Please Stop Using the Term “Karen”: It’s Racist, Ageist, and Misogynistic

Slurs are specifically intended to elicit a negative reaction.

WARNING: This essay recounts several racist and rude labels, not to insult, but to press a point about the damage done by such slurs. Confronting them may be extremely disturbing and triggering for many readers.

It seems not terribly long ago when I first encountered the word “Karen” used as an epithet. Totally bewildered, I had to punch out to Startpage (no, I do NOT use Google!) to find the meaning of what seemed an obvious slur. The various sites I glanced through each provided basically the same definition: Entitled White Middle-Aged Woman. A few sites included a belittling physical description and mentioned personal behavior characteristics.

My immediate reaction was indignation: indignation first on behalf of a relative named Karen, who in no way fit the descriptions I encountered; then on the part of an acquaintance, a Black woman, also named Karen; and finally on behalf of all the women in the world, everywhere, named Karen. I wasn’t sure if the appellation had arisen due to someone’s upsetting encounter with an actual, unpleasant individual by the name of Karen, but it seemed absolutely nuts to use a common personal name to label a cluster of disagreeable behaviors inherent within an artificially concocted subset of humanity. Nuts and rude.

For a long while I continued merely feeling indignant and disapproving  whenever I encountered the pejorative term in written or spoken form. But after long, long months of seeing the tag flung about by otherwise intelligent and ethical people, I’m far past indignation. I’m miles past, “Well, that’s just rude.” I’m fully into the territory of flaming, roaring, raging, disgusted pissed-offedness.

If “Karen” is used to intentionally indicate Entitled Middle-Aged White Woman, then it is a racist, misogynistic and ageist epithet. Hardly misses any harmful categories there, does it? It is right on par with all other vile epithets. It is deliberately insulting and intended to elicit a negative emotional response in the reader/listener.

I know from personal experience what it is to be called a Wop (which, according to the person spouting the cruel nickname, was “…just a joke. Can’t you take a joke?”) It wasn’t a joke. Passive aggression never is. Racial and ageist and sexual slurs never are. If their reality disturbs you, then skip the rest of this paragraph; otherwise, let’s be brave and confront just a few of these ugly, detestable monikers, shall we? Wop, Dago. Nigger, Jigaboo. Redskin, Paleface. Chink, Gook. Krauts. Japs. Kike. Old Fart. Greaser, Spic. Slut, Ho. Camel Jockey, Raghead. Hillbilly. Faggot, Homo. Honkey. Polack.

A terribly uncomfortable, viscerally disturbing list, is it not? Nauseating to some. Agonizing for others. And those are just the ones with which I am familiar. I’m sure there are countless more.

And now, Karen.

“Don’t call people names. It’s not nice.” I must have been scolded with that phrase a dozen or more times during my childhood, by parents, grown relatives, and teachers—adults who then, not caring that they were overheard, tossed out in casual conversation any number of racist, sexual and ethnic slurs. Leading by example was not a strong suit on the Pale Island* of my childhood. Then I grew up and moved to the American South, and found my jaw dropping as I heard Black teenagers affectionately call one another “Nigger”. Surely I hadn’t really just heard…! Except…why not? Hadn’t my family members often comically or affectionately bandied about the term “Wop”? “You dirty Wop,” my then-young father and his long-time friend and mentor laughingly called one another. Ah, of course: the difference. Between ourselves, and only ourselves; between us Wops, it actually was a joke, and even a term of affection. But only between ourselves. When my (now thankfully ex) husband, not of Italian American heritage, tried the same thing, it became a rank bone of contention between us.

Don’t call people names. It’s not nice…unless they share your heritage and experience. Unless they are in on the joke: the joke of taking something derogatory and evil and transmuting it into a shared experience, thereby rendering it harmless.

There is no way “Karen” can be rendered harmless. It is a vile and bitter taunt; a sneering, intentionally derisive gibe. It is a label—a label that “others”—dehumanizes–human beings, who (despite possibly having and sharing characteristics, some of them disagreeable) are, in fact, human beings. People. Women. Individuals.

Not a group. Not all the same.

It’s long past time that we all, every last one of us, stop applying these offensive sticky notes to the members of our human family.

There are, sad to say, many people who walk this sad world wearing a patina of entitlement. And those people come in every color of the human rainbow. They are male, female, and every finally-recognized gender in between. They come in all ages, all sizes, and are drawn from all walks of life.

