester, ugly as sin and hot as Hades.  Horrifically uncomfortable, too, as the fabric scratched and scraped at one’s skin like an army of straight pins.  Rendered in colors selected by the Executive Secretary to flatter her olive skin and (dyed) coal black hair, the uniforms were hideously unbecoming to most of the female employees.  Accessorizing with so much as a scarf was forbidden; even the style and color of footwear we were permitted to wear was specified.

Providing our clothing, though, was also the excuse used by this company to pay its women employees less than the men. After all, they reasoned, we had no work-related clothing expenses; why, then, would we need as much compensation as the male employees?

It’s difficult for me now, as a 21st century woman, to remember that I once lived under such strictures.  Yes, I chafed at them—but there was virtually nothing I could do about it, not if I wanted to keep my job.  So I put up and shut up, until I found another job.

It would be more than a decade after my sojourn at the mortgage company before the organization was sued over their uniform policy (and lost, primarily due to the pay discrimination factor). As an 18-year-old, though, supporting myself on a meager income and living in a semi-slum, I dared not buck the system, no matter how wrong I felt—knew–it to be.

But I was recently forced to recall my feelings of bitterness and injustice—recall them vividly and painfully–when an acquaintance complained of the “attitudes” of African Americans fighting against police brutality and racial inequity. “It’s not like when I was a kid; they can be anything these days—doctors, lawyers,” my acquaintance grumbled.  “They need to stop bitching.  They should be grateful.”

Grateful….  I was forcefully reminded of my 18-year-old self in similar circumstances.  Remembered being told, recalled even telling myself,  “You have a job.  Your generation can work outside the home. Your clothing is provided. So what if you’ll never make as much money as the male employees?  So what if the only promotion you can expect is to another clerical position?  So what if a male employee can put his hand up your skirt, and there isn’t a damned thing you can do about it?  Quit your whining and bitching. You don’t know how good you’ve got it.  Show some gratitude.”

But like typewriters to keyboards, paper files to a cloud drive, attitudes evolve—must evolve—and change. And they do so only when forced: by pressure, by recognition, by lawsuits, by revelation, by coming out of the darkness into the piercing daylight of truth.

For until all of us are free, none of us will ever truly be free.

The Dishwashing Analogy

I don’t wash my dishes every day.

This horrifies a one or two of my acquaintances. Oh, they might accept it if I at least loaded the dirty dishes into the dishwasher, awaiting a full load to run it.  But I live alone, and it sometimes takes me nearly a week to complete a full load in the dishwasher, especially when I’m in sandwich-a-day-mode.  Besides, I actually enjoy washing dishes—I find it peaceful and meditative.  So I carefully scrape and lightly rinse my used dinnerware and stack it neatly in the sink, until, after two or perhaps three days, I have a sinkful.  Then I wash them.

I guess there is something less offensive about having dirty dishes hidden out of sight in a closed dishwasher, for, as I say, some of my acquaintances find this practice appalling. But then, I am just as revolted to think of the mounds of bacteria growing and odors accumulating on a full week’s worth of dirty dishes piling up slowly in the dishwasher.

Nevertheless, I have sympathy for my friends’ reaction, since I myself once had a male acquaintance who strewed his dirty dishes, unrinsed and unscraped, carelessly across every countertop in the kitchen until he finally got around to washing them—and by “finally”, I mean after 8 or 10 days. The kitchen looked like the garbage can had exploded onto the dish cabinets.  There was nowhere to prepare food, either, since every horizontal surface was covered in dirty pots, pans, plates, and silverware, crusted with drying food and smelling like a landfill. And, yes, sometimes ants and worse insects discovered the unrinsed tableware and began to picnic on his leavings.  Needless to say, I never ate at his home!

Of course, this same man claimed that he could thoroughly clean his two-bedroom apartment weekly in just 20 minutes. It would have taken me that long just to scrape and rinse the dishes, but I didn’t argue the point.  It was, after all, his home, not mine, and I didn’t expect him to follow my personal rules on housekeeping—even if I did cringe and gag once when reaching for the toilet paper roll in his bathroom and seeing the porcelain holder covered in a paste of grey dust and god-knows-what.

But this makes me puzzle, then, as to why my own acquaintances feel it appropriate to criticize my personal dish-washing rules—especially as, if I know that guests are expected, I get all the dirty dishes washed and my well-kept home into a state even more immaculate than it usually is. The only people who have ever encountered my sink half-filled with rinsed dishes awaiting washing are those who dropped by unexpectedly.  What business might it be of theirs, I wonder, how I manage this household chore, and why ever do they feel  such a need to debate it?

