Once More, a Talking Stick

§  For those unfamiliar with the practice, a Talking Stick Ceremony allows survivors to speak at a memorial service without the formality of rising to address a crowd. Instead, a simple thing—a stick, a branch, a piece of wood, decorated to represent the lost individual, is passed from hand to hand, so those seated may speak a few words in kind memory. §

I have created Talking Sticks now for several friends and acquaintances who have passed: Debbe, Mary, Terry, and now Cathy. I did not create one for my mother (see the post My Mother’s Talking Stick, November 17, 2017) only because I was, as I knew I would be, the single person to speak that night. Speaking for a woman who had few mourners, though, was far more difficult than assuming the responsibility for creating a Talking Stick to be spoken through by several people who will be missing someone.

Rather than being difficult or hurtful, there is instead great beauty and release in being the person who is privileged to create another’s Talking Stick. It is a physical meditation, allowing one to think through the value of a friend or loved one’s life, and to say farewell by determining the representative talismans or totems to be included.

IMG_20190725_152444340For Cathy, who loved all things natural and green and growing, the talismans on her Talking Stick (although of necessity made mostly of non-organic substances) will be representative of those passions. A small tree branch, sanded and finished with clear lacquer, will be wound with silk vine to symbolize her history as a farmer. A packet of flower seeds called “Bee Feed” and a rubber honeybee will signify one of the last things she ever spoke about to her friends in our Monday night meditation group: that she was sick with worry over the plunging honeybee population. A copper flower will further denote her delight in the world of growing things, while a silver tree of life will stand for the hundreds of trees she planted in her lifetime. And because she rode her bike everywhere, dying just after returning from having enjoyed a ride with her biking group, a bicycle charm will be prominently displayed.

Having created it, I will once more carry the Talking Stick to a friend’s memorial service, explain its creation, and then encourage those there to pass the stick from hand to hand, each one speaking a pleasant, special, or humorous memory of our friend. I’ll remind them to begin their memory with “I remember Cathy”, because, as the ancient Egyptians believed, if our name is remembered, our soul continues; to speak lovingly or caringly, for if their relationship was rocky or difficult, this is not the time to discuss those problems—respect for the dead really being only consideration for others present who are not in a fit state to hear that sort of bitterness. I’ll mention quietly that, if they haven’t anything pleasant or kind or humorous to say about the soul who has gone on, then there is no shame in merely holding the Talking Stick silently for a moment before handing it off to the next person. Their very silence allows us to acknowledge their own special pain, and serves to remind us that we are all complex creatures; that our view of a person is not necessarily the one which is shared by all who knew her or him.

And when the memorial is completed, I will gift the Talking Stick to the person who best loved the deceased, so that they might do with it as they please: keep it, cherish it, burn it, bury it—whatever is best for them. It will have served its purpose, which is only to evoke memories to be shared, and make it easy for loved ones to recap a life; to help us say goodbye.

Four times, four times now, I have created a Talking Stick; stood to explain its significance, spoken the formal words of the Crossing Ceremony, and, after the memorial,  passed the Talking Stick on to the person who best loved the one now lost.

Someday I will be the one who is being remembered as the Talking Stick is passed from hand to hand. I wonder what talismans will be on my Talking Stick. I wonder who will create mine.

In Memory Of:

 Debbe Boswell
Mary Cole
Terry Robare
Cathy Dawson

The Benefit of the Doubt

Lest I be accused of maligning him, let me state firmly that I don’t think my acquaintance is alone in this sort of behavior; we all—every last living one of us—make assumptions and speak of them as truth. 

A friend who is that rare bird, a married gay Trump supporter, attended the Indy Pride festival as a vendor. The following Monday when our group met for our weekly meditation and discussion, he told us that his own vendor booth was quartered directly alongside a “Love” booth. Now, I wasn’t entirely clear, from his description, what this “Love” booth was about: Learning to love and accept the LGBTQ individual in your family, perhaps? Hugs for those who needed them? Methods for the community to demonstrate love and acceptance? His description was vague, and I was a little unclear on that detail as a result.

The point he was making to us, though, was that he wondered at the time, and was still wondering: Had he strolled over to that booth, wearing his MAGA hat, and explained to them his adamant view that Trump is “our greatest President ever”, would the people manning that booth have considered him loveable? He was extremely doubtful, he said, that love would have been their reaction.

