We Need a New Pronoun!

She, He, Ze or Te, that is the question.

I’ve just read (well, actually, skipped over reading most of) yet another story of some celebrity about whom I know little and care less who has come out as bisexual / transgender / asexual / lesbian / demisexual / gay / pansexual / cisgender / “I only have sex with Martians.  Green Martians, not purple ones”, or some other variation on the apparently-boundless spectrum of human gender and sexuality.  Well, here is me coming out with my reaction: Who the (multiple bad words deleted) cares?! 

Why is announcing this information to the entire planet not considered to be simply in bad taste, let alone the uttermost extremity on the far intergalactic end of the narcissism spectrum?  Why is it anyone’s business, except for the individual’s own partner? (Or partners, to be more likely accurate.)  Normalizing variations of human sexuality can no longer be considered an excuse for these vainglorious announcements, since “normal” comprises an extensive range these days, while those who do not accept such differences are never going to do so, anyway.

This most recent declaration included the expository remark that the individual in question wished to be known by the pronouns them or they.  And THAT, as much as anything, set my teeth on edge.

I fully understand and agree that those who’ve concluded they fall into a previously-unremarked gender category may feel disconcerted by referring to themselves using the gendered pronouns she or he.  But, frankly, in light of these unremitting public revelations,  we badly need a new, genderless pronoun added to the English language.

Language, not just spoken language but written language, changes. In the longer-ago-than-I-care-to-remember era in which I grew up, the only pronoun of general reference was “he”.  It didn’t matter than an entire magazine issue might be geared toward the female of the species; “he” was the pronoun of indeterminate reference used within its pages.  This was galling and irritating to all females everywhere; it was simply wrong.  I even endured one minister, God help me–pun intended, by the way–who insisted that we were all, male and female together He created them, Sons of God.  That’s right. Sons.  Only Sons.  No Daughters. Not even Children.  Just Sons.  (Here insert the sound of grating teeth…)

Eventually—I believe it may have been sometime shortly after the introduction of the prefix Ms. to replace Miss or Mrs.–one began seeing writing which used the phrase “he or she”.  Yes, always, always that damnable “he” first!  Or occasionally even “s/he”.  (As an aside, this could lead me spinning off into a discussion of why it is always the male noun now used when gendered nouns were once the norm; i.e., always actor, rather than actress—why is it always the male noun that becomes the norm?  But I suppose that’s a grumpy discussion for another blog post.)

In any case, despite these permutations, the pronouns of multiple reference were always “they” or “them”.  A student who misused the words they or them in writing that school essay was likely to see a blatant red circle on the sentence and a lowered grade.  Worse yet, students who had, as I did, the misfortune to attend a parochial elementary school were apt to have the Ruler of Death smacked across cringing knuckles.

Consequently, I will never be able to view the pronouns they or them as anything but pronouns of multiple reference.  An individual referring to her or his (Ha! Take that, Wielders of the Ruler of Death!) person using they or them will forever indicate to me that the speaker suffers from multiple personality disorder. It’s not just grammatically incorrect; it’s downright confusing.

The simple fact is that, if we are to accept, acknowledge and adhere to our new understanding of the fluidity of human gender while using the common pronouns of personal reference, then we  need new pronouns.  The English language is endlessly malleable. New words are added at an alarming rate. We have, after all, come up with new words to describe these many variations of human sexuality.  The word transgender; the uneuphonious cisgender, which I personally so dislike (more about that in a future blog post) —those words were not commonly used until at least the 1960s, or even much later.  Why, then, not new pronouns?  Why not words which genuinely eschew gender, and simply reference humanity?

I have seen Ze or Zhey used, as well as Te or Tey.  (I suppose it should actually be Ze or Zhey or Zheir or Zhem, or Te or Tey or Teir or Tem.)  I have no preference for either form, and a consensus could probably only be reached by whatever words see the most use—sort of like the antique VHS/Betamax debate.  And while learning to use brand-new words instead of trying to hammer old puzzle pieces into the picture in an attempt to make them fit might be disconcerting to many, it is actually the appropriate thing to do.  One should  genuinely bend with the winds of change, rather than try to break in a word that’s already seen gender-filled usage for generations.

Until that happens, though—until the English grammar texts and the grave arbiters of language correctness settle on a pronoun of indeterminate gender reference, I shall continue to use my preferred “she or he”, if only to avoid the Universal Ruler of Death.  I have very tender knuckles.

Liked this essay?  Then you might also enjoy “Who or Whom? That is the Question!”, from April 17, 2018.  Scroll down to the Archives link to locate it.

My Shabby Old Green Armchair

We imbue the physical objects in our orbit with worth, adding to them a value far beyond their price.

My old green armchair is on its last legs, almost literally. It is growing ever more shabby…and ever more comfortable and comforting. It is just an overstuffed chair, not even a recliner, but that scruffy old chair has been my salvation for at least 15 years. It’s the chair where I sit to read in the mornings, sunlight pouring in from the living room window behind me. It’s the chair where my cat Lilith comes to lounge across my chest as I sprawl in the laziest position, my feet propped on the leather hassock in front of me. It’s the chair where I collapsed, feverish, coughing and wheezing one December night in 2019, feeling sick enough to die after a long day spent at the hospital with my even-sicker Dad. It’s the chair where I cuddled my cranky little grandbaby, trying to soothe her to sleep as I watched her through the night. And it is the chair which I knelt beside to stroke and kiss my darling little black cat, Belladonna, who lay there so peacefully and quietly as she began her journey across the Rainbow Bridge.

