Aging Prayer

If I live long enough….

I’ve worn glasses or contacts most of my life, having gotten my first pair while in the fourth grade. Ugly things, glasses, and I never liked them, but (having needed eye correction long before my parents conceded the fact and took me to an optometrist), I liked even less being sniped at by my teacher, a nun at the Catholic grade school which I attended. When I begged her to move my desk further to the front, explaining, “Sister, I can’t see!”, she berated me, snarling “It’s not my fault that your parents won’t take care of your eyes!” (I’m quite sure that Sister-Whatever-Her-Name-Was firmly believed in the Roman Catholic church’s doctrine of Purgatory. Well, in her case, I really hope that place of torment does, in fact, exist, and that Nameless Nun earned at least extra decade or so there for her bitchy retort to an innocent child.)

Whether Nasty Nun is suffering in Purgatory or not, I, not being a candidate for laser surgery due to an old eye injury, have worn my glasses or contact lenses without complaint through all the decades since. And now, realizing that my hearing is beginning to diminish (yep, I have to turn on the subtitles when I’m watching TV, and not just when I’m watching British shows!), I’m preparing to get an audio exam and invest in an OTC hearing aid, which I will also wear without complaint. I do not want to miss a single whisper from the lips of my beloved little grandchild.

Which begs the question: Why do so many elderly people simply refuse to wear hearing aids? The jokes abound between all of us afflicted by an elderly family member who (despite having worn glasses throughout all the years of their own lives) simply will not put in a hearing aid. Instead, these old quirks snarl, “Speak up!”—and, when one does just that, snarl again, “Don’t yell!”

Please God—don’t let this ever be me! Don’t let me be the person demanding, “Look directly at me when you speak!” Let me just put the damned hearing aid in my ear, and smile, and converse pleasantly with people. And, when I occasionally still can’t hear, let me remember to say politely, “I’m so sorry; I missed that. Can you repeat it?”

Now, I haven’t yet reached that stage where my thinning layers of skin and disappearing subcutaneous fat layer (oh! for some disappearing fat!) render me more susceptible to feeling the cold. I still prefer chilly or even cold weather to hot, humid heat. But this will change, and I know that day is probably just around the corner. So when it does arrive, when I am finally feeling cold all the time, please God, please Goddess! Let me recall that my guests’ comfort supersedes my own. Let me remember that I can put on extra layers of clothing, but my guests can’t take off their own epidermis!

Never in my lifetime, not even in childhood, have I known what it is to sleep well. A pattern of waking at night and being unable to sleep again easily has always been my bane, and, as I age, is growing distinctly worse. But, please Heaven, please—let me never begin whining about this difficulty. Let my attitude for the whole day not be predicated upon how well, or not, I slept. When, after a particularly bad night, I am asked how I feel, let me just smile and say cheerfully, “Hey, I’m still topside, so I can’t complain, right?” Or, if I can’t be that jovial, let me at least have the grace to admit, “Well, I slept poorly, so I’m grouchy—but then, I’m retired, so I can take a nap, right?” Please, please, let me acknowledge the silver lining!

And, above all, let me not become the elderly person who conflates age with entitlement; who feels that the younger people in one’s orbit must serve and attend and assist and oblige, totally without acknowledgment of their service or sacrifice. Simply put, let me never forget the lessons of courtesy that I imbibed in earliest childhood: the “Two Little Magic Words”, please and thank you. Let me proclaim those words (and all the attendant phrases) with regularity: Would You, I’d Appreciate It If, That’s So Kind of You, I’m Grateful. Let me say, and mean, the words, “I appreciate that you’ve taken this time out of your day. I know your life is busy. It’s good of you.”

And, if it should happen that I do not, when (if) the time comes, remember these prayers; if I should, despite my plans and supplications, become the worst version of myself, then, please, all gods and goddesses and heavenly beings who look over such matters, give someone the strength to hand me this essay and say, “Read this!” Let me put on those ugly glasses and read, as those mean nuns taught me, carefully and with comprehension. Let me read, and then practice everything within this instruction manual for being aged yet not entitled; friendly, smiling; likeable, even lovable, and, most of all, beloved.

Usually at this point, I refer you to an earlier post that you might enjoy. However, this time, let me just say that this essay was inspired by my Dad, who passed away 12/12/21. However much I loved him, he was everything that I mention here. He drove me–all of us–completely nuts! And I miss him.

Same Argument, Different Decade

Words have power.

I once had an acquaintance who justified his use of two of the most vile racial and religious epithets by saying that he applied them only in terms of personal behavior characteristics, and not as a blanket reference to individuals of a particular race or religion. His argument was totally specious, of course; there was, is, no excuse for the use of such appellations, and there are plenty of available adjectives in the English language to define poor behavior. One need never resort to emotionally-charged words with a history of offense and disparagement.