Since this comment was not really in line with our group’s purpose and objectives, I didn’t engage with him on his remarks, but they set me to thinking. And although another group member and I used his question as a springboard to open a valuable discussion about what love itself is, and what constitutes unconditional love, I was still bothered by those original remarks.

It took me some days following his comments to tease out from my subconscious what I found distressing in my fellow group member’s original statement, and when I did so, it had nothing at all to do with my feelings about President Trump.  It was twofold: first, that (although, either through a sense of good taste or perhaps self-preservation), my friend wasn’t actually wearing his MAGA hat at the Pride event, he failed to follow through with his idea and actually speak with the people manning that Love booth: state his views, and give them the opportunity to respond. He assumed their likely response. But was he correct? Would they have rejected him outright? Might some of the participants have done so, but not others? Would they have said (as I have been known to do), “I don’t have to like someone to love them. I don’t have to approve of a person’s views to love the person. I don’t have to agree with someone to acknowledge that they are a child of the Divine.”

The second factor that bothered me was that, having not given these people the opportunity to prove their point, to demonstrate that they were living up to the ideals they promulgated, he then spoke of them to us when they weren’t present to defend themselves; making all of us doubt them and their good intentions.

Now, lest I be accused myself of disparaging my friend, let me point out that I don’t think he is alone in this sort of behavior, either; we all—every last living one of us—do this sort of thing.

And it’s wrong.

When we have doubts regarding the genuine intentions of another, or the likelihood that an individual will follow through on their stated good intentions; when we are cynical of their motives, or hesitant of their integrity, we have not just the choice, but the perhaps the responsibility, to bring our suspicions into the light of their attention, and provide them the opportunity to respond. We have the responsibility to give them the benefit of the doubt, for that demonstrates our own integrity. And should we fail to give people the chance to prove themselves to us, then we really have no right to speak badly of them, especially if they aren’t present to defend themselves.

There are exceptions to this general rule, of course. Public figures, celebrities, well-known speakers and teachers, often promulgate positions to which many of us respond with a disparaging, “Yeah, right, sure”.  We then state our opinions that their stances are, to put it bluntly, a crock. That is sometimes the price of being in the public eye: you have to take the heat of the kitchen.  Being doubted or criticized, unfairly or not, is a requirement of fame.  The question then becomes not so much one of our having stated our views about a public figure’s supposed lack of integrity, but whether, if they later prove themselves, we ourselves have the moral fiber to willingly admit, “I was wrong. They honestly did believe, behave, as they said they would. I’m sorry I doubted them.”

Personally, having swung on the pendulum from being quite naïve to somewhat cynical, I now must admit that I’ve been especially bad about this sort of behavior.  Recognizing it from my friend’s remarks has been a wake-up call to myself. It’s time for me to begin living up to my own standards, and giving others not just the benefit of the doubt, but the opportunity to prove me wrong in my suppositions about their behavior and beliefs.

I’ll always wonder now about how the workers manning that “Love” both might have reacted to my acquaintance, had he followed through on his notion and approached them with his views. I’d like to think that some of them, at least, would have shrugged and said, “Hey, you’re entitled to your opinions. It doesn’t mean that we can’t love you.”

After all, I don’t agree with his beliefs, either, but I still love him.

Cathy’s Roses

§  The week that Cathy lay in a coma on life support in the hospital, I walked out on my patio one morning, and there before me were my rosebushes, astonishingly covered in buds.  §

A friend passed away a few weeks ago, dying suddenly and unexpectedly as a result of an auto accident. Saddest of all to those of us who knew Cathy from our Monday night meditation group was the fact that we heard too late about all of it: the accident, her hospitalization, and her passing. We learned of the tragedy only on the evening after it had all ended. Her family, burdened and dealing as best they could with unbearable stress and sorrow, perhaps not even knowing how to contact Cathy’s friends, hadn’t been able to reach out to us.  That was tragic, for we, the members of her spiritual family, would have been there to sit at the bedside and give them respite; to hold hands and gently rub tense backs; to bring cups of coffee and meals; to pray with them; and, at the end, to stand beside them as the terrible decision to remove life support had to be made.

It was mere coincidence that one of our number, stopping by to visit Cathy at home, had been told by a neighbor of the accident. Hurrying to the hospital, he arrived just a few hours after her passing. Instead of seeing her one last time, he, shocked and grieving, had to carry the dreadful news to us that night at our gathering.