There are, in fact, no Karens. There are only self-satisfied hypocrites who find security in labeling others in order to assure themselves of their own righteousness.

*The reference to the ” ‘Pale Island’ of my childhood” can be found in the blog post Juneteenth from June 16, 2021.

When We Weren’t White

This blog post was actually scheduled to publish during the week of Columbus/Indigenous Peoples Day. But Mercury Retrograde was in full swing at that time, supposedly causing everything technical to go totally whack; somehow, the post never appeared. So let’s blame it on Mercury Retrograde! Here it is now, belated and totally out of sync with the holiday, but heartfelt nonetheless.

I am, as confirmed by DNA testing, half-Italian. My grandparents were each born in America, but their own families, including some older siblings, were born in Italy: Lucca, in Tuscany, and Vasto, not far from Rome.

One of my great-grandfathers actually arrived on the shores of America pre-Ellis Island, coming through Castle Garden, on the southern tip of Manhattan. Mansuetto Gregori arrived with his wife and children sometime during the 1840s or 1850s, long before Castle Garden stopped processing immigrants in 1890. Family legend, related to me by my grandmother decades ago, held that, having arrived in New York and before moving to what would eventually be Sioux City, Iowa, Mansuetto quickly changed the spelling of the family name to Gregory, hoping to be taken as “Black Irish” (the name once given to those dark-haired, olive-skinned Celts who descended from survivors of the 1588 destruction of the Spanish Armada). The Irish, as Mansuetto quickly determined, had assimilated and were accepted in America, as Italians were not. I’ve never quite understood why Mansuetto would have believed that his accent, as he learned English, would fail to identify him as Italian rather than Irish, but I suppose that logic would have been his least consideration at the time.

We Italians weren’t White, you see. We would not be considered White until 1965 (I was 11 years old), when racist quotas on Italian immigration would finally be overturned.

So although many people–people of color, indigenous people, and those of Asian, Pacific Islander or Jewish descent–might easily glance at me and think, “privileged White person”—and although I, personally, suffered quite little of the anti-Italian sentiment which was once rife in the United States–well, no, not quite. My experience falls nowhere near the same classification as that of many Jews or Asians, and certainly doesn’t even place in the same solar system as the racism experienced daily by most Black people in the United States. But it was not all smooth sailing, either, especially for my paternal Grandmother and Grandfather. As I have reported in prior blog posts, they endured terrible incidents of bigotry throughout their lives. For my Grandmother, especially, those incidents left emotional scars; I will never forget my feelings of disbelief, shock, and grief as she related the painful story of the racist remarks she suffered in her early childhood from her teacher, an Irish-American Roman Catholic nun. (See “And Speaking of Prejudice”, from January 18, 2018.)

For, yes, as Italians, we were also Roman Catholic. Few people today realize or recall just how detrimental to his campaign was the Roman Catholicism practiced by John F. Kennedy. Yet it was not long after his assassination that I sat in my fifth grade classroom, listening fearfully, as my teacher explained to the class that, should the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion ever be revoked, “THEY” would come for us, just as they had murdered our President.  Fortunately for my peace of mind, there were many Catholic children in the neighborhood where I first grew up, since Holy Name church and school were literally around the block.  But the one little girl who was just my age (all the others were older or younger) wasn’t permitted to play with me, the “Car-tholic” girl.

Still, most of these fears and slights touched my life only peripherally, fading away as I grew to adulthood. Perhaps that is why I reacted viscerally to the reframing of Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day. Please do not misunderstand! I genuinely believe this is a long-overdue reparation for and acknowledgement of the horrific damage suffered by the native peoples following the arrival of Europeans on the American shores. Nevertheless, I also have a heartfelt personal investment in Columbus Day, as an Italian American aware of the sad truth of the origins of the holiday: that the celebration (originally intended as a one-time event) was declared by the short-lived President Benjamin Harrison in 1892, following the horrifying New Orleans lynching of 11 Italian immigrants. The murders brought Italy and the United States nearly to the point of war; the Italian consul in New Orleans left the city at his government’s direction, and Italy cut off relations with the United States until President Harrison’s paltry act of reparation.