The green armchair wasn’t new even when I bought it. In the early 2000s, I’d discovered a store which sold second-hand hotel furnishings—sturdy pieces which were still in good shape, usually disposed of because a business was remodeling. In the days before bed bugs had become a resurgent menace, these pieces were an excellent bargain. The furnishings had heavy-duty springs and were covered in substantial, sturdy fabrics; upholstery meant to last through the worst that careless guests could offer. Best of all, the pieces were within my limited price range. So I bought a set consisting of a sofa striped in bottle-green, rose pink and fawn, with two matching bottle-green chairs.

The sofa had already seen the most wear, but still lasted a good eight years; I finally disposed of it when moving from an apartment to my little condo. The two green armchairs, though, moved with me. Despite being a pair, one was a bit more worn than the other, and finally, its springs sagging, gave up the ghost. Prior to putting it out on the curb for heavy trash pickup, though, I removed the fabric from the seat. A bit of cutting and stitching turned the rescued cloth into slipcovers to disguise the worn arms and back of the remaining chair.

It is those covers which are themselves now beginning to show wear. Picked at by cat claws and rubbed a thousand times by my forearms (and, regrettably, my knees, as I’ve sat sideways on the cushion with my legs slung over the arms), the covers are growing shiny with use and knobbly with picked threads. When they go at last, there will be no reprieve for my shabby old green armchair. But saying farewell to it will be genuinely sad.

It’s strange how these little bits of household detritus worm their way into our hearts and memories and lives, becoming more than just the sum of their being. Yet it happens to everyone. A wall is not just a wall, but a record of a child’s growth; a stuffed animal not merely a toy, but the friend that comforted us throughout our childhood, and one whom we cannot bear to abandon. And, for me, a chair that is not simply an old, battered, and comfortable chair, but the foundation of a hundred precious and important memories. The more spiritual among us may scoff at this habit of making a material object something more than it seems, deriding our connection as a foolish physical attachment, and perhaps they are right. But there it is, nonetheless. The broken down beater that was one’s first car, or the too-small first apartment; the maple tree climbed by a succession of children, itself grown tall from nothing but a spindly little volunteer; the old rocking chair that comforted many a sick child—they mean something to us, these little incidentals in our lives. We imbue them with worth, and they take on a shining patina thereby.

It won’t be long before, one sad day, I’ll find myself dragging my battered old green armchair out through the garage to await the trash truck. Chairs can’t have souls, of course. But I will, nonetheless, pat it when I place it on the curb and tell it, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Well done.”

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like the essay, “My Blue Willow Tea Set”, which was posted June 26, 2018. Scroll down to the Archives link to locate it.

Cultural Appreciation

Mexico recently accused certain clothing manufacturers of cultural appropriation.

Undoubtedly, in a world where divisiveness and rage are accepted behavioral norms, someone will be furious at me for saying this, but I simply don’t comprehend the concept of cultural appropriation. All of us, we humans, have been borrowing on one another’s creations, discoveries, customs, culture, and traditions since the earliest rising of humanity. The current century, with its instantaneous transmission of information and knowledge, photos and videos, has simply made that sharing all the more rapid and simple.

Think on it: most of us in the Western world live in democratic societies—the political development of the ancient Greeks. Did we then culturally appropriate democracy?

Have you ever worn linen? Thank the prehistoric humans of 36,000 years ago who developed the process of extracting and weaving flax fibers, and the Babylonians who mastered the process, which was then taken over by the ancient Egyptians, who raised the activity to a high art form. The wearing and use of linen is already a cultural appropriation, millennia old and through multiple civilizations. Should it happen as well that you wore that linen cloth with embroidery upon it, remember that the oldest surviving examples of embroidery were found in Tutankhamen’s tomb, so embroidery, too, was appropriated from that ancient civilization.

Slightly closer to home, how many of those reading this have taken a yoga course? Have you not then culturally appropriated a religious practice of Indus-Sarasvati civilization in Northern India, one observed for over 5,000 years? Or were you just getting in some stretching and calming exercise, unconcerned about how and where the practice originated?

Have you ever put up a Christmas tree? How dare you appropriate a German holiday custom! Worn a plaid skirt or shirt or tie? You have culturally appropriated a traditional Celtic form of weaving– which is, by the way, actually called tartan, not plaid; it is a plaid only if you’ve slung it over your shoulder as a giant rectangular scarf. That, you probably haven’t done, so you may be excused from that precise form of cultural appropriation—but if you’ve worn a kilt, and are not of Celtic descent, then, shame on you!

Think back to studying poetry in elementary school. Were you instructed to write a haiku? It is shocking, shocking, that you have culturally appropriated a centuries old form of verse native to the Japanese.

Did you celebrate a national holiday by attending a fireworks show? You and others for all the long centuries since approximately the year 900 have stolen that custom from the Chinese Song dynasty. You are a cultural thief.