That shock echoed within me for days. As I commented once when I had been spared a severe auto accident (The Sunflower Rescue, August 21, 2018), life often hangs in the balance on very slender threads.

But this time it was roses, not sunflowers, which caught my attention.

Cathy, you see, was an amazing gardener. A farmer for much of her life, she’d once planted 6,000 trees on her land. She often brought seedlings to share with us on Monday nights; just a few weeks prior to her death, she’d given me a half-dozen tiny coleus starts. I’d gone out in the rain that same evening to plant them in my flowerbed—and only a few days later, bitterly discovered that little brown bunnies had dug up every one of them and eaten the roots! (Damn you, little brown bunnies!)

The week just prior to her fatal accident, Cathy had been lamenting the vanishing honeybee colonies, agonizing about the fate of the planet as we destroyed our pollinators. Veering from that thread, I’d fussed about the condition of my beloved roses.

Unlike the talent Cathy had, I myself have absolutely no green thumb. I can grow only a few plants: roses, morning glories, coleus, violas. All the others take one look at me, turn up their toes, and die on the spot. I’d spent way too much money buying two small rock geranium seedlings in the spring, I mentioned to her, planting them around my mailbox; only one survived, and that by the skin of its little flowery teeth. But my poor Knockout roses….   Damaged by a polar vortex a few winters previous, they had never really recovered. Pollinators or no, they simply wouldn’t bloom. In the past two summers, my three plants had produced a total of seven blooms.

I tried everything. I fed them multiple brands of rose food. I aerated the roots. I watered them. I used insect control. I pruned them, talked to them, praised them, sang to them, prayed over them, gave them Reiki. Finally, I threatened them. Nothing worked; the bushes leafed out, but refused to bloom. The abundant rainfall of the spring had ended, anyway, and hot, dry weather had begun; I knew the bushes would go dormant, and be unlikely to bud again until the fall, if then. I doubted that my roses would ever bloom again after all this time.

“Come the fall,” I told Cathy, “I’m going to dig them all up.  I’ll plant new roses next spring.”

But the week that Cathy lay in a coma on life support in the hospital, before any of us her friends even knew what had happened, I walked out on my patio one morning, and there before me were my rosebushes,  astonishingly covered in buds. Buds on every branch. Even the sickest of the three bushes, the little one that had barely come back into leaf that spring, was budding.

I had been out to work on the roses only two days prior, and had seen no buds at all. But now my roses were literally singing with new life.

And on the day Cathy died, those buds burst into bloom.IMG_20190714_212144993 (2) Heavy, thick, rich blooms opened everywhere. Branches weighty with blooms and buds and new leaves threw out crazy, joyous arms in a dance of ecstasy beneath the sunlight.

Two weeks after Cathy’s passing, my roses were still blooming—still budding, still blooming even in the hot, dry weather. I strolled about my rosebed, praising them and thanking them.

As I told this story to the other members of my Monday night group, we all agreed: Cathy’s gardener spirit, wandering free of her damaged body, went walkabout; decided to heal my rosebushes; had paced around them, reviving them and stirring them into renewed life.

“After all,” one of our members laughed, with the tight, sad smile one pastes on while recalling humorous moments from the life of a lost friend, “Cathy never could sit still!”

True Friends

∼  If you want to know who your true friends are—the people who genuinely care about you—just get really, really sick. 

I have one former friend who is probably still puzzling over the demise of a relationship that spanned several years, surviving not a few misunderstandings and rough times.

But on my part, deciding to calling quits to the friendship was obvious: I was abandoned when seriously ill.

If you want to know who your true friends are—the people who genuinely care about you—just get really, really sick. Not a pleasant path to discovery, I admit, but one that is certain and true. The responses of your family members and friends will provide every clue to their genuine feelings for you.

Now, it’s easy to assume that family will help to provide your care: it is, after all, their responsibility. Spouses, especially, are supposed to look after one another; ditto, parents, their children, and children, their elderly parents.

Sadly, that doesn’t always happen–or, having happened, it is made all too clear to us that we are being cared for, not out of love, but obligation.

It’s really unpleasant being someone’s virtuous obligation. The “long-suffering-but-noble” stance and facial expressions of our carers, the occasional veiled but insensitive remark about things they could be doing, if only they didn’t have to look after us, the sighs and airs of self-sacrifice—even the slipshod methods employed to our care—yes, it would be almost better to struggle and risk harm to care for ourselves rather than be someone’s noble obligation.