So while I rejoice at the new national consciousness and acknowledgement of wrong doing, at the truth and justice brought to the reframing of the day, for me, personally, it can never quite be that. Columbus Day will for me, always, be known as “Murdered Italian Americans Day”. My racially-profiled ancestors are to me, you see, quite as important as yours are to you. And none of them, yours or mine, deserved to be treated as less than human because of the circumstances of their birth and heritage.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “You Dirty Wop”, which you can find in the Archives, below, from February 1, 2018.

The Gifts of the Season

It’s not just toxic recipients that one has to deal with at the holiday season.  Perfectionists and critical relatives add a whole ‘nother layer of angst!

My late mother-in-law was a marvelous woman in many respects.  One of the things I most envied about her, though, was her artistic ability.

Never was this ability more evident than at the holiday season.  A tray of gorgeous glass ornaments and greenery accenting a sideboard; a transparent vase filled with shining beads, artfully wound in graceful spirals and spilling in perfect draped arcs from the rim…  Mary’s decorations were breathtaking.

Her gift wrap, too, was spectacular.  Presents might all be wrapped in glossy white paper with tartan ribbons and real holly one year; the next, each would be covered in a harmonizing paper. Even the tags matched.

Now, I dearly love Christmas and am no slouch with the decorations, but I could never begin to equal Mary’s artistic flourishes.  My gifts are nicely wrapped, but haphazard, and the best one might call my décor is cheerful.  Mary always seemed pleased, though, with the gifts I presented her, no matter how irregularly wrapped, and praised my decorations sincerely each holiday season.  I genuinely appreciated her compliments, since I was all too well aware of just how much better she did things. 

This came to mind during a recent holiday season as I tried to wrap an extremely large gift.  I had only one roll of giftwrap of the right width for the present, which was heavy and unwieldy.  I’d had quite a bit of trouble maneuvering it onto the paper and getting the wrapping around it, but was finally working on closing the ends when the box shifted in my hands.  The result was a tear across the underside of the gift wrap.  It was easily enough mended with tape, but as I finished wrapping the box, I had a sudden flashback to a story told me years ago by two women at the office where I worked.

One young woman, I recalled, was both working and attending college, and couldn’t afford to travel home for Christmas.  The other coworker—let’s call her Charity, because that fits–kindly invited Carol (since that seems right for Christmas) to join her family for the holiday.

Carol came gladly, armed, as a good guest, with a pie and a gift for her hostess and a bottle of wine.  But she also came armed with a distinct sense of justice and a great dislike for bullies.

Because that’s what Charity’s mother was: a bully.  Unendingly critical of her daughter, she found fault in every tiny flaw and found flaws where they did not even exist.  Mom was one nasty ticket, and saw no reason to alter her behavior just because of the season of loving and giving.

But Mom hadn’t counted on Carol.

Arriving in a flurry of snow and smiles, Carol presented her hostess with the pie and wine. As Charity’s friend, Carol was already blacklisted, so Mom pounced.  “I don’t suppose anyone,” (here looking directly at Charity) “informed you that my husband is severely diabetic,” she grumbled.  “We always avoid sugary desserts at family dinners.”

“Is that so?” Carol countered coolly.  “Well, I’m sorry he can’t indulge, but surely the rest of us can enjoy the pie.”

“And I, of course,” Mom continued without pausing for breath, “am a non-drinker.”

Carol smiled.  “My Dad’s a non-drinker, too.  But he never begrudges everyone else a little tipple at the holidays.  Says his choice is no reason for the rest of us to be deprived.”

Apparently realizing that Carol was no easy target, Mom backed down until the gifts were handed ‘round.  As one of those irritating people who carefully slit tape and preserve the giftwrap, she turned over her gift from Charity to carefully unwrap it and discovered, yes, a torn and mended corner.

“Really, Charity!” she berated the girl.  “I can’t believe you didn’t take the time to start over and do it properly when you spoiled this gift wrap!”

Everyone was silent at Mom’s outburst, glancing with embarrassment at Carol.  More than equal to the occasion, though, Carol merely smiled and handed Charity the gift she’d brought: an oddly-shaped package, covered in reams of tape barely holding together giftwrap composed of the Sunday newspaper comics and tied with a colorful shoestring.  “Sorry about the way it looks, Charity,” Carol chirped.  “Wrapping paper just wasn’t in my budget.  But on the day when generosity of spirit rules, I know you’ll forgive me!”