Perhaps you’ve strolled down the sidewalk satisfying your hunger by munching a hot dog purchased from a street vendor’s cart. Again, cultural appropriation from the Germans, who developed the frankfurter from which that hot dog was derived. Foods are themselves an entire classification of the supposed crime of cultural appropriation, so you might consider giving up your tacos and burritos unless you are of a Latinx nationality. Stop purchasing your Chinese and Thai takeout, ditto. Of course, anyone of Italian descent may well jib at giving up spaghetti, despite the fact that the long noodles themselves were unknown until Marco Polo returned from his travels in the far east. But at least Italian Americans can enjoy pizza, especially if their ancestry derives from ancient Naples.

Caftans come and go in popularity, but are owed to ancient Mesopotamia, not the fashion houses of New York. But you may be easily excused from an accusation of cultural appropriation for having braided your hair, which is a traditional form of hairstyle so ancient that the oldest statue ever found, the 25,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf, shows a female with braided hair. Various cultures from Africa to ancient America to Scandinavia may have developed different methods of braiding, from multiple thin beaded braids, to two plaits at each side of the face, but the hairstyle itself is basically so old that it might be best described as a cultural activity of all humanity, not any one national group.

And, considering hair, I hardly think anyone would deny a chemotherapy patient the right to a nicely-styled wig, despite the fact that it, too, is an Ancient Egyptian development, and therefore a cultural appropriation of an archaic African hairstyle.

Can music be culturally appropriated? If so, all current humans who haven’t been determined to show a few Neanderthal genes in that DNA swab they took should stop playing any music, for the oldest musical instrument known is a Neanderthal flute. Like a percentage of modern humans, I myself carry such genes, but, sadly, do not play any instrument. Nevertheless, bearing a few Scottish genes, I can still thrill to the skirl of the bagpipes; don’t you dare, unless you, too, carry Celtic DNA!

By now, I am sure you are shaking your head, or wryly twisting your lips, or perhaps even chuckling as you grasp, even if you do not concede, my point: there is no such thing as cultural appropriation. We humans have been borrowing from and improving upon one another’s customs and traditions and inventions and creations for the entirety of our history on this mangled little planet.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. There is and never has existed any such thing as cultural appropriation. It is all, as it has always been, cultural appreciation.

If you appreciated this essay, you might find “A Cultural Heritage”, from February 10, 2018, interesting. Or you might hate it! But scroll down to the Archives link to find it.

The TV Shows That Shaped Us

My parents had unusual ideas about what constituted good family TV viewing.

If you have read my post “There Are No Generations”, from November 18, 2020, you’ll already be aware that the article, “Baby Boomers: Five Reasons They Are Our Worst Generation” written by Mr. Gene Marks in 2013, supremely ticked me off.  As I pointed out in that earlier essay, the people described in Mr. Marks’ angry diatribe in no way resembled anyone I’ve ever known.

But one of the points he made in his unpleasant and inaccurate rant, far from causing me disgust or making me angry, left me laughing—laughing hard and long.  That point concerned his remarks regarding the television shows that, watched by Boomers during their youth, supposedly shaped their worldview. According to Mr. Marks, the television shows of that era created a belief system, shared by all Boomers, that women were intended to be housewives; that of all human races, Whites alone mattered; and that homosexuality was disgusting.  As an example, he provided the vision of then-youthful Boomers clustered around the TV for family viewing of shows like Ozzie and Harriet.

Uh, no.

At least, not in the household where I grew up.

My parents, if not precisely having better taste, at least had more varied ideas about what constituted good family viewing. I don’t recall that we ever watched even a single episode of Ozzie and Harriet.  I did take in just a few installments of Leave It to Beaver and Lassie, but, honestly, I thought both shows were pretty dumb.

But, as I say, my parents’ tastes were varied.  Tales of the Vikings, Kirk Douglas’s only venture into television, lasted only 39 episodes, but was our favorite family viewing. (I can sing the theme song to this day.) We clustered about the TV, enthralled by the amazing sets and costumes, and always cheering when swords inevitably clashed.

During the day, especially as she endured the boredom of doing the ironing, my mother regularly viewed a few soap operas, which she would not let me watch.  Nevertheless, she and I also spent summer afternoons together drinking in the much higher quality Loretta Young Theatre in the early 1960s.

But Westerns were the order of the day for evening viewing, and, as I commented in the blog post Wagons, Ho!, what still strikes me most about many of those old Westerns are the strongly contemporary themes. The films might be black and white, but the subjects they were tackling were anything but.  Racism. Spousal abuse.  Bullying.  Controlling or brutal parents. Societal expectations. True courage. Gun control.  Bigotry.  The way in which gossip, rumor and hearsay destroys lives. The use of religion to justify evildoing. The destruction of wildlife and the decimation of habitat. Kindness toward and acceptance of the different or disabled.  

The Rifleman, Paladin, Wagon Train, Have Gun Will Travel, Gunsmoke—all encouraged us not only to consider adult concepts, but to learn and practice ethical and moral ideals and behaviors.

Then we still-young Boomers grew a bit older, and true Westerns faded into Gene Roddenberry’s contemporary wagon train of Star Trek, throwing new ideas and concepts at our heads like errant baseballs.  A woman, a Black woman, as an officer on a starship? Amazing!  And an interracial kiss!  Wow!

From there we dove into the conflict, debate and generational discord of All in the Family.  Greatest Generation guys like Archie Bunker were being constantly challenged, on screen and in real life, and we then-young Boomers lapped it up, rooting always for the Glorias and Michaels of this world, and praying that the Ediths would stand up for themselves and find their place in the scheme of things.