Yet for those of us who are not natural malingerers, it’s almost as difficult experience to be cared for out of love. Most of us with dignity and conscience do not want to be a burden to others, taking up their scarce free time, making more work for those we love. Yes, there are those people who consider it their due to be looked after, even coddled—but those same people have probably spent most of their lives behaving in that manner, not just when they are ill or incapacitated.

But being cared for out of love, no matter how uncomfortable an affair for those who are independent and resourceful, provides a new perspective of relationships. And, heartbreakingly, a failure of care does, also.

When I was seriously ill, people whom I had not been in contact with for weeks, months, even years, seemingly flew out of the woodwork. They provided me with every service imaginable: meals, transportation, housework—even just sitting with me, mindlessly watching TV, when I was at my lowest point. Well over a year later, the warm glow of those acts of loving kindness lingers with me still. They reached out to me in my darkest hour, sending cards and letters and e-mails and texts. They put my name on prayer requests, and made certain I knew those prayers were being said. They made phone calls, or simply showed up on the doorstep. And, above all, they listened. They listened to my fears, spoken and, yes, unspoken, listening with their hearts as well as their ears. When I was at my lowest points, they walked with me through the valley of the shadow; they held my hands, figuratively and literally, through my dark night of the soul.

And others did not.

As I say, there is one former friend who is probably still puzzling over the demise of our years-long relationship.   When told that I had cancer, she assured me that she would include me in prayer at the next worship service. After that, although I kept her updated on my scheduled treatment plan and surgeries and the expectation of a lengthy recovery, I heard nothing: no cards, no phone calls, no texts, no e-mails, no letters. There were no visits, no casseroles, no assistance with housework during the dreary and long months of my illness.

As I always, naively, anticipate the best of people, especially friends, I was wounded. Most dismaying of all was the fact that, just a year earlier, I had been the person to provide her transportation to a minor outpatient surgery and wait with her through a long morning, drive her to pick up prescriptions and see her home afterward, bring her a get-well basket, call to check on her and send her one or two cheerful e-mails during her brief recovery.

I discovered, though, that I didn’t have time to waste worrying over her unexpected disappearing act during my serious illness. Having recovered myself, I became heavily involved with looking after another friend who had also become seriously ill. Giving the same service that I had been given was a way for me to repay the Universe for the kindness and care that had been shown to me.

Months later, my one-time friend suggested we might get together for dinner…so that I could meet her new boyfriend.

I declined.

The Power of an Insincere Thank You

Justifying bad behavior is being wrong twice.

A while ago I was shopping at Super Big Evil Mart, and found myself enamored of a pretty knit top which I didn’t need, couldn’t afford, and knew I shouldn’t buy. So of course, seeing that there was only one in my size, I flung it into my cart and marched up to the checkout with it.

The line was long since (as usual) there were only perhaps three checkout lanes open of the twenty or so available. So I was dismayed when the clerk started to ring up my purchases and found the top had no price tag. Obviously irritated, she switched her lane light to strobe, hoping to attract a supervisor who could verify the price. Meanwhile, I turned to the lady in line behind me, and said abjectly, “I’m really sorry to hold you up.” The woman responded with an expressive lift of the eyebrows and quirk of her head which seemed the equivalent of a shrug–whereupon the teenage clerk, not quite sotto voce, remarked snippily, “Well, if you’d checked to see if the item had a price tag, you wouldn’t be holding everyone up!”

Expressive Eyebrow lady raised her brows even further, if that were possible. I’m certain my own eyebrows were riding at high tide, also. But I reined in my temper and just looked coolly at the young clerk, replying in saccharine tones, “Oh, thank you so much! There is nothing I appreciate more than being given life lessons by someone at least 40 years younger than I am!”

When my purchases had finally been rung up by the now-silent clerk, I smiled sweetly at her and said in a voice dripping sugar, “I’ll be sure to let your supervisor know all about your helpful advice! Thank you again!”

