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.  

The Screen Test

Years ago I read a slogan which has always stayed with me: “An open mind is like a window; you have to put up a screen for the bugs.”

As someone who has always been interested “fringe” concepts – conspiracy theories, New Age spirituality, holistic medicine, reincarnation, acupuncture, telepathy, numerology, homeopathy, precognition – I’ve looked into ‘em all – that slogan has been important, reminding me to keep myself centered with a healthy skepticism. I fully agree with Hamlet’s famous statement to Horatio, but I’ve still always examined each of my interests using the Screen Test.

As a result, the first time I encountered material that was supposedly channeled through a human from a “higher being” I hammered my skeptical screen tightly into the window of my mind.  The higher being was described variously as an evolved soul, an angelic being, or a spiritual master. Why, I wondered, would such a being need or even want to speak through a human voice?  I’d read extensively about the phenomenon of the subconscious mind producing alternate personalities, and was aware of just how easily this could happen, especially when the mind was in a trance or hypnotic state.  Nevertheless, I decided to read the book anyway,  wondering if it might convince me that channeled materials were actually teachings from higher source, and not just the product of someone’s untethered subconscious.

The book failed the Screen Test.

If this material was the revelation of an Evolved Master, I decided, I would just have to stay a spiritual amoeba. Decades later, I still recall some of the passages that set my teeth on edge. In one segment, the Teacher told a sort of parable about a married man who fell in love with another woman.  The two of them nobly refrained from an affair while he stayed with his  wife, whom the would-be lovers referred to as “the Vegetable”.  A few years later, the Teacher explained, their self-sacrifice and noble morality were rewarded when “the Vegetable” passed away, leaving the path clear for them to marry at last.

Now just a cotton-pickin’ minute! “The Vegetable”? This man mocked the woman whom he’d promised to love, honor, and cherish by referring to her using that scathing nickname?  His would-be paramour did the same?  Exactly how was it possible that his scornful attitude never affected his marriage – that his wife never felt his disrespect, never felt unloved or belittled? Exactly how was it better or morally right that she was never released from this sham of a marriage to possibly find happiness with someone who genuinely loved her?  How was it even decent that her death was viewed as convenient?

And this was an example of morality as taught by a spiritual Master?

In another paragraph, the Teacher referred derisively to “young men who refuse to fight for their country”. The Vietnam war was raging at the time this book was published, so this was clearly a reference to those who dodged the draft or protested the war.  But I personally had no quarrel with the courageous young people who protested and marched and held sit-ins and burnt their draft cards.  They had the courage to declare that this was an unjust war; an undeclared war forced on a generation of youngsters who, at that time, were underage to legally vote for the very leaders who were sending them away to die.

Right then and there I made up my mind that this material was representative of nothing but the personal prejudices of the supposed Channeler. This dreck in no way represented the teachings of an angelic being. Teacher, my right hind rump!

I’ve encountered other purportedly channeled material in the years since. Unlike that first encounter, much channeled material often seemed truly spiritual, wise, even beautiful.  So perhaps it is only owing to that first unhappy experience with channeling that I have never been able to accept channeled material to be other than the subconscious product of the Channeler. It saddens me that such sagacious people fail to trust their own wisdom and teach directly from it, but instead feel they must insist that it comes from a being beyond their own spirit.

I will never doubt that there are highly evolved spiritual beings on both sides of the Veil that separates human life from the hereafter, and I can even accept that those in spirit sometimes speak to us.

But I truly doubt that they speak through us.

Not a Fan of Funerals

In memory of Terry Robare
Member of Many Hearts, One Spirit
Who Made Her Transition September 13, 2018

Despite having written previously about attending them (A Tale of Two Funerals, March 5, 2018), I’m not a big fan of funerals, especially as they are conducted in modern American society.  I find them macabre and disturbing.  I despise the trite comments: “He looks like he could just sit up and start talking to us”. No, he doesn’t.  He looks dead. “The flowers are just lovely.” Does no one remember that the original purpose of flowers and candles by the coffin was to hide the scent of decay?

I scorn remarks which transmute the character of the deceased into saintly values.  Few of us are without personality flaws, and being dead does not erase a lifetime of bad temperament, nor confer sainthood.  I cringe when listening to a minister who is not just a stranger to me, but who often barely knew the deceased, turn from eulogizing to proselytizing.  (“Hey! Think about it, people!  The old so-and-so is lying here dead, and your time is coming! So, hie yourself back into the fold, pronto!”)  I’ve even been heard to say that if anyone holds a funeral for me, I will most definitely come back and haunt them. I mean it, too.