Now, once more scanning Mr. Marks’ ridiculous comments about the TV programs that shaped a generation, I suspect that his misapprehension may stem from his misplaced certainty that reading about, and perhaps even knowing a few individuals who lived through a particular era, entitles him to draw generalized assumptions about an entire group.  But, as I learned several years ago to my dismay, that isn’t at all the case.

My enlightenment arose on the terrifying evening of 9/11/2001.  Still in the dark about who had committed this terrible atrocity against our country, we citizens were all simply reaching out to loved ones.  I called my Dad, saying to him, shaken, “Daddy, finally, finally, I really know what you went through on the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor.”

He was silent a heartbeat before he responded.  “No, honey, no. You don’t. This is completely different.  At Pearl Harbor, we knew who the enemy was.”

Perhaps it is true that the TV shows of our era helped to shape the viewpoints of the entire Boomer generation, contributing to our belief systems; molding us into the adults we would eventually become. I know that I was challenged by and acquired many progressive ideals from the programs I viewed.  But someone who did not actually live through those turbulent years can never have any more than the faintest glimmering of understanding, the merest glimpse into the reality of our lifetimes in that era.  They will never quite comprehend what the TV we watched really taught us.

If you enjoyed this essay, you might also like the post “Wagons, Ho!”, which  was published on April 6, 2018, and “There Are No Generations”, posted November 18, 2020.  Scroll down to the Archives to locate both.

Earth Day, One Stitch At a Time

 Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without!

For many years, after I had finished reading a magazine, I took the used issue to the office and shared it in our small lunchroom. It seemed such a waste to merely throw each magazine out, even into recycling bins.  Later, pre-pandemic but retired and no longer having the office as a sharing option, I’d offered my used issues to an acquaintance to take to the reception area at her job.  She dropped by my home to pick them up.

She arrived to find me surrounded by billowing yards of cloth, needles, thread and scissors. “What are you making?” she asked curiously.

I explained that I was not making, but mending. A fitted bedsheet, still quite new, had ripped at one corner because the elastic was too tight. So I was fitting in a piece of extra elastic. Then I would use a bit of cloth from an old, worn pillowcase to repair the shredded seam. If I completed the work carefully, the finished product would probably last at least another two, perhaps three years.

She shook her head in disbelief. “I’d just have thrown it away,” she commented.

I wasn’t really surprised. Thirty-some years younger than I, this woman had grown up paying lip service to and even a few concrete actions toward recycling. But the concept of genuinely reducing waste by thriftily repairing had never really been requisite in her life.

I was raised in a different mindset. My parents, both born at the start of the Great Depression, had lived with the necessity of thrift throughout their earliest years. “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without!” was their mantra. I recall watching my mother darn socks—a skill that I was never able to master—or repair a purse by carefully using an awl to punch new holes before restitching the worn leather. In those long ago days, the buttons of my father’s office shirts were made from slivers of mother-of-pearl; when the shirts became worn, Mom conscientiously cut the buttons from the cloth before reducing the rest of the shirt into cleaning rags.  She never even considered wasting paper towels for housecleaning.  (I still have, by the way, some of those delicate mother-of-pearl buttons.)

My father was no slouch when it came to making do, either. Dad washed and waxed his cars himself (how much less water and energy consumed than at a car wash?) and mowed his own lawn, raked his own leaves (a simple power mower as opposed to large equipment; a rake, not a leaf blower) until he was well into his 80s.

Despite my lack of skill at darning and my habit of lavishing paper towels on housekeeping chores, something of my parents’ careful economy must have rubbed off on me; hence, the mended bedsheet, as well as the seams of various throw pillows and the fringe of the entryway rug, all of which I carefully repaired, stitching them back together. Those buttons from my mother’s old button-box are still often the subject of a search when a replacement is needed for an item of clothing; there is no need to buy new ones. In fact, I once passed over the purchase of a warm, high-quality winter coat in favor of another, just as fine but much more reasonably priced due, I felt certain, to its very cheap, ugly plastic buttons. I took the ugly-button coat home, clipped off the hideous fasteners, and stitched on a lovely metal set which I recycled from the old button box. There was no need to buy new buttons, and the plastic uglies went themselves into the button box.

But returning to the event of the mended sheet, the real question was, to my mind, the fact of paying lip service to the whole process of “recycle/reduce/reuse”. I have, I must admit, been known to (guiltily) toss out a plastic water bottle when I could not find a recycling bin handy. But now I began looking at the concept of recycling from a larger perspective, and I realized that my inherited thrift was, in fact, the very definition of genuine recycling. Now I wondered to myself exactly how much water was involved in growing the cotton blended into that sheet set—how much gasoline powered the combine that harvested that product—how much energy was used as the cloth was woven and then sewn into sheets using thread that had also been produced by a mechanical process—everything involved in the packaging and shipping that had finally resulted in the (defective) product that I plucked from a shop shelf. Then I considered not just the waste of money, had I simply thrown away the ripped sheet rather than going to the effort of repairing it, but the real waste—the waste of all that damage sustained by Mother Earth in producing a simple set of sheets for my bed. Sheets that I would not even have purchased had not the old ones been worn past repair and past using.