Perhaps that’s why I was surprised when, commenting on the objectionable use of a brand-new belligerent term frequently splashed across the pages of a progressive newsletter, I was roundly trolled and trounced by its readers. I had (somewhat naively, I suppose) expected better of those whose worldview seemed to encompass a wider perspective than the narrowness of conservative thinking. But, almost without exception, each commentor defended her/his use of the offensive nickname, one even going so far as to say that it was merely a “descriptor”.

Same argument, different decade.

Another of these purportedly broad-minded individuals was infuriated by my suggestion that answering bad behavior with name-calling actually served no purpose; that heckling made no difference in the behavior of those so labeled, and served only to perpetuate the cycle of anger. My statement, he commented, was self-righteous. Reading his words, I chuckled, for self-righteous, as well as hypocritical, were exactly the terms I had, in the privacy of my own mind, applied to those who used the offensive terminology under discussion.

But then I wondered: Why was it that these supposedly free-thinking people were defending the indefensible? If my old acquaintance had risen up in their midst and spewed his hateful rhetoric across the pages of their newsletter, claiming justification for applying it only to the behavior of people and not to the people themselves, these same commentors would have bitterly denounced him and banned him from their pages.

Evil, it seems, is only evil when done by other people, and specifically people outside one’s preferred group. Hypocrisy, however, appears to be universal…as is disappointment. I was bitterly disappointed to find that the group with which I mostly align myself– freethinkers, the broad-minded, forward-thinking individuals–were just as hypocritical, unkind, and sanctimonious as those conventional traditionalists who abhor change.

I wondered, too, about the ages of those who defended the use of that new and distasteful “descriptor”. I suspected (totally without evidence, I admit) that most of those who replied had reached no more than their third or fourth decade, if that. At my advanced and advancing age, one has seen and experienced a lot more of the hatred so rife in this weary world, and has learned the advantages of practicing that ancient phrase, “A soft answer turneth away wrath.”

After a couple of mild responses to their provocative justifications for their continued use of the spiteful nomenclature, I sadly relinquished the argument, realizing there was no point. I doubted that these assumedly-younger people had been raised, as I had, with the chiding phrase, “Don’t call people names. It’s not nice.” They had no grounding in simple good manners with which to comprehend my point: that creating a new slang term to represent an artificially concocted subset of humanity was not a descriptor, but in and of itself offensive and intended to elicit a negative reaction in the reader/listener. By using an emotionally-charged term, they intentionally bypassed the logic circuits within the brains of those hearing or reading their stories—and that is, as it has always been, the real rationale for the use of such terminology. It “others”—dehumanizes, demonizes—those whom it references, resulting in the speaker/writer automatically becoming the hero of her or his own story.

For my own part, though, I will always prefer to use precise and exact adjectives to describe individual bad behavior, words with which the English language abounds. Words such as entitled. Or belligerent. Bellicose—I particularly love that one, as I do pugnacious. Rude. Argumentative. Disrespectful. Confrontational. Sanctimonious. Insolent. Bad-mannered. Loud. Aggressive. Lawless. Uncivil. Disorderly. Unprofessional. Abhorrent.

And, of course, hypocritical and self-righteous.

These are words that have nothing to do with race, or religion, or gender. They are words that genuinely describe the behavior, not the person; words that have not been concocted to encompass a belittling physical description.

Words have power, and it is imperative that we use that power not just precisely, but to good purpose. And that purpose is never accomplished by employing generalities, epithets, or incivility in our speech.

If you enjoyed this essay, you might also like the post “Please Stop Using the Term ‘Karen'”, from December 1, 2021.

Happy New Hope

The clock ticking, the joyful shouts welcoming a new year, won’t really have changed anything at all. After all, this post originally appeared on December 29, 2017…yet it is still pertinent.

In a very few days, a few hours, the clocks will tick over one more time, the sun will cycle across the International Date Line, the ball will drop, and all around the Western world we will hear shouts and cries of, “Happy New Year!”.

And nothing will have changed.

Oh, we’ll all awaken a bit wearier, perhaps hung over, a few hours older. Those who still enjoy and use a paper calendar will take down the old publication and hang up the new, possibly admiring the photo on the edition they chose. But the major things, the important things, will be no different.

Our problems from the old year will still be awaiting us, unerased, staring back at us from the bleary face we see in the mirror. Within a few minutes, a few hours of that clock tick, someone, somewhere, will have been born—or died. Bills from the holiday season will sit quietly awaiting payment, mostly on slender funds. Children and pets and our elderly will require care, possibly needing trips to doctors and veterinarians at the most inconvenient of times. The furnace will break down, or the water pipes freeze. The same worthless politicians will sit in office, masquerading as world leaders. Vicious on-line comments will be posted behind the perceived safety of a veil of anonymity.

The clock ticking, the joyful shouts welcoming a new year, won’t really have changed anything at all.