I don’t recall how the rest of the story concluded: whether dinner was a delight or a disaster, or if Mom managed to choke down—or on–a piece of pie, or her own bile.  But I do know that Charity and Carol remained fast friends for the rest of the time I knew them.

As I say, the whole memory came to mind as I slapped tape every which way over the gift for my kids.  I sure they didn’t even notice as they tore the giftwrap in excitement from the box.

And, in the season of loving and giving, that’s just as things should be.

If you enjoyed this essay, you might also like “Second Hand Rose”, which can be found in the Archives from July 1, 2020.

Toxic Recipients

As the holiday season approaches, it seems the perfect time to rerun this blog post from 2019, regarding those people who, no matter what gift is given, are never quite pleased.

As we will soon be enduring the gift-giving whirl of the holiday season, it’s probably the perfect time to discuss the situation of Toxic Recipients.

Most of us have known one…and many of us, unfortunately, still do: the person who, no matter what gift is given, is never quite pleased. Who is not only displeased, but vocal about her or his displeasure. (The dress is an unflattering style; the shirt is the wrong color. The membership to the local museum is a waste of money—after all, no one goes to the museum more than one time yearly. Movie tickets? The movies these days are all trash. There’s nothing worth seeing. Ditto the restaurant gift card; don’t you know how much that place has gone downhill?)

As to why these individuals behave this way, well, that is a topic for another blog post.  But in an attempt to please a TR, friends and family (having exhausted all the usual avenues for gift ideas), often turn to creativity, sure that something handcrafted, homemade, will be given the respect due the work put into it, if not the gift itself. Homemade bath bombs and salt scrubs, hand-knitted sweaters, carefully-constructed photo journals, “just add water” recipe jars, handcrafted suncatchers, redeem-at-will coupons for yard work, home repairs, chauffeuring, babysitting…  But all are rejected with a roll of the eyes and a heavy sigh, or a scathing comment about a how a flagrant misuse of their funds must have resulted in a limited budget for gifts this year.

A gift card to a favorite store? Couldn’t  be bothered to shop, could you? Cash? Giving money is the biggest cop-out ever! Fresh flowers? What a waste—the damned things don’t last any time at all; they just wilt. A gift made to a charity in one’s name? Don’t you realize that NOW that self-same charitable organization will be dunning the honoree for donations at every possible turn? A planter? Who has time to take care of plants? A spa gift card? One has to tip the staff at those places, you know!

I recall a story once told me by a coworker: Her family was sure they had finally hit upon the absolutely perfect gift for their Toxic Recipient Matriarch. They contacted an astronomical society and had a star named for her. Now there was a present that couldn’t be topped! It was, in fact, sky-high.

The Matriarch’s reaction to this gift was, as they recounted afterward, a true Mastercard moment: utterly priceless. Upon opening the certificate, she read it through twice—the first time uncomprehending, the second time, in patent disbelief. Then she pinioned her hapless family with a gimlet stare and, tossing the certificate toward the discarded wrapping paper, demanded, “Just what the hell am I supposed to do with this?!”

So….  My humble suggestion to all of those trapped in the hellish round of attempting to please a Toxic Recipient on every birthday, anniversary, holiday, or whatever, is just this: Stop. Stop trying. Stop giving. And, above all, stop caring.

Give a gift with the store receipt prominently displayed, and when the TR comments upon the tackiness of this behavior, merely shrug and say, “Well, we knew you’d hate it, since you always hate everything we give you, so we were just making it easy for you to return it.”  Or show up empty handed, and mention casually and with total unconcern that your financial circumstances right now limit gift giving to small children only. Or, when the poisonous remarks about your gift begin to be spouted, throw up your hands and recount a laundry list of past gift failures. “Well, let’s see. You didn’t like the pink blouse/blue shirt. You used the restaurant gift certificate, and then gave us a blow-by-blow description of how poor the food and service were. You never even used the zoo membership. You didn’t cash in on our “a full day of yard work” coupon. You said the tool set was cheap. You never got a pedicure at the spa. You told us the year of gym membership was just our way of saying you were fat. So it was this,” (here making a dramatic gesture toward the most recently-rejected gift), “or purchasing your funeral plot. Of the two, we thought this was better.”

Of course, this last statement is likely to result in one’s being cut out of the will, or thrown out of the house, or banished from the family, or treated to an Amish-style shunning, or some other such volatile gesture of utter disdain.