I recalled the young woman’s reactions when, first, I asked her if she wanted to reuse my finished magazines, so that they would not be wasted by being read merely once; and, second, at my effort to mend the spoiled sheet. She’d been almost taken aback by the first; flabbergasted by the second. Yet both actions were those of reusing and reducing waste.

The generations since the Industrial Revolution are often accused of having damaged the Earth nearly beyond repair. Perhaps it is not entirely our fault, after all.

If you liked this essay, you might also enjoy “Second Hand Rose”, which you can find in the Archives, posted July 1, 2020.

Reconciliation Day

Reconciliation Day—April 2 in the U.S.–was established in 1989 as a day to make amends: to apologize, repair a damaged or fractured relationship, and (most importantly) to accept an extended olive branch.  

There is nothing quite as bad as an apology that isn’t…except, perhaps, an apology that is rescinded.

I was thinking about all of this on the most recent Reconciliation Day as I recalled two apologies received years ago: one which did me worlds of good until it was thoughtlessly undone; the other which wasn’t truly an apology at all.

The event resulting in the annulled amends actually occurred  in my high school days: an incident which, in the scheme of a lifetime, was extremely minor, but which at age 15 caused me intense mortification. A classmate’s actions inadvertently resulted in my inappropriate discipline.

The classmate–I think her name was Leonie—sat near me during study hour each afternoon in the school cafeteria. On the day in question,  Leonie made several complaints to the study hall proctor, Mr. Iverson. Another student’s behavior—talking, teasing, flirting, laughing—was making it difficult for everyone to concentrate. I ignored the troublemaker, but she drove Leonie to distraction.  The third time Leonie complained, Mr. Iverson stomped back with her to our table.  But, having misunderstood, he grabbed me by the arm and frog-marched me to the front of the cafeteria, where he forced me to stand at attention for the rest of the hour.  Leonie attempted to tell Mr. Iverson that he’d gotten the wrong person, but he waved a hand in her face, commanding her to sit down and shut up.

The humiliation I felt was extreme.  I was that “good kid” who was never in trouble—and here I was, displayed before 200 of my classmates as a scofflaw.  And it was all Leonie’s fault.

She tried to speak to me as I grabbed my books when the bell rang, but I stormed furiously past her. The following morning, though, she managed to catch me and shove a paper into my hands: a written apology.  Worded very dramatically—we were teenage girls, after all!—it nevertheless did the job.  The next time I passed Leonie in line, we joined hands, all forgiven.  Although I rarely saw her after that, being in different classes, the effort Leonie had made to apologize left me with a warm glow.

Years later, as young adults, we met accidentally on the street.  We both recalled that old incident with rueful grins.  Then Leonie said the words that were, to me, like a sharp slap across the face:  “…and then I gave you that stupid note! I was such a little idiot.”

The apology that had meant so much to a distressed 15-year-old was now reduced to regret and ashes; to having been a worthless gesture made by a fool.

Perhaps my face revealed my feelings as I heard her annul her apology.  I only recall that she quickly ended our unplanned meeting and went on her way.  But I’ve never thought of Leonie again without an ironic twist of the lips.

The second apology—the apology that wasn’t—came to me in letter form, also,  decades after the events in question.  The woman who penned the apology had, in those pre-internet days, gone to some trouble to track me down and mail it to me, writing that she hoped she’d found the right person.

When we were both young, I’d been the victim of this woman’s intentional persecution: horrific bullying that went on for months.  Even belatedly, I was overwhelmed to have an apology…at least at first.

Her letter began well, saying that she now realized she’d behaved badly. She needed me to understand that she’d been young and immature, and desperately afraid of not looking “cool” in front of her clique of friends.  I, unfashionable, plain, and insecure, had been an easy target.  She hoped that  I could, would, forgive her.

I read this letter through multiple times, puzzled as to why I felt no relief upon reading it.  Finally, it became clear to me. Notably absent were the two vital words that would have made the letter an actual apology:  “I’m sorry.”   Nowhere in her letter were the words, “I’m sorry”, or “I apologize”; nor even the words, “I’m ashamed”.  This wasn’t, I realized, an attempt to make amends, but a pallid excuse embroidered with pale justifications. It was a request for absolution failing either an assumption of personal responsibility or penitence for the wrongs done, coupled with an unflattering, if accurate, assessment of my person in that era.

Crumpling the letter, I tossed it into the trash.  I never wrote back to her.

Now, though, I regret not having replied.  I should have responded, pointing out precisely what was missing from her ostensible apology.  I should have explained that, while I had long since forgiven her, I could neither forget her behavior nor absolve her misdeeds. It was incumbent upon her to find some way to repay the debt she owed, not to me, but to the universe, for her cruelty.

As I say, I sat this Reconciliation Day thinking of these two apologies: one annulled, one that wasn’t, while reminding myself that true reconciliation also mandates that one accept an extended olive branch.   In both situations, by withholding my responses—yes, even my disgusted responses—I failed, and a liability now sits upon my own shoulders.  That is the debt I myself must repay to the universe…perhaps on another Reconciliation Day.

If you liked this blog post, you might also enjoy “Forgiveness is Always an Option”.  It can be found in the archives posted on June 24, 2019.

We Never Really Know

It is almost impossible for the average, genuinely humane person to comprehend horrendous inhumanity.

We know far less about the people around us than we’d like to believe.