This wasn’t the first time I’d routed a clerk at the Super Big Evil Mart using the extraordinary power of an insincere thank you. A few years earlier, I’d strolled into the garden section in the very early spring. The main shelves were already full, but I didn’t see what I wanted there, and so wandered toward an opening between some pieces of clear vinyl sheeting hung from the ceiling. In a hazy sort of way, I thought they were hung there to keep chilly air of the still-raw weather from seeping into the main part of the store; there were certainly no signs or cones indicating that the section wasn’t yet open. But a middle-aged clerk, who certainly should have known better, charged down upon me, snarling loudly and angrily, “Hey, YOU! GET AWAY! That whole area’s still closed!” I pulled up short as commanded, and, placing a hand over my heart, replied, “Oh, I’m SO sorry! I didn’t realize that! And thank you for letting me know SO courteously! Thank you for saying, ‘Please be careful’. Thank you for saying ‘Ma’am’. Thank you for speaking to a customer with SUCH courtesy! ”

If looks were a box of matches, I’d have burst into flames on the spot. But there is simply very little response even the most obnoxious person can make to being thanked, however insincerely.

There are some who try, of course. Spluttering or muttering, they attempt to defend their execrable behavior. My standard response to such equivocation is to stare them down with X-ray eyes and snap out a snarky comment of my own: “Justifying bad behavior is being wrong twice!” Occasionally, too, the chided individual will simply mouth off an insult (i.e., “Bitch!”). This, of course, requires a return to childish rhetoric: while still evading an exchange volley of insults, I just grin and sing out, “Hey, takes one to know one!”

I’ve utilized the astounding force of an insincere thank-you when given unasked-for advice or when, as described above, I’ve been victimized by those in a service capacity; I’ve even used it, very carefully and in a modulated tone, when faced with a situation in which a stranger seemed murderously angry. I was known to exercise the gesture back when I was still employed, although in those situations, also, I dialed down the saccharine tones and gestures quite a bit. Insincere thanks have seen me through many a moment in which speaking my mind or responding with my true feelings could have produced awful results.

In a world of rising dissension, in which common courtesy has become so uncommon as to be notable, there is enormous strength in the words “thank you”, whether meant sincerely or otherwise. But for shutting down outright rudeness, there’s nothing quite like the power of an insincere thank you.

“Murder”

In 1985, I suffered a miscarriage.  My dearly-longed for baby died within me, and my body refused to miscarry the dead fetus.

The technical term for a miscarriage is a spontaneous abortion. A missed abortion is the situation in which the embryo or fetus dies, but the body does not miscarry. The pregnancy appears to continue.

I know this because, in 1985, I suffered a missed abortion. My dearly-longed for baby died within me, and my body refused to discharge the dead fetus. I carried my child dead, knowing it to be dead, for a further three weeks.  My obstetrician insisted it would be healthier if I miscarried naturally. Finally, that not having happened, he intervened with a D&C.

I was at last free to mourn the child who would never be. And my world went to grey and sepia.

Years later,  I had cause to remember those dreadful days of dragging myself into the office every day, carrying my dead child—the anguish; the unutterable grief. It all came rushing back to me one afternoon when a coworker who had also suffered a miscarriage asked to see her personnel file.

A difficult supervisor was making her life miserable, and she decided to take matters in hand by visiting Human Resources and viewing her personnel file. She wanted to know exactly what the supervisor had written about her. Permitted to examine her records in the presence of an HR employee, she sat down to page through the folder.

In those pre-HIPAA days, doctors could write almost anything in a work excuse note; there was no privacy concerning one’s personal medical information. And so, as she sorted through the pages of information and misinformation, she came across the “Please Excuse From Work” note  provided following her miscarriage. Her ob/gyn had written, “Absence due to recovery from a D&C performed following spontaneous abortion”.

But across the word “abortion”, someone had written in bold, black ink, “MURDER”.

She sat there, shocked to her depth and core, holding that bit of paper in a shaking hand, staring at the libelous judgment scrawled across the note.

MURDER.

Still shaking, she turned to the waiting HR employee.  Shoving the note under her nose, she demanded to know what the hell was going on. Why was this…this filthy lie…written on her medical excuse?

“Oh,” Ms. HR said casually, “we thought we’d caught all those.” Without another word, she took a bottle of cover-up, casually dabbed it across the appellation, and handed it back.

Disbelieving; too shaken to dispute and not knowing quite what else to do, my coworker slipped the note back into the file, closed the folder, and left.

Later, as she tearfully described the situation, another staff member clued us in.  Heaven knows where she’d gotten her information, but in this instance the gossip mill seemed trustworthy, for she claimed that an HR employee had been discovered writing the word “Murder” across medical notes and insurance claims for all female employees who had either actually had an abortion, or suffered miscarriages. The employee, apparently ignorant of either the term spontaneous or missed abortion, had assumed the meaning to be the elective procedure. She made her damning judgement, scrawling reprehensible accusations over the reality of the agonizing truth.