No, for many reasons I despise funerals and can rarely be persuaded to attend one, except for the sake of speaking to a few of those who are grieving the most. Even then, my appearance at any funeral calling is brief.  Open or closed, I frankly avoid the casket, contenting myself with signing the guestbook, examining photos, or watching the life-video the family has put together, perhaps hoping that from these I might glean in-depth knowledge of  or at least a sense the essence of the life lived by the person who has passed.

Memorial services or  celebrations of life–those are another matter. Those I attend gladly, and come away, if saddened, also refreshed and satisfied. I happily attend Talking Stick ceremonies (blog post December 10, 2017, Another Talking Stick) and wakes, where I can hear stories about the life of the deceased–little things that I might otherwise  never have known. For the same reason, I am pleased to write eulogies: to share memories of the one who has passed.

That is, I think,  the true essence of saying farewell to someone who has made their journey to the other side of the Veil: their story. The little memories of a lifetime, well-lived or otherwise, that comprise that person.  The rounded viewpoint given to us about an individual when someone other than an immediate family member or minister speaks of them, for those individuals often tell stories only of the deceased’s legend.  I want to see beyond the legend and the myth to the reality of the human being: flawed, wondrous, judgmental, open, accepting, confused, contradictory, thoughtful–complete.

The ancient Egyptians believed that if our names were forgotten, our souls ceased to exist, and therefore (although they preserved the body, believing it would reanimate in the afterlife) did all they could to ensure that their names would be spoken and remembered. They were, in a sense, correct, for our names are the heading at the top of our story. And perhaps that is why I despise modern funerals: for it is not the body of our loved one which needs to be remembered; it is their story.

The Spiritual Buffet

I was raised in the Roman Catholic faith, and attended parochial school for eight years. We attended Mass most mornings; our first course each school day was casually dubbed “Religion”, during which we were instructed in the theology of our faith. “Why were we created?” I chanted, word perfect, as a six-year-old.  “We were created to know, love and serve God.”

I left the Catholic faith as a teenager, so I have no idea if the tenets of that religion are taught in the same way today as they once were. But in the 1960s, we children were instructed that only baptized Roman Catholics would actually make it into heaven after death.  That was it.  Nobody else got past the Pearly Gates.  Children who died before baptism, infants miscarried or stillborn, our nice little Protestant playmates down the street, the millions of other non-Catholic souls inhabiting the planet–if they weren’t a baptized Catholic, they weren’t getting in.  Instead, we were instructed, they’d be shuffled off to an unlikely realm dubbed “Limbo”.  There the soul would be perfectly happy – but God wouldn’t be there.  (The sheer hubris of claiming the existence of a dimension where an omnipresent divinity did not exist was never quite explained.)

Consequently, since only Roman Catholics were getting in the door for their interview with God, we good little Catholics needed to do our missionary utmost to make sure that everyone on the planet ended up Roman Catholic.  The world would be a Perfect Place if only that were so.

Young as I was (and leaving entirely aside a religious history that included the Inquisition, not to mention the as-then unrevealed existence of pedophile priests and Magdalene laundries), I still tended to doubt this very exclusionary view of goodness.  Sitting there on my hard wooden chair in elementary school, I secluded my uncertainties carefully within my own thoughts.  Why, I wondered, would we each have been given a brain and thereby the ability to question if we were not intended to use those attributes?  And if we all reached different conclusions, then didn’t that very individuality contribute to the magnificence of creation?

It would be decades before my viewpoint was confirmed, by no less a spiritual personage than the Dalai Lama himself. Sitting in an amphitheater, listening to him speak to an enthralled audience, I heard him explain what I had known all along: spiritual diversity existed because we humans were created as individuals.  We would not, he told us, eat at a restaurant that served only one dish; just so, spirituality had to serve all the inhabitants of the earth, in all their magnificent variances.  It had to come in many distinct varieties, flavors, temperatures, and seasonings.  It had to differ because we were each different.

Despite my rejection of Catholicism, I have no quarrel with my schooling in the faith, which gave me many gifts that I would not otherwise have (not the least of which is an exceptionally well-trained memory which can still chant the theological lessons learned 50-plus years ago). Nor indeed have I any dispute with any faith that does not promote cruelty or destruction,  or seek to bind individuals with the chains of  “one true way”.  I have no argument, either, with those who chose not to believe.  Atheism and agnosticism are also personal decisions, and every bit as valid as belief.