For me, this fact is proven continually by the reactions of friends, family and neighbors when some horrific act is perpetrated by someone in their midst.  Think on it: The recent Nashville Christmas bomber.  The airline pilot who intentionally crashed his planeful of passengers into the Alps. The Unabomber. John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer who played a clown for children’s parties. Each time when these terrifying actions come to light, one reads and hears in news the reactions of the people best acquainted with the alleged destroyer–childhood friends, neighbors, teachers, coworkers, acquaintances: “But he was just such a quiet person. Eccentric, maybe, but just quiet.”  “But she seemed so normal – look at her prom photo; she would never have tortured someone.”  “He never acted  depressed; not at all.”

Then, slowly, significant details and patterns begin to emerge, demonstrating the depth of sickness, the unimaginable mental illness or the soulless center of each of these individuals, and we are all forced to readjust our view of this “healthy”, “everyday”, “normal” person.  We are even (terrifyingly) compelled to readjust our own thinking about ourselves.  We are, after all, average, ordinary people. Does that mean that we…?  Surely we couldn’t possibly ever…. The thought is so frightening that we desperately shunt it aside.

For that reason — because it is so hard for the genuinely human and humane person to comprehend true inhumanity, or to imagine themselves participating in it — protests continue to litter the airwaves.  Old playmates insist,  “But we lived in the same neighborhood growing up.  He had a regular childhood!” “There was nothing in her upbringing to indicate she’d ever grow up to do such a thing. Nothing.”

At these remarks, I can only shake my head. 

No one, no one at all – not child services, nor counselors, nor neighbors, nor extended family members, nor childhood friends, nor even siblings – no one ever has more than the merest glimpse into the reality of another’s childhood.  I recall the smooth façade of normality that my own mother donned like a mask when in the company of others, and I do not doubt that few people realized how very mentally ill she was, or the havoc she created in our home.  And, even in that regard, I know only what I, personally, endured.  I can’t speak to what the others in my family experienced, either good or bad. And I will always be well aware that many of my childhood acquaintances thought my mother the best person, the coolest Mom in the world.

The simple truth is that we all wear false faces, adjusting and gearing our social façade to meet the expectations and needs of those around us and not be thought too strange, too otherly. Sometimes those masks slip.  But for most of us, the loss of our carefully-constructed disguise results in only momentary confusion or embarrassment, and not a descent into demonic acts.

The best psychological and physical science still cannot completely explain what drives some people to horrific behavior. Might it be emotional or chemical imbalance? Was it the result of a bad reaction to psychoactive drugs? Is it genetics, or socialization? Both? Mob mentality? Could it be just a malfunction in brain development?  Or is it all of these, combined with other factors as yet unknown? Some might say that many such people are simply born without a soul, and I suppose that is as good an explanation as any.

Someday, science may piece together the puzzle of these monsters who wear the faces of human beings, and we will understand at last why they became what they are (and, more importantly, perhaps how to prevent it happening ever again.)  But for those of us who live within at least a semblance of normality and humanity, we will probably never comprehend what created the monster.  We will never be able to dwell within their twisted minds.

If you appreciated this essay, you might also like “Epitaph In An Elevator”, which you may find in the Archives from September 28, 2018.

“I Want to Go on Living, Even After My Death”

Anne Frank, and her sister, Margot, are believed to have died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen sometime in late February or early March, 1945, just a few months before the camp was liberated by Allied forces.

During lockdown, I found myself re-reading many books I’d previously enjoyed, for knowing how a story concluded seemed to calm my apprehensions during those fear-filled days. And so, sorting through boxes of old paperbacks stored beneath my bed, I came across a worn, battered copy of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.

Almost reverently, I fingered the pages, now yellowed, some separating from the spine, of this much-loved book. I had first encountered The Diary as a 12-year-old, when a condensed version had been included in my older brother’s English literature textbook. He’d been given the obsolete textbook to bring home at the close of school, and I, reading at a skill level well above my age, browsed the book over one long summer, reading the condensed version of Anne’s diary again and again, fascinated with it.

Later, scraping together enough money—it cost me two weeks’ allowance–I purchased my own paperback copy of The Diary. It was this tattered, disintegrating book that I now found, lovingly stored for over 50 years amongst my mysteries and science fiction novels.

I did not need to re-read it. I had read it so often over my lifetime that I could quote whole passages with complete accuracy. I knew the inhabitants of The Secret Annex better than most of my family members; I had mourned their deaths more strongly than those of acquaintances.

But updated editions of Anne’s diary had been published, I knew, which contained passages that Otto Frank had deemed unsuitable for inclusion when the book was originally issued. So I clicked up a search engine to see what I could learn about more recent editions of The Diary.

I laughed to learn that a whole page of “dirty” jokes had been found hidden beneath the endpapers of Anne’s diary. I was saddened to think that Otto Frank had read, and then edited out, her speculations on his lack of love for his wife. I discovered neo-Nazi hate groups and Holocaust deniers claiming that Anne’s diary was fraudulent, and scholarly articles also questioning its authenticity.