And therein lies the real conundrum: that we expect others to do things our way.  Because, after all, our way is the right way, the correct way, the appropriate way.  It would be a perfect world if everyone just did things as we do them: thought as we think; believe as we believed.  (Possibly this explains the fact that there exist hundreds of “one true way” approaches to spirituality.)

Considering the dishwashing conundrum, I’ve decided that it might truly be a more perfect world if we criticized less and accepted more; if we shrugged and said, “Well, that’s not the way I do it, but if it works for you….” If we picked our battles and insisted upon being heard only when speaking about a genuinely serious matter—and, if, even then, we realized that so long as no other human being or helpless animal was being harmed by another’s decision, we should make our peace with that.

The Dishwashing Analogy might be a poor one…but it works for me.

 

 

Our Daily Gifts

Until recently, I had experienced only one major surgery, having my gallbladder removed. Most gallbladder removal patients are sent home the same day, but because I was a single parent with only a minor daughter at home, I’d been kept in the hospital overnight.  That extra night made the whole matter of recuperating easier, for when I arrived home, I was already through the worst of the post-operative period for what is, these days, a fairly simple surgery.

So I was a little unprepared for my recovery from a far more complicated surgery, a complete hysterectomy due to uterine cancer.

As I mentioned in a prior post, I found myself essentially tossed out of the hospital only 20 hours after they wheeled me out of the operating room minus six organs—a cervix, a uterus, two fallopian tubes and two ovaries. I got to spend the most dreadful hours of the post-operative period in the “comfort” of my own home.  But even after overcoming the worst of the post-operative pain and bleeding and generalized misery, I was still unprepared for the series of  “firsts” that comprised complete recovery. I have new understanding now, and a much deeper respect for anyone recovering from major surgery, and especially for those who have undergone procedures a hundred times more serious than mine.

Life as I lived it was completely disrupted. I had to depend on others for the simplest things: food preparation, housework, errands–even medication reminders.  And, as a caretaker personality, such dependence did come not easily to me.

Consequently, everything—every simple daily activity–became a series of firsts. The first time I walked up my own stairwell, slept in my own bed, took a shower without someone standing guard. The first time I could do more with my hair than just run a brush through it. The first time I felt up to putting in my contacts, or dabbing on lip gloss and a swipe of mascara.

I literally celebrated the afternoon that I was able to wash my dishes, or the day I realized I could put down my cats’ food bowls by bending instead of carefully and slowly squatting. I was thrilled when I could finally make my own bed.  I exalted when I found myself able to get out of a gown and robe and into loose exercise pants—or when, after weeks, I was finally able to pull on jeans without too much discomfort from my sutures.  I texted everyone I knew when I was finally able to drive without pain. I had never, I exclaimed, realized how much simple pleasure was involved in just being able to run a quick errand to the bank or the grocery.

Finally given just a faint glimpse of what those with physical challenges—often mere children– must endure every day, I had a new appreciation of just how much of daily existence I had simply take for granted. Intellectually, I’d always known this, but living it was, I found, an alternate reality.  And, sadly, I also know that my memory of those challenging days will fade, leaving me with less and less awareness of and gratitude for the many things I do daily without really thinking.

As I age, though, those challenges will return. Just as I now remember, regretfully, when my muscle strength was such that I could rise from a sitting position without levering myself up, so the ability to run my own errands, clean my own house—care for myself—will (should I live long enough) eventually be lost.  Like the child I once was, like the recovering patient I have been, I will be dependent once more upon others to do these things for me.

I do not look forward to that time.   And so it is that I try to remember and appreciate each day—as I climb my stairwell; as I bathe and dress myself; as I prepare my dinner—the infinitesimal and yet vast gifts that I am bequeathed, moment by moment, and movement by movement.

Amosandra

My mother grew up in a neighborhood that was well below the poverty line and (in an era in which only poor neighborhoods were so) racially mixed. At the time, the phrase “colored” was in popular use; citizens would not be either “black” or “people of color” or “African American”  for another forty to sixty years.