Human Resources staff had been forced to dig through mounds of files, finding and correcting all those in which she’d written her libelous remarks.

Obviously, I thought in fury, they hadn’t corrected all of them! For a moment I considered demanding to see my own personnel file, certain that it, too, would either be libeled, or (just as damning) covered in white-out.  But recalling the weeks of my colorless world, the hours of grief and mourning for my unrealized child, I could not bring myself to do it.  I could not look at that word written across the source of my pain.

Thirty-some years later, I still shake with anger as I recall this event.

But the reason I am writing all of this is because, not long ago, I read a news story  about a young woman enduring the agony of a non-viable pregnancy–an agony that I so well understood. The woman had been denied a medication prescribed by her doctor, one that would cause her body to begin naturally miscarrying the dead fetus. A pharmacist had refused to fill the prescription. Shaming and judging her, he claimed that she was trying to abort a living child, and denied her the medication.  To obtain the prescription that would end her pregnancy with a dead child and circumvent a surgical procedure, she was forced to drive for hours from that rural pharmacy to another town.

For just a moment, time reversed its flight, and I stood with that young woman in her grief, her anguish and misery, and, most of all, her innocence in the face of the most terrible of all accusations by someone self-righteous and wrathful.

MURDER.

I experienced every minute of her suffering as if it were my own. And, just as I had once consigned that smug, sanctimonious, faceless HR employee to the uttermost depths of hades, I now wished the same fate upon this unknown, censorious pharmacist.

I know that we are to judge not.  And I do not even believe in hell.  Yet sometimes, remembering, I find myself hoping that they both, the self-righteous HR employee and the contemptuous pharmacist, will find there is a special corner of a Very Hot Place reserved just for them.

Forgiveness Is Always An Option

Being told, over and over, by multiple people, that I needed to forgive was, in the end, totally counterproductive to the actual process of forgiveness.

I recently attended a six-week support group. Those brief two-hour sessions a week, and some light “homework” assignments following each session, found me freed, freed at last, from an intolerable burden that I had carried for a decade or more: unforgiveness.

Understand, it was not that I did not want to forgive the person who had, undeniably and maliciously, caused me enormous harm. Being raised in an Italian/Scottish family, I was all too familiar with the mechanics of feuding; of carrying grudges. I knew what it was to experience unforgiveness, bitterness, enmity, animosity and hostility.

Even more, I knew very well the toll these emotions took not just upon me, but upon everyone on the periphery of my life: my loved ones and family members. And I knew, as well, that not one iota, not one tiny, minute drop of the acid from those spiteful feelings in any way harmed the object of my anger. Instead, they ate away at my own soul.

Intellectually aware of all these facts, I nevertheless could not put aside the rage that scored my soul to its center. I could not forgive the individual who had wronged me.

Oh, I tried—how I tried! I prayed over and meditated on the problem. I forced myself to carefully recount all the ways in which the person who had harmed me deserved my understanding and empathy.  Each time the bitterness rose like a bile that I could taste in my mouth, I chanted to myself the words, “I forgive”. But the words were hollow and empty; the empathy a mere pretense, fleeting and unfelt. I finally created a string of beads and frequently held them in my hands, whispering my forgiveness as the circlet slipped through my fingers. The exercise did nothing but drain me. All my attempts to forgive merely induced a new anger—anger at myself—and a growing feeling of being inextricably trapped, ceaselessly beating my hands at the silken strands of a web that would not release me.

Worse yet was my reaction to those who told me what I already knew. If I had plucked a hair from my head for each time I heard someone say the words, “If you could only forgive…”, I would have been bowling pin bald!  “I’m trying,” I wanted to scream at them. “I’m trying to forgive. I want to forgive! I just can’t seem to get there.” No matter how well-intentioned, their words hindered rather than aided my healing. Rather than perceiving their concern for my emotional state, I heard them belittling my efforts. Instead of comprehending their hope that I would find healing, I heard them being sanctimonious. I shut my ears to their actual words or their intentions.  Instead, what my heart heard them saying was, “I  have been hurt and  I forgave! I am so much more evolved a soul than you!”

Being told, over and over, by multiple people, that I needed to forgive was, in the end, totally counterproductive to the actual process of forgiveness.