Which, come to think of it, might not be so bad a result after all.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you might also like “Apples of Gold”, which may be found in the Archives from November 20, 2019.

A Time for Tears

In Minimizing Is Not a Bra I remarked, “But that’s a subject for another blog post.”  Well, here it is.

A man I once worked with, a strong, proud Vietnam vet, had married an Asian woman he’d met during his tour of duty.  They’d had a long and (at least according to his side of the story) happy marriage, successfully raising well-adjusted, responsible children and living normal, middle-class American lives.

Mr. Veteran attributed the success of their marriage to the fact that his wife never made excessive emotional demands upon him.  His marriage was free, he once commented, of  “emotional instability”.  “I’ll tell you this,” he would say, chin raised high and lips thinned in a proud smirk, “In 40 years of marriage, I have never seen her cry.”

The looks he received at this remark from female coworkers were usually either disbelieving or simply aghast.  I was certainly unimpressed.  But after the third or fourth time he made this statement, a woman far more forceful than I am spoke up and said what we were all thinking.

“The operative word in your sentence is ‘seen’,” she said firmly. “Tell yourself anything you want; that woman has cried, and cried plenty—all alone.  She knows she doesn’t dare display her feelings in front of you.  She wouldn’t get any compassion or comfort.  You’d never put your arms around her and hold her while she cried.  You’d just walk away or get angry.”

Mr. Veteran scoffed, but we women nodded and agreed with our gutsy coworker.  And I don’t believe any of us ever heard him dare make that reprehensible remark again.

The memory of this incident, though, came sharply to mind recently when a male member of a group I’m involved with intentionally belittled an emotional remark I made.  I recognized his bullying and responded to it; I snapped right back at him.  But experiencing his attempted intimidation in response to the feelings I displayed, and recollecting Mr. Veteran’s remarks, made me wonder why and how it is that women are still considered by many in Western society to be excessively emotional; why, in fact, the expression of feelings, especially sadness, continues to be considered, by society in general and males in particular, to be a “bad” thing.

I recalled an article written by a man describing his viewpoint of the male reaction to women’s tears: men were, he explained, very disturbed by any evidence of sadness, any weeping, because it might keep happening. And, he expounded, men just didn’t want to feel called upon to provide comfort by even acknowledging a woman’s sadness.  They simply didn’t want to deal with it.  Men, the author claimed, preferred a stiff upper lip to distress, no matter what was happening and in spite of every provocation.

This writer’s explanation sounded shockingly similar to the 1950s marital advice provided in women’s magazines, in which a wife was encouraged to make her home an oasis of perfection and quiet, ensuring that her spouse was undisturbed by any domestic problems.  It flabbergasted me to realize that, 70-odd years after that era, a good many men are still expecting the same thing.

That led me to consider just how many books (many of them bestsellers) had been written, by men, for women, explaining to females just how they needed to treat their men to keep them happy.  At least three-quarters of the “relationship books” of the past 50 or 60 years, I realized, were written in this vein.  Why wasn’t the converse true, I wondered belatedly? Why weren’t the bestseller lists studded with books written by women, for men, advising them on how to make their female partners happy?  Why was it assumed that the success of a relationship was predicated upon a woman doing all she could to make her male partner’s life a paradise: bending to his every whim; understanding his every requirement; meeting his every need?

With sudden and startling illumination, I belatedly realized why my misogynistic coworker had always made it a point to state that his wife was Asian.  The shameful myth that Asian women are docile, subservient and submissive was part of his worldview.  Sadly, his wife, transported following a brutal war from a country in tatters to life in what was nearly another world; dependent on him; feeling it incumbent to keep her marriage intact for her own and her children’s’ survival, fell in line with his demands, even to the point of suppressing her every emotional need–not because she was Asian, but because she, like so many women of all nationalities, everywhere, had been taught to caretake the needs of men to the detriment of her own.

That this has been the way of the world for centuries is appalling.  That a marriage of such inequality could have been contracted in the 20th century is unspeakable.

But that such attitudes continue to exist is enough to make one weep.

If you’d like to read the prequel to this essay, you’ll find “Minimizing Is Not a Bra” by scrolling down to the Archives link below, and checking the post of June 9, 2021.

My Last Leaf

On this the first day of the autumnal equinox, it seems the right time to reprint this post, first published in October, 2019.