But then I stumbled across a startling article from 1997 which contended that it would have been better had Anne Frank’s diary been destroyed. Because Anne did not survive Bergen-Belsen to continue her writing career, with a description of its unimaginable horrors as the heart of her existence—because others, including her own father, had taken from her diary a message of hope and a transcendent belief in the innate goodness of humanity (despite her remarks, also, of our urge to destruction and utter madness)—because people had disseminated, through plays and movies, their own concept of the person Anne was, and the beliefs she held–for these reasons, and more, the author of the article believed that it would have been best if Anne’s words had never seen the light of day. The message of a young girl penning the description of her days in hiding diminished the tragic end of Anne’s life, the author contended; eclipsed the frightful vision of her dying of typhus at Bergen-Belsen, lying on straw, covered in lice and fleas.

Miep Gies, one of the protectors of the little group in the Secret Annex, was quoted as commenting that, if she had read the diary before handing it over to Otto Frank, she would have had to destroy it. But Ms. Gies’ comments were related only to the fact that Anne’s diary named every person connected with the succor of that little group of Jews. It might have dangerously compromised all of them. However, Miep Gies neither read nor destroyed Anne’s diary. And I do not believe that was an accident. Anne’s words were meant to survive.

Despite the fact that Anne’s diary closes prior to the horrific end of her personal story, I have never since encountered an edition which did not include the ghastly memories of the Holocaust survivors who recalled her. That Anne was no longer alive to write it does not alter the final chapter of her narrative, nor keep readers from knowing the truth.

Nor have I ever, in the dozen and more times I read Anne’s diary, failed to note her misery, her terror, and her acknowledgement of the evil, as well as the good, of humanity.

People take from my essays what they will; they define “me” according to what they have read of my writings. That the “me” they know has, quite likely, little or nothing to do with who and what I am means nothing. Not one of us truly knows another human being, not even our own spouses and children. But that does not indicate that I should never have written, nor that I should have failed to open up my words to public view, knowing, accepting, that I might often be misconstrued or misunderstood.

People take from the diary of Anne Frank not just what they desire, but what they need. And that is, I believe, good and right. For in doing so, they fulfill her wish: “I want to go on living even after my death.”

If you enjoyed this essay, you might also like, “The End of the Story”, from July 6, 2018, and located in the Archives.

The Big Ice Storm

Was it possible that their positive experiences had a lot less to do with attitude, and a lot more to do with just plain luck?

Some years ago I was part of an online New Age chat group. Most of our discussions centered on matters relating to our spiritual growth and understanding, interspersed with light chatter.

The group fostered some very real friendships, but there also arose spats and quarrels and misunderstandings. No emoji can really convey the intent and tone of written words, and misinterpretations occurred. Moderators did their best, but harsh words were sometimes exchanged while the spectators took sides. The group eventually dissolved due to these problems, but I had left it months previously. My departure was triggered by The Big Ice Storm.

Heavy sleet had begun to fall mid-afternoon on a weekday. In no time at all, roads, sidewalks, trees, shrubs—everything was encased in a thick glaze of ice. Office workers who could do so began heading out early, piling into their cars in a futile attempt to evade the worst of the storm. But the ice outran every effort people made to escape its freezing grasp.

My supervisor bailed hastily, and advised me to do so, also. Sadly, this meant only that I spent more time huddled in the glass-sided shelter house at my bus stop. Clustered together with other public transit sufferers, I stood for nearly three hours waiting for a delayed bus in plummeting temperatures, as frigid winds snaked about my ankles and froze my feet to pain.

After a terrifying journey on ice shrouded roads, I arrived home nearly four hours later than usual to an apartment that was dark and cold. I’d left no lights on, since most days I got in well before darkfall; I always thriftily turned the thermostat down for the hours when I wasn’t at home.  Power lines had collapsed all over the city, but I gratefully found that my electricity was working, and switched on the lights and furnace. When I’d finally stopped shivering, I checked on family members, discovering to my relief that everyone had arrived home safely. Finally, I sat down at my computer to read e-mail messages.

There, to my horror, I learned that the sister of a friend had been among those who died in a pileup on the icy interstate highway. Tears sliding down my cheeks, I dashed off a sober response expressing shock and sympathy; then turned to messages from the chat group, hoping to hear they were all safe.

They were. And their descriptions of their own journeys home bore, I found, very little resemblance to my experience. Some had not even needed to travel; the storm had fortunately coincided with their days off. One mentioned that, as a manager, she’d been able to leave her office before the first pellets of sleet cascaded from the sky. Her route home unencumbered by the traffic that would flood the streets only a short time later, she’d stopped at the grocery for a few items and enjoyed a warm chocolate chip cookie fresh from the bakery. Then she’d pulled into her driveway, where her teenage children had bounded out to schlep in her shopping bags.

She and other chat group members prattled on about how minimally they’d been affected by the storm, attributing their experiences to their positive attitudes. It was all in one’s expectation and mindset, they asserted. It was all about gratitude and belief.

I considered the differences of my own experience to theirs. I remembered, shaking with cold, yet grateful that I’d been able to claim a space huddled within the crowded bus shelter. I recalled my thankfulness as my bus evaded the accidents plaguing the roads. I thought about my relief and appreciation that the electricity had remained on at my apartment. I reflected on the tragedy of my friend’s sister, and a journey home that didn’t include warm chocolate chip cookies and happy children, but arriving to a lonely apartment that was both frigid and dark.

Then I put my fingers on the keyboard and called bullshit on their remarks.

My mindset had been, I pointed out, positive throughout. I was both grateful and appreciative; thankful for my own and others’ safety. But my experience was miserable nevertheless: freezing, fear, loneliness, and the terrible news of a death. Perhaps, I suggested, perhaps they could tell me how I could have effected any difference in these events by my attitude? Was it possible that their positive experiences had a lot less to do with mindset, and a lot more to do with just plain luck?