My adult self has fully come to accept what my child self, in innocence, already comprehended: that perhaps if we can all ever accept each other’s chosen paths as right and true, as good and whole and perfect for the person who maintains them, then this sad old world of ours might truly become, at last, a Perfect Place.

Letters to the Future

Shortly before the baby shower for my pregnant daughter, a friend sent me a YouTube video of a young girl on her 16th birthday, opening letters that had been written to her by family and friends—some now passed on—at her birth.

I loved that idea, and shared it with my daughter; she was enthusiastic. And so it was that at her own baby shower we passed out paper and pens and asked that those present write a Letter to the Future to be saved for Morrigan Lynn and opened on her  16th birthday.  Laughing, I told the participants, “You can’t tell her that boys suck; she’ll figure that one out on her own!  But give her your best advice, or a blessing–not Maleficent-style, please!–or tell her the most important thing you’ve ever learned in your own lifetime.”

We gathered together the finished letters, carefully sealed into their envelopes, and placed them into two special wooden boxes, painted gold and decorated with dragons and mermaids.

But when it came time for me to write my own letter to this as-yet-unborn granddaughter, I found myself at a loss. For two months, I struggled with what I should say to her.  And then, finally, I simply sat down and started writing, and I found that the words flowed easily.

My dearest granddaughter,

As I write those words above, I wonder…will you be my dearest granddaughter? Will you be someone whom I love, of whom I am proud—an amazing young woman on the brink of life, right at the starting line, preparing to run the good race?

Even more, though, I wonder what you will think of me. Will I be a woman you admire?  Will you dislike me?  Be totally bored by me? Think I’m a fool?

Will I even still be on this side of the Veil when you read this letter?

There are no guarantees in life. Any or all of the above may be true 16 years from now.  But none of that really matters, because the purpose of this letter is so that I may share with you whatever I’ve learned in my 64 weary years of walking this planet.  So here are the bits of wisdom I have assembled in my life.  And though they all seem to be very different, they all essentially amount to the same thing: living your life with courage and kindness.

 The truest thing I’ve learned is that my entire attitude is up to me. No one can “make” me feel anything—anything at all. No one else can “make” me angry; I allow myself to get angry. No one can “make” me feel small or insignificant; only I can take ownership of the belittling behavior some people express, and decide within myself that they are right. I, and I alone, can make myself happy, sad, depressed, exalted, fearful, resentful, joyous. I decide every minute of every day what my response will be to every event and every person I encounter.

 There are truly only two emotions: Love and Fear. All other emotions are merely subsets of those two. Make your own decision about which one you want to act from.

 Read poetry. Remember it. Poetry is wonderful material to think with. Read Kahlil Gibran. Read “The Desiderata”. More than read it: try to live it.

 Be thoughtful. Remember people’s special days. Run an errand for someone who is busy. Go to see someone who is sick. Hold the door open for the person whose hands are laden with packages.

 Always says to yourself, “How would I feel if…” Then behave in the way you would want to be treated.

 Do nice things for people for no reason at all—yes, even for the people you don’t like very well. Especially for the people you don’t like very well.

 Dance with the ugly or geeky guy who has no partner. And then smile at him and thank him for dancing with you.

 Stand up for the person who is being bullied or mocked.

 Remember that, if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

 Say please and thank you. Especially, say thank you.

 Give to charity—not just your money, but your time.

 Stand up for what you believe in.

 No matter how angry you are, calm down before you speak. And remember that it matters less what you say, then how you say it. There are a thousand ways to say even hurtful things in a kindly manner.

 Be slow to anger. Learn to keep your temper.

 Remember that there is no failure. There are only lessons to be learned.

 Be grateful even for the bad times. You cannot appreciate the light if you’ve never seen the darkness.

 Keep an open mind, but keep it like a window: put up a screen for the bugs!

 Remember that resentment is like taking poison while hoping the other person will die.

 Go ahead and cry; it truly does help, and there is no shame in weeping.

There is never enough kindness in the world. Be sure that, at the end of your own life, you will be remembered as the person who was kind.

 And, finally, always forgive. You don’t have to forgive the wrong done to you, but always forgive the person.

All my love to you, my dearest granddaughter,

Mimsey

Welcome to the World
Morrigan Lynn
“Great Queen of the Water”
Mermaid Queen with the Heart of a Dragon
August 23, 2018

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.