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

But love The Gift of the Magi as I most certainly do, one of my favorite O’Henry stories is one less well known: The Last Leaf. If you have never read it, then I will not give away the ending; you must find it on-line somewhere and read it for yourself. Suffice it to say, though, that I have thought of that story many times in the 50-odd years since I first read it—thought of it, and of the lessons it taught my young self about surrender and survival, courage and compassion,  true talent and recognition, ultimate sacrifice, and genuine acts of love.  But The Last Leaf  wasn’t really on my mind a few weeks ago as I trotted out my front door to wander down the drive and pick up my mail from the box. I didn’t really get very far on my mission, for as I stepped down from the porch to the walk, I glanced at the ground and saw a single fallen autumn leaf.IMG_20191004_170142266

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

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

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

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

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

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

A History of Queen Anne’s Lace

In response to the recent action by the State of Texas to ban abortions after six weeks, I reprint this post from May 22, 2019.

Years ago, I was watching an educational TV show during which the narrator discussed plants that were not native to the Americas but which are now common. As an example, the speaker mentioned Queen Anne’s Lace, commenting that the seeds of this non-native plant were inadvertently carried to these shores, hitchhiking in blankets and caught on the clothing of European settlers.

I could not stop laughing at such blatant ignorance. I was well aware that the seeds of Queen Anne’s Lace, taken as a morning-after tea, were the most effective of all the early forms of birth control–at least since silphium was hunted to extinction by Roman and Egyptian women desperate to prevent conception.Queen-Annes-Lace11  The seeds of Queen Anne’s Lace weren’t ferried to the Americas accidentally, hitchhiking on property, but quite purposefully, by women who preferred not to be worn out or die due to too-frequent childbearing.

For centuries, knowledgeable midwives instructed the women they served in the lore of birth control—difficult, and not totally reliable, but not completely impossible in the centuries before the development of the diaphragm and the contraceptive pill. And, yes, their knowledge also included methods of abortion, customarily using herbs. Compounded from celery root and seed, hedge hyssop, cotton root, Cretan dittany and spruce hemlock, mistletoe leaves and horseradish, cinchona bark, ashwagandha and saffron, wooly ragwort, castor oil, blue and black cohosh, evening primrose, and even the remarkably dangerous pennyroyal and tansy and ergot of rye, herbal abortions were common when contraception failed. Though those recipes have been lost to time, the concoctions were so prevalent that ads for patent medicines to cure “delayed menstruation” were common in women’s magazines throughout the 1800s—that is, until the passage of the Comstock Act in 1873  (both written and passed by men, of course) criminalized even the possession of information on birth control.

The world has turned many times since the Comstock Act, through the invention of the contraceptive pill, to the self-help clinics of the late 1960s that instructed women in the practice of menstrual extraction, through Roe vs. Wade. The morning-after and abortion pills were introduced, a chemical solution at last replacing that centuries-old use of abortifacient herbs.

I absolutely do not, will not, debate the wrongness or rightness of any of this, from Queen Anne’s Lace to the present day. To me, decisions regarding birth control and abortion remain always a choice best made by the woman involved, in accordance with her conscience and personal situation. But what struck me most forcefully in reading up on the history of contraception and abortion was that, step by step, women have been conditioned to believe that choosing to control their own reproductive process, even to the decision to prevent conception, was at best immoral, or at worst, criminal.

We think of the Middle Ages as a time of great ignorance, yet it was then that midwives—wisewomen–practiced, sharing their expertise and knowledge with the female population at large, easing the pain of childbirth and preventing many maternal deaths by their skill. And it was then, too, that such women were hunted down, burned and tortured and hung as witches, effectively silencing their knowledge for generations. Women were left in the hands of male doctors who, shrugging, pronounced, “Maternity is eternity”, reconciling countless numbers of women and infants to easily-preventable deaths as babies were delivered in filthy conditions with unwashed hands.

Circle the world a few times on its axis, and enter the 1900s, when horrific deaths by botched back alley abortions were common. Young and desperate women bled to death or died horribly of septicemia. Circle again, and information on contraception was readily available, along with new forms of birth control. Contraceptive creams and condoms were sold over the counter. Legal abortion gave a measure of safety to the procedure. The morning after pill became available for those who had either been careless or experienced the horrors of rape.