But what I found in those brief few weeks of spilling my guts to total strangers was the unexpected miracle that led me back to a state of grace. Finally able to speak my truth—my rage, my enduring anger, and my unforgiveness–without censure and without judgment, gave me the freedom I needed to find my way to mercy and compassion; to give pardon and grant absolution to the individual who had so grievously wounded me.

If I have learned anything on this long and twisted journey to compassion, it is that forgiveness is always an option, and one that we do not have to choose. I have learned that to tell another that they need to forgive is to stand in judgment upon them. And I have discovered that, for most of us, forgiveness can happen only after the wound we are carrying has been drained of all its poison. Then forgiveness will happen so naturally, so easily, that we will not even realize at first that it has occurred. We will simply awake one day to the knowledge that the burden of rage that we have been carrying has been lifted from our shoulders, and we are no longer enmeshed in the binding web of fury.

If I am ever faced with a friend who is suffering, trapped in the spider’s web of unforgiveness, I now know what I will say. I will tell that person only, “It’s okay. Everything you are feeling is okay. And when you are ready to forgive, it will happen. It will just happen. And that will be a wonderful day.”

Those Two Snakes…

Belittling encounters with medical professionals could probably spin out into a story as long as War and Peace. 

The symbol for the medical profession is the caduceus, featuring two snakes winding around a winged staff. And despite the many caring medical professionals I’ve encountered over the years, I sometimes fear that those snakes are uncannily accurate!

This struck me forcefully a few days ago when a friend called for advice on behalf of her sister. She wanted to know if I thought (as she did) that her sibling should make some type of complaint regarding the treatment she’d just received at the hands of a specialist, a pain management doctor to whom she’d been referred. All three of us were well aware that pain management is a tricky subject these days due to the opioid epidemic; even more so for a patient being treated for long-term depression and emotional issues, as the sister admittedly is. But she’d also been enduring untreated chronic pain for months, and had waited patiently for weeks to see the specialist…only to leave his office in tears, not one  whit closer to being out of pain, and having been demeaned, insulted, misinterpreted, and shunted aside.

I commiserated with my friend and we determined a course of action for her sister to take. But the event brought clearly to mind the many times I and others of my acquaintance had endured reprehensible behavior from someone in the medical profession.

cauduceusI vividly recall my shock and dismay when, years ago, having seen my doctor regarding symptoms suggestive of an underactive thyroid, I received his verdict. Although my thyroid activity was on the “low end” of normal, he explained, “What you really need is an aerobics course. Or a psychologist.”  Just as my friend’s sister had done, I left the medical office in tears. Ignoring the doctor’s assessment, I researched and found a natural solution to my problem: two herbs that I continue to take to take to this day, since whenever I neglect them my symptoms return. But I’ve thought about that doctor’s words many times in the intervening years, as I’ve participated in many forms of exercise and mental health counseling that did nothing for my “low normal” thyroid.

Then there was the anesthesiologist who treated me during a breast biopsy. To say that I was frightened the day of that surgery would be the understatement of the decade, and my way of handling emotional discomfort often is to joke. So when the anesthesiologist saw me prior to the procedure, asking about allergies, I said laughingly, “Mostly, I’m allergic to my whole planet of origin.” Her face darkened and her lips twisted into a snarl as she snapped out that she needed accurate information. Chastened, I quickly recounted my precise allergies. But conflict terrifies me, so I was still trembling as they wheeled me in for surgery

I’ve wondered since if that anesthesiologist trained alongside the tech who handled the anesthetic for my emergency c-section.  During that procedure, despite trying my best to remain still as the needle was inserted into my spine, I jumped slightly. The anesthesiologist smacked me across the upper arm and growled, “I said DON’T MOVE!”

Another friend recounted her miserable experience with a doctor whom she saw for knee problems. Although my friend never denies that she is overweight, she was shaken and humiliated when the specialist genuinely threw up his hands. Threw his hands into the air and declaimed that there was nothing he could do, owing to her weight. She continued her story of medical mistreatment, explaining to me that,  many years earlier, when she’d first begun to gain weight, she’d visited another specialist.  She’d described to him a breathing problem she was experiencing that was limiting her activity and contributing to her weight gain. Prior to developing this breathing problem, she explained, she’d weighed only 127 pounds.  Later, as she dressed following the examination, she overheard the doctor dictating his notes regarding her case: “Patient claims to have previously weighed 127 pounds. Frankly, I find that hard to believe.”