Because of her family’s financial situation, if she wanted pocket money, Mom had to work. And so it was that, as a very young adolescent, she began babysitting for a “colored” family up the street, watching their infant after school and on Saturdays, so that the lady of the household could go out to work herself, doing washing or ironing for more affluent families.  Years later, Mom would explain to me that it was because of this experience of caring for a black infant that she came to understand that we are all, no matter our color, simply people.  Our “race” is human.

Determined to bequeath that lesson to me, when I was about four years old, my mother sought out and gave me the gift of a black baby doll—an “Amos and Andy Amosandra” doll. The soft rubber doll, perhaps 8 or 10 inches long, was a rich chocolate brown, with painted black hair and eyes.  It was just the right size for cuddling into a little girl’s willing arms.  Amosandra—yes, that’s what my Dad told me to call her after reading it stamped on the back of the doll—was dressed in a little yellow knit cap and jacket, and my Mom made several little cloth diapers for her, triangle-style, gathered with a little gold safety pin.

Amosandra
Amosandra: The Sun Rubber Company Amos and Andy Doll.

Along with Lisa, my much larger white baby doll, Amosandra was laid to rest every evening in the little wooden doll crib that had been passed down to me from Mom’s own childhood.

Years later, when I was in my 50s, my father found Amosandra stored in the attic. Being made of rubber, she had hardened and melted in that unforgiving environment; she was too far gone to be repaired.  But how I wish I had her still, not because of her probable value, but because she was dear to me, and adorable, and because it was through Amosandra that I experienced first-hand the vile cruelty and wrongness of racial prejudice.  It was a lesson that would stay with me my entire life.

Most of the children in the neighborhood where we lived in the little suburb of Beech Grove were older than I by two or three years—not a large gap when one is grown, but an impassable chasm for a little child. Still, occasionally I was invited to play with Connie and Linda, girls who lived in nearby houses.  On that particular day, I recall, they decided we should play on Connie’s front porch, pretending to be moms and neighbors.  Each of us ran home to get a doll or two to be our play children.

I came back with Amosandra and all her accoutrements—diapers, dolly bottles, clothes. We each chose a corner of the porch to be our home, and I busied myself with setting up my area.  But, after a few minutes, I noticed that Linda and Connie were giggling, looking at me over their shoulders and whispering together.  My five-year-old self recognized that something was wrong, but I was totally at a loss to explain it.  Finally one of the girls spoke up, saying, “I guess Becky is a nigger momma!” and they burst out laughing, pointing at Amosandra and sniggering.

I didn’t quite know what “nigger” meant, but I knew from their attitudes that it wasn’t good. I grabbed up my toys and stormed off the porch, hurrying home in tears to tell my mother the whole upsetting story.

She comforted me as I wept and tried to explain. I don’t recall much of that conversation except a sense of bewilderment.  Amosandra was my favorite baby doll, and I loved her.  Why was it wrong that she was brown?  It made no sense.

In giving me Amosandra, my mother taught me a much larger lesson than she had actually planned, for I learned not only what she had intended—that we are all merely human—but the additional cruel lessons that Connie and Linda forced upon me that sad day about the evils of prejudice and bullying.

I never dared bring my beloved Amosandra outside my house again.  Forever after that, she stayed loved and well-cared for but played with only in my bedroom.

But there was one thing that I could do to mend the sad memory of that day, and when I was a young mother, I actually did: When my own daughter was just three,  following the heart of that long-ago lesson, I  gave her a black baby doll.

The Scars We Bear

An acquaintance of mine once confessed that, having begun a relationship after years of being single, she was planning a surgical procedure to remove a noticeable but hidden scar prior to being intimate with her new beau.

Not wishing to offend her, I merely nodded in response to this confession, although I found it hard not to hoot with laughter. I myself had a handful of intimate relationships in the first decade following the demise of my marriage, and at no point did I ever consider it a problem that I have a broad C-Section scar that stretches from hip-to-hip, nor another scar from a breast biopsy that wraps around a nipple. Any male who found my scars off-putting wasn’t someone with whom I needed to be in a relationship, anyway.  I am proud of my scars, including the five new ones from my cancer surgery, which my daughter calls, “Triumphant Scars”.  My stretch marks mean that I proudly bore a wonderful daughter. My scars tell anyone who looks upon them that I am a survivor.