History, they say, always repeats itself. And so as society swings perilously close once more to the era of illegal and back alley abortions, so it may also oscillate to women who reclaim the ancient knowledge that gave them power over their own reproductive processes: to the natural methods that provided women a way to make their decisions in accordance with their conscience.

The morality of these decisions is not truly the question, for no matter what is legislated, women will continue to fight for and gain absolute control over their own bodies. They will continue to make their personal choices regarding reproduction. The Pendulum of Queen Anne’s Lace, you might call it. History will, genuinely, always repeat itself.

If you found something to like in this essay, you might also appreciate “MURDER”, the story of my 1985 miscarriage and the vicious accusations hurled several of us at my workplace who were grieving a pregnancy loss. You will find it in the Archives below, from June 19, 2019.

The Body I Inhabit

The body I inhabit, beautiful or not, aging or youthful, is worth my attention.

An acquaintance was, as the slang saying goes, ragging on me for the fact that, at age 67, I still regularly color my hair the same red-gold shade that I’ve used for 19 years. I didn’t respond to her banter, merely shrugging and saying that when the effort of coloring became more trouble than the results were worth, I’d give it up.

The truth, though, is a lot more complex than I alluded to her. I’ve colored my hair off and on throughout most of my adult lifetime, and it has become almost a sacrosanct ritual of self-care. Disliking my dishwater-blond natural color, I bleached it to a lighter shade throughout my teenage years. In my early 20s, following a disastrous haircut, I ceased bleaching and dyed my locks back to my natural shade in order to keep it strong as it grew out. For the next several decades, the non-chemical lightening methods of chamomile and lemon sufficed to keep my hair brighter. But finally, at age 45, succumbing to vanity as I noticed the first of what would soon be a deluge of whitening strands, I returned to dyeing my hair once more. I was at the time newly divorced. Despondent and depressed during the final months of my failing marriage, I hadn’t really been taking great care with my personal appearance. Coloring my hair was a self-affirming action.

It still is. And while I suspect that someday, in the not-too-far future, I will at last make the decision to let my hair reassume its now-white natural shade, today is not that day. Not by a long shot. If nothing else, I appreciate the compliments I frequently receive from total strangers, remarking on the lovely color (to which, by the way, I answer in perfect honesty, “Oh, that’s L’Oréal.” The company should pay me a premium for the number of customers I’ve sent their way!)

Perhaps that’s why, reading any number of articles and personal essays during Covid-19, I found it bewildering that so many people blithely discussed their total disregard for personal grooming standards while in lockdown. I simply don’t get it. Hair color compliments aside (and though they are appreciated) I’m not doing this, or any other of my self-care routines, for anyone else; I’m doing them for myself. Pride in my appearance circumvents my readily-acknowledged innate plainness and basic ineptitude with makeup and fashion.

Since I always keep a couple of spare boxes of colorant on hand, I still treated my hair throughout lockdown; trimmed it, as well, keeping my bangs in check and the ends neat; washed and conditioned it regularly. I shaved my legs on my usual schedule. The few times I left the house for necessities—groceries, and the like—I eschewed only lip gloss, since my lips were covered by the mask, but brushed on mascara and a touch of shadow and liner and eyebrow pencil, and dabbed essential oil on my wrists. I continued my weekly self-facials and plucked my eyebrows, trimmed and shaped my fingernails and treated the cuticles, and gave myself pedicures. I may have lounged in my PJs until the late morning, but I got dressed, properly dressed, every day. I skipped none of my self-grooming rituals.

Then, recently, others of my aging acquaintances mentioned that self-care routines, even daily showering, often felt like a time-consuming nuisance; a lot of bother. The remarks made me shudder. “Smells like old ladies” was a frequently-voiced insult during my youth, and it established in me a determination that I would never, ever, be the smelly old woman shunned by those around her. Until I am either too weak or too feeble-minded to do so, daily bathing will certainly not be too much trouble; if I have anything to do with it, my granddaughter will never associate any smells with me except those of wisteria and lilac; rose or lavender.

Looking back now on the years I’ve spent caring for and about my appearance, I understand that, as a young woman, I latched onto grooming rituals in an effort to be something I was not: beautiful, attractive, desirable. But, over time, that desire has melded into a healthier attitude. Caring for my appearance is a healthy form of pride. Each stroke of the hairbrush, each splash of scent, every scrape of the emery board across a broken nail, says to me that the body I inhabit, beautiful or not, aging or youthful, is worth my attention. I am a divine soul having a human experience, and the body in which I dwell, like any temple, needs an occasional lick of paint.