I could probably recount a dozen or more such unpleasant, degrading incidents, both mine and others. I feel certain almost everyone has such a story. Many are far worse than those I’ve already related here: the breast cancer patient who was slammed into the radiation therapy machine by an angry tech; the woman who was told of her 102°F temperature, “That isn’t a high fever!” Belittling encounters with medical professionals could probably spin out into a story as long as War and Peace. And still I recognize that there are always two sides to every coin: During my daughter’s long labor and eventual c-section, I was thoroughly impressed by the kindness and quality behavior of the two anesthesiologists who treated her pain.

Nevertheless, thinking over so many disagreeable experiences, both my own and those of others, I persist in believing there is a genuine reason for those two sidewinding snakes on the caduceus.

A History of Queen Anne’s Lace

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.

Years ago, I was watching an educational TV show, and the narrator discussed plants that were not native to the Americas but which were now common. As an example, the script mentioned Queen Anne’s Lace, stating that the seeds were carried to the Americas caught in blankets and clothing of the European settlers.

I could not stop laughing. 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. 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.  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 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 pill was 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 death 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.

Prom Night, Then and Now

Because the month of May is when so many high schools hold their proms, an acquaintance asked me to re-publish this post from last year.

As women will do when gathered together day after day, when I worked in an office, we often found time to switch into “chat and gossip” mode. On one particular day in my memory, I recall that a supervisor had proudly displayed to a group of us ladies the prom photos taken of his oldest daughter. That sparked a discussion of school dances in general, and prom gowns specifically.

Each of the women present took turns describing her beloved senior or junior prom gowns and favorite dance dresses. I stayed on the periphery of this conversation, volunteering nothing, and fortunately each of the women was too wrapped up in fond memories of her own Cinderella moments to note my reticence.  My relief was enormous; I didn’t know what I would have said if they had turned to ask me about my dance dresses.  Made something up, perhaps – probably – because admitting the truth would have been humiliating: that I had never had a prom gown, nor even a dance dress.  I never wore one because I never went to a dance or a prom.  I did not go because I was not asked.  Without a date, a young woman of my generation didn’t have the opportunity to attend her own school prom.  She did not dare walk alone through the door onto the dance floor.

All of the women involved in the conversation that day were fifteen to twenty years younger than I. I knew that they could not possibly understand.  Contemporary young women would likely reel in disbelief and shock if faced with the restrictions we girls lived under in the late 1960s and early 70s.  If one did not have a date for a dance or a prom, one simply didn’t get to attend.  I seriously doubt that a single girl would have been sold a ticket for her own prom—or, if she had somehow wrangled a ticket, would not have been allowed to walk in alone. We, the overflow of plain young women without boyfriends or dates, simply bowed to the reality of the situation: we would not be asked, we would not attend. If we chafed under the restrictions, we were told that there was absolutely no point in railing against the situation.  It was just the things way were.

But somehow, at some point, it stopped being the way things were. The daughters of  “women’s libbers” and “hippies”, imbued with a sense of combativeness and personal worth that had been sadly absent in earlier generations, struck out on their own and refused to be tied to some male just in order to gain admission to their own school dances.  Happily single, they demanded tickets.  They bought their own corsages, slipped on their lovely gowns, tucked their feet into brand-new dancing shoes, and off they went.  Even if asked by a boyfriend to be their prom date, these brave young innovators sometimes refused to be coupled to one person and instead attended in groups of girlfriends, free to dance (or not) with whomever they pleased.

I not only admired those young women, but I was fiercely glad for them.

When my daughter and I went to a showing of the Disney movie Cinderella, I found myself biting my lip and blinking hard against tears when the title character is barred by her stepmother and sisters from attending the ball.  Later, as we left the theatre, I told my daughter, “That’s what it felt like, on the night of my senior prom.  That’s how I felt.”  Her own eyes sought mine in compassion and she squeezed my hand.

There were no fairy godmothers for the Cinderellas of my generation. And I had not the needed courage, perhaps, to change the sad state of my own affairs. But I have nothing but admiration for contemporary young women who neither need nor want fairy godmothers, nor pumpkin coaches, nor glass slippers—who reach out with no magic wands but that of their own self-assuredness and hard work to create the lives they want. And I hope every one of them dances, like the twelve dancing princesses of another fairy tale, long past midnight and until their shoes are worn through.