Except, perhaps, for our perception of hope. Hope is the one real difference made by that clock tick that purports to indicate that something new has begun. The hope that this year will, truly, be different. That the good things, the lovely things, the beautiful things will, this year, outnumber the bad. That we will experience kindness and courtesy, not just from friends and family, but even strangers. That some politicians will take a deep breath and stop–just stop. Stop threatening, stop posturing, stop repeating the sad history of our worn-out world. That a cure will be found for whatever devastating disease our loved ones are experiencing. That no one will be homeless, or lonely. That each of us will be given a fresh start, a second chance.

Hope is the only genuine difference of the new year–the one thing, ancient legend instructs us, left in Pandora’s box once all the evils invented by cruel gods had been unleashed upon humankind.

But in the original matriarchal myth of Pandora, before the shift in her legend created by the misogynistic writer Hesiod, her name meant not “all gifted”, but “all giving”. She was not created by those same cruel gods to be unbearably gifted and seductive, but was a goddess in her own right, born from the earth itself, who came to bestow upon humans all the things necessary to life.

And, being a goddess, she would have understood that nothing—not fire, not food, not water–nothing is more necessary to life, to the very desire to live, than hope. It is the very substance of the air we breathe, and just as necessary to our existence.

So, this year, when the clocks tick over, and those shouts of gladness ring in the airwaves, don’t be fooled that anything will have changed.

But never stop hoping that it will.

If this essay spoke to you, you might also enjoy “Paper Calendars”,
which can be found in the Archives from December 11, 2019.

Blessing the Hearth

I feel the shades and spirits of those centuries of women who came before me

A couple of years ago (pre-pandemic, when one still opened the front door to a knock or ring of the doorbell by a stranger), I was accosted by a salesperson attempting to convince me to sign up for home insect control. Now, I’m not the sort of woman to simply slam the door in the face of some hapless huckster. I know door-to-door sales work is a thankless job. So I usually allow them to get in a few (very few) words first before saying the obligatory, “I’m really not interested” and firmly shutting my front door.

But I did have a bit of trouble controlling my mirth when this young man gestured to the porch overhang, talking about all the spiderwebs that gathered at rarely-used front doors as family came and went through their attached garages. He pointed directly to the corners where such webs would be expected to lurk.

There were none. I mean NONE. Nope, those corners were free of spiderwebs, wasps nests, cobwebs, or cottonwood drifts from the blooming trees. It sort of put paid to his little demonstration. I grinned only a little as I told him I wasn’t interested and closed my front door on his bewildered face.

The only time I’d had greater enjoyment from a front porch peddler was the spring afternoon near Easter when I’d opened the door to a proselytizer trying to drum up customers for a local church. He invited me to join with them on Easter Sunday to “celebrate Jesus’ death”. (Yes, he actually said that.) Now, it’s been a long while since I practiced organized religion, but even in my dim and distant memories of such Easter services lay the notion that we were joining to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. For this particular porch peddler occasion, I did not even attempt to stifle my astounded chuckles. But I digress….

You see, there were no webs or cottonwood or nests, or indeed, any detritus of any sort on my tiny front porch or its rafters because I regularly practice blessing the entryway to my home. Stepping out armed with a broom, I sweep away anything on or above or around the porch and walkway while repeating the words, “Bless this home and all who dwell therein. This home is surrounded, enfolded, protected, and watched over by the Divine. Bless this home and all who dwell therein.”

Performing this personal ceremony, I feel empowered. With each stroke of the bristles, I claim the protection of my Higher Power. The exterior of my house is both cleansed and wrapped in a mantle of security; cocooned within a shelter of psychic defense as I move from my front porch to my back patio, sweeping and safeguarding that entryway, also.

There was a time when such household protection rituals were common, especially when every home was both lit and warmed by a fire. The hearth was the center of the home; the place where family gathered for warmth, and where women worked to cook the meals or to sit nearest the light to sew and weave. To bless the hearth was to bless the home, and was the exclusive province of women. For centuries women, denied the right to be priests or ministers, or to even participate in any meaningful way in the accepted religions–those women were, nonetheless, the hearthkeepers; the ones who genuinely kept “the home fires burning”. Women swept away the ashes and laid the fresh fires upon the hearths and kindled the logs. Women spoke their blessings over the flames, weaving a circle of protection about their homes and loved ones, blessings woven of love and as sturdy as any cloth upon their looms. They swept their front steps and dooryards, presenting a clear path for all who came and went. They polished the brass of door handles to a shining surface, reflecting the faces of those who visited.

And so, sweeping my own path and entryway and porch roof beams, clearing the ashes from my wood-burning fireplace before laying a fresh fire to be kindled on another cold night, I feel the shades and spirits of those centuries of women who came before me. I am following, not in their footsteps, but in the path of their work worn hands, as I perform the same rituals they once did. I am translated, shifting from my merely human form to become the daughter of all those who went before me, themselves daughters of Demeter, goddess of hearth and home; tenderly weaving words of beneficent protection about my dwelling, while envisioning all those I love cocooned within the warmth and undying fire of my love.

Did you enjoy this post? Then you might also like, “Another Talking Stick Ceremony”, which you can find in the Archives link below from December 10, 2017.

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.