As I see it, the real problem with my acquaintance’s attitude is the predominant and culturally-encouraged belief that we, both men and women, are somehow not good enough (for a relationship, for friendships, for any social interaction) unless we are physically perfect. Encouraged by ads and articles and commercials, by dolls and cartoons, by the glorified unreality of television and movies, we “know” that we are unsuited for love—emotional or physical—unless we have shiny hair, perfectly straight, white teeth, strong muscles and a flat stomach, glowing, blemish-free skin…the list of features we must perfect is painfully endless.  We are instructed in countless ways to reduce or erase our “flaws” and “imperfections”, from that first sentinel wrinkle to baggy knees.  And heaven forbid we age!

I’ve reached that stage of my existence, though, in which “imperfections”, no matter how bravely fought, are inescapable. Wrinkles, sagging flesh, age spots, whitening hair, are simply facts of life, as are slowly softening muscles and deteriorating sight and hearing and strength. And what I have learned from this is that no part of my physical self makes me in any way unacceptable.

In my years on this planet, I have been appreciated, complimented and loved despite a nose that extends like the prow of a ship, teeth that are neither perfectly straight nor white, skin that has never stopped being prone to break-outs, and a tummy that’s always been too round for current cultural perceptions. I’ve had a number of intimate relationships no matter that I bear scars, and no man has ever commented upon them except once, to ask me considerately  if the scar was sensitive.

Every mark, every healed wound, upon my body is a story in its own right; is indicative of my ability, not just to survive, but to thrive—physically, mentally, emotionally. This body that I live in is, therefore, not perfectible, but already perfect.  And anyone who cannot accept that, accept me, precisely as I am is undeserving of being included in my life

A Candle in the Darkness

A few days before I was to have surgery, a close friend asked me to confirm the time that my operation would be starting. She would, she explained, be lighting a candle for me at that moment, and sending me her prayers and love.

I’ve always found that the most terrible moment of any surgery is that short, frightening journey as one is wheeled down corridors into the operating room.   The unutterable sense of loneliness cannot be described to anyone who has not had this experience.  I liken it to the final journey of death.  Friends and family in the pre-op room have hugged and kissed one goodbye, and then one is completely alone, facing an unknown.  No matter how simple the surgery, everyone experiences that nagging dread that they might not awaken from the anesthetic.  Everyone wonders if hands, feet, arms, legs, fingers, toes, will all function afterwards, or be forever paralyzed.  Everyone is aware that sometimes, in surgery, things go wrong.

Only once, as I was being taken to surgery, did the orderly pushing the gurney seek to lighten my sense of trepidation. Had I ever had surgery before, she asked, and when I answered in the affirmative, she patted my shoulder and said, “But it’s always a little scary, isn’t it?”  There are no words to describe how comforting I found her empathetic remark.

Being wheeled to this most recent surgery, I received no such comforting question or concern. I was taken a short distance to the operating room and helped onto the table.  In a surgery just two months prior, a nurse had introduced me quickly to everyone in the operating room, giving me their first names and their function in the surgery, leaving me to wonder fearfully if there would be a quiz afterwards!  This time, however, there was only the quick press of the oxygen mask over my face and the staccato instructions of the anesthesiologist to, “Breathe!  Breathe deeply!”  (Of course, since I am horribly claustrophobic, just having the darned mask pressed onto my face made me do nothing but instinctively hold my breath in complete terror, followed by the rapid-fire, quick, short breaths of a full-blown panic attack.  Perhaps this is a reaction for which anesthesiologists should be schooled in their method of approach.)

But, despite my claustrophobia, my lonely distress and anxiety, the image of my friend’s candle, burning brightly for me, shone in my consciousness. I found myself focusing on it during that brief journey to the operating room.  The image calmed me, reassuring me that I was not truly alone; that the prayers and concern of others were surrounding me.  A memory swam up into my consciousness, a poem I had written years earlier, and I found myself reciting the lines like a mantra as I was carried into the coma-like sleep of anesthesia:

Just a light left burning for me
in my window of darkest pain;
just safe harbor, refuge, retreat
sheltered sanctuary from rain.

Just a kind hand, steadying me
when I stumble a rocky path;
just a heart’s strong, balancing beat
when I settle my face at last

to the shoulder, stable and sure
of a long-cherished friend who shares
light embrace, encircling me
in the knowledge that one soul cares.

Weeks afterwards, my friend told me that the candle she lit had burned throughout my three-hour operation (which had, of course, begun later than actually scheduled). Despite guttering a few times, the candle had continued burning until a call from the phone tree assured her that I was out of surgery and doing well.

But, in my mind, that candle is still burning, guiding me through the darkness, lighting my path with the beacon of caring and friendship.