It wasn’t a popular position to take, as evidenced by the onslaught of shaming replies I received to my statements. Still, I refused to back down, despite reprimands from nearly every group member.

Shortly thereafter I quit the chat group, although I’d quite enjoyed it up to then.

Sometimes still, especially in on bad winter days, I think about that chat group and the Big Ice Storm. I think about the fact that, if I’d been angry and resentful, the misery I endured that day might well have been, at least emotionally, far worse. But all the positive attitude in the century would not have changed the actual outcome of the nasty events of that storm.

It’s not always only about one’s attitude. Truly, it isn’t. Often, it’s just the simple luck of the draw—or not.

If this essay appealed to you, you might also enjoy “My Be-Attitude”,
which can be found in the Archives dated April 17, 2019,
or “The Wrong Road”, from March 4, 2020.

The Rocky Path to Unity

I simply did not understand her position—that being asked to sing a song as one, in unity, was a reason for more divisiveness.

A woman I know, who is Jewish, said she watched the Biden inauguration only to the point where Garth Brooks asked all present to join with him in singing Amazing Grace.  She was offended, she said, by being asked to sing a Christian song.

Now, I, personally, do not think of Amazing Grace as being an overtly Christian song.  It was sung regularly at services held by the interdenominational church that I attended for many years, although they did, in fact, change just a few of the words.  Our teaching being that, as children of the Divine, we must never speak badly of ourselves, the word “wretch” became “soul”; grace, we sang, taught our hearts to soar, not fear. Our congregation included members from faiths as diverse as Buddhist and Pagan, yet we all sang Amazing Grace together, raising our voices as one.  It was, to us, to me, a phoenix song; a song of rising from the ashes to experience blessings and mercy; of learning that we could trust, believing we were loved.

But, putting that heartwarming memory entirely aside, I genuinely could not comprehend her position: that being asked to sing a song as one, in unity, was a reason for more divisiveness.

Had I been asked to join in a Hindu or Buddhist chant, a Native American or Pagan invocation, a traditional Jewish song, or the lilting beauty of an old Black spiritual, one perhaps written over a century before to lift spirits caught in the squalid darkness of slavery—had I been asked to join in any of these, I would have done so gladly; been overjoyed to do so, in fact, for that would have represented to me the true unity of people of all faiths, all colors—all the glorious variety of humanity that makes up the diverse population of America.  I would have happily sung The Marseillaise or Garibaldi’s Hymn or We Shall Overcome. In a pre-pandemic world, I would have reached to join hands with the people beside me and chanted or prayed or sung with gladness.

Already dismayed by her remarks, I later read that many in American Indigenous communities were offended by hearing JLo sing This Land is Your Land. Again, I shook my head. Despite my mother’s oft-repeated claims, DNA testing has proved that I bear not a single drop of Native American blood in my veins, and I have no comprehension of what it must feel to have had one’s home and culture and language and spirituality wantonly stolen; to have been crushed beneath the heels of one’s oppressors.  Yet I’ve read scholarly articles explaining that Native American tribes waged war with one another for, yes, for land, for cultural and religious differences, for slaves and resources, long before the first Europeans ever dreamed of setting foot on these shores.  Humans are, sadly, warlike beings. Stealing land from one another has gone on for all the millennia of our existence. So a song written as an indignant retort to God Bless America hardly qualifies as an intended irritant to the Indigenous community, despite that it was taken that way.

That is, I think, the point I am struggling so hard to make: I am so weary of everyone taking offense to everything!  I am so tired of the lack of tolerance; of the hardened shells people continually build around themselves, claiming that inclusiveness means only that their perspective, their beliefs, be recognized. That theirs is the important viewpoint.  That everyone must not just listen, but bend, to their preference.

Why cannot “Merry Christmas!” be answered with, “Happy Festivus!” instead of a glare and a growl? Why cannot someone simply answer, “Well, I don’t celebrate, being Jewish, but I know you mean that kindly, so thank you.”  Why can we not consider the friendly intent, and respond in fashion? Why cannot we sip the nectar from the flower, and avoid the bee sting  within?

Unity, pleaded both our new President and the performers at his inauguration ceremony. Raise up your voices and sing together.  Put aside our differences and invoke tolerance, consideration, and courtesy. 

“Can we all just get along?” Rodney King asked in 1992.  And now, 29 years later, I fear the sad answer is, “No, Rodney.  No, it seems we can’t.”  Or won’t. Or don’t really want to do so.

But I will go on, attempting to instill my own behavior with tolerance, and understanding, and acceptance, because, as I was taught in childhood, one must set the example by one’s own life. Because it is the right thing to do.  Because the only way forth to unity is to set aside our propensity to hold tightly to our differences and wounded feelings, and accept, and even glory in, our common humanity.

Wearily, though, I know that someone will take offense, if not at this entire essay, to some point made within it.   They will respond with indignation or bitter anger, even threats, to my words.  Nevertheless, I retract nothing.  After all, (to paraphrase yet another song) I can’t please everyone, so I may as well please myself.

If you liked, rather than hated this essay (!), you might also enjoy “Roses of the Soul”, which you can find in the Archives from December 16, 2017.