And so as I spend those few hours each month coloring my hair, I remind myself that I am, despite every appearance to the contrary, a Goddess.

Minimizing Is Not a Bra!

It is NOT “all small stuff”!

I know several people who will nod in sage agreement when I admit that I’m a person who falls easily into the trap of listening to and accepting other’s opinions about my life experience, often to my own detriment and peril. But I’m learning. Late in life and slowly, but I’m learning.

One such event occurred not long ago when, asked during a Zoom meeting about how I was doing (a question that, in this case, was not just the usual social nicety, but intentional), I commented that I felt I was just lurching from one crisis to the next. Another of the meeting attendees quickly chimed in, pointing out that, from the perspective of the universe and over the course of a lifetime, nothing I was experiencing was a crisis. Everything was “small stuff”; just a challenge to be met or a learning experience, not a calamity.

The critical individual lives 300 miles away. He was quite clueless as to what personal disasters I was referring, or what I, along with my family members, had been experiencing. I’m sure he thought he was helping me regain perspective by his comment. But his remark was, nevertheless, intentional minimizing: diminishing the importance of not just what I was experiencing, but my feelings about the situation. By doing so, he was also shaming me—letting me know that my emotions were excessive and inappropriate; “bad”, if you will. Leaving entirely aside the fact that his remarks smacked of the male habit of denigrating female moods (that’s a subject for another blog post), the simple truth of the matter is that feelings are neither bad nor good; it’s what we do with them that counts.

Amazingly, though (and this NEVER happens), I did not fall prey to his inappropriate comments. In what was, for me, an astounding feat of standing up to being bullied, I quickly snapped back, “Oh, bullshit!” My critic was visibly startled, for he is one of those self-assured, clever types whose comments are rarely challenged. For once he had no quick comeback. Some of the others in the meeting quickly diffused the incident by joking and laughter, and we all moved on. But I did not apologize, nor feel any need to do so. If anything, I believed his apology was owed to me.

To be totally honest, though, and much to my shame, I have to admit that I, too, have behaved this way to others in the past. I have minimized their experiences, shamed their emotional responses, and gifted them with my “superior” knowledge and understanding as to how they could better handle their personal pain and disasters. Not only does this behavior smack of narcissism, it is simply rude; rude, thoughtless, uncompassionate, and bullying.

When I face even more uncomfortable truths, I know that when I have minimized others’ experiences, I have done so as a self-defense measure. Minimizing puts a barrier between us and the problems or pain of another; it assures us that, even if we were to experience such an event, we would not respond to it with angst or tears. No, we are strong; we would rise above the situation! Minimizing props up our fine opinion of ourselves: “If I could get through what I have done without complaint, then you have no right to feel sad or anxious, or to speak your feelings.”

But when we muzzle another person, even those who are certifiable whiners, we diminish not just their humanity, but our own. Yes, there are those people who simply wail. There are hypochondriacs who moan about every real or imagined ache or pain. There are individuals in our circle of acquaintance who drive us half-mad because they refuse to take any action to free themselves from terrible situations, instead continually lamenting their misery. There always exist feeble individuals for whom life itself is simply overwhelming—even when it’s not.

But that does not indicate that we are free to diminish their experience. We can make the choice to acknowledge their distress without being enveloped by it. Rather than shame them, we can act with true consideration and compassion by responding gently: “I’m sorry you’re going through this”, or, “That’s a harsh series of events. I hope things will be better for you soon”, or even straightforwardly, “Is there some action you can take to resolve this problem—something that will help you feel better?”

In the final evaluation, it all comes down to courtesy. To minimize and shame another for their emotional reaction or admission of a problem is rude; it is aggressive and narcissistic; it is the behavior of a bully. Even worse, it is counterproductive. Rare is the individual who ever took her or his courage in hand, stood up resolutely, and solved a problem as a result of by being tormented and oppressed by those who should have provided support.

At some point in our lives, we all need encouragement and kindness. Kindness is never overrated. And true kindness never minimizes another’s need.

If you found this post interesting, you might also enjoy the essay, “Feeling Our Feelings”, which can be located in the Archived material from October 14, 2020.

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.