The Lopsided Tree

I have been watching (for, give me strength, months—literally months!) commercials lauding a particular brand of “perfect”, extraordinarily realistic Christmas tree. Each time I’ve been subjected to the commercial, I’ve thought to myself, “If you want a tree that perfectly realistic, for heaven’s sake, buy a live tree!”

But that isn’t true, either, is it? I recall the live trees of my early childhood, before artificial trees became common. They were never perfect. One always turned the “not so good” side to the wall. They sat crookedly in the tree stand, requiring endless work to straighten them and keep them straight. They shed needles no matter how much water was added to the stand. The top branch keeled over under the weight of the angel. But they smelled heavenly, and once the heavy glass colored bulbs were lit, they looked like a little piece of heaven, too.

They were a lot of trouble, those live trees, and I don’t precisely miss them, having used the artificial variety for most of my lifetime now. But I had reason to think about them as I set up my tree this year.

Two holiday seasons past, I had to purchase a new tree, doing so during the after-Christmas sales. I choose a prelit “umbrella” tree, one with folding branches that didn’t have to be frustratingly inserted following a complicated pattern. As I checked out with my tree at the counter, the sales clerk warned me that returns could only be processed within 30 days; be sure, she advised me, once I arrived home, that the lights on the tree were working. I swiped my credit card and laughed. “My dear,” I chuckled, “this baby is staying in the box until next Christmas. And if the lights don’t work, well, that’s why God invented strings of lights!’

But the lights did work, as I found out the following year. Although sparse (I prefer my trees simply laden with twinkling white lights), the tree blossomed into brilliance once plugged in. It was taller than I’d anticipated, but fit nicely into the narrow area available after the aggravation of moving the furniture. And, once decorated, it was just breathtaking.

Fast forward to January 2nd. There was simply NO WAY that tree was going back into the box. Finally I covered it with big trash bags and propped it into the corner of my tiny, single-car garage…where, a few months later, it crashed to the ground one evening as I pulled my car into the space, snapping the weld that held the bushy top branch in place so that it broke completely from the tree.

Ever the optimist, I decided to put it aside until the holiday season, sure it would be easy to repair. If the upper lights didn’t work now, I thought, I’d just get a string. No big deal.

Sigh. A week prior to Thanksgiving, I decided it might be best to repair that treetop. But after a frustrating two hours of attempting multiple mends, it became clear to me that the broken treetop was not going to be repaired. Oh, the lights still worked. But no way was that treetop ever going to slide into place in the trunk once again.

Finally, on the night before Thanksgiving, I brought the damaged tree into the house. Deciding that if duct tape had been good enough for Apollo 13, it was good enough for my Christmas tree, I taped the broken tree top to the trunk portion of the tree. It was lopsided as all get-out, and it wobbled ever so slightly, but it worked. I wound some ribbon about the trunk to disguise the mend, and settled the tree into its spot by the living room window.

The Lopsideded Tree Crop

And now, I realize, I like the tree better.

It was a little too tall before; now, perhaps four inches shorter, it is just the right size. It’s lopsided, just like the beloved trees of my childhood. The side where the mend shows most has been turned to the wall. It lost a few needles in the repair process, especially where I discovered that one umbrella-fold branch had also been a victim of that topple to the garage floor.

It is a perfectly imperfect tree.

Perhaps that is a metaphor for Christmas itself—for all the holidays celebrated by all the families of many cultures throughout the lands of this earth. We strive to make everything perfect—the food, the gathering, the gifts, the lights. But no matter how hard we try, perfection never happens. Married children cannot split their time between two families; grandchildren can’t make it home from distant colleges. The turkey burns; the mashed potatoes turn out runny. Someone starts a political discussion that ends up in shouting and quarrels. The smokers are angry at banishment to the porch. All the men escape to the TV for football, while the women, resentfully, clear tables and wash dishes. The kids scorn the gifts that their parents worked so hard to provide.

Perfection never happens. But, nonetheless, the lights burn brilliantly on the lopsided tree, reminding us that perfection isn’t a necessary component to joy. Satisfaction, acceptance, and “good enough” are all we truly need for happiness.

Manners of the Heart

I once enjoyed reading various columns in the daily newspapers. They were, after all, essentially the same thing as these blog posts; only the presenting medium differs.  And I have vivid memories the many weekly and daily features that I read.

One, years ago, was an advice column for etiquette. (I see you are now shaking your head.  You are thinking: When even the words “please” and “thank you” are forgotten bastions of good manners, when hate speech and road rage are common — well, in this era, almost no one, no one at all, would ever write, much less read, a feature piece about etiquette.)  But, there you have it.  For many years, newspapers across the country carried a daily article totally devoted to proper behavior.  Some still do!

I found the etiquette column fascinating. My own upbringing might be referred to as “Midwestern casual”.  I knew enough of good manners to keep my elbows off the dinner table and my mouth closed while chewing a bite.  I did not sling my napkin about my neck, but placed it on my lap. I knew that I should hold the door open for a person whose arms were laden with packages, or who was elderly, and that I was to answer respectfully, “Yes, Ma’am” or “Yes, Sir” when addressed by an adult. Parents of my friends were addressed as Mrs. or Mr., not by their first names.  I was never to point at someone, and I needed to say “Pardon me” or “Excuse me, please” when it was necessary to walk around someone.  But that about summed up my acquaintance with mannerliness.

So I devoured these articles on etiquette, learning unexpected and captivating facts. Presented with more cutlery than a knife, fork and spoon?  Start at the outside and work inward.  Lay my unused hand across the napkin in my lap. If arriving first at the door, hold it for everyone else, but if a someone offers to take the door for me as a large group enters, say thank you and continue in.  Spoon my soup away from me. When first becoming acquainted in a formal situation, ask if I might call someone by their first name. Sit with my ankles crossed and on a slight slant to one side.  Stir tea or coffee slowly in a vertical line.

Some of the advice was pithy and intelligent; occasionally (like that “spoon your soup” rule) it seemed to be total nonsense…until one considered the consequences of behaving otherwise (A dribble from the soup spoon will fall into the bowl, not the lap! Tea stirred in a circle will create a vortex and could overflow the cup.)

But scattered amongst all this concise and sensible information, there lurked pitfalls, and many of these became apparent in the questions sent in by people seeking to know the appropriate way to handle unusual situations. My favorite of all these was the woman who had a debate going with a friend on the correct way to put the flat sheet on the bed.

Having grown up in an era in which white bedsheets were the norm—colored sheets, and solid colors at that, had finally edged into the market; prints were just becoming popular—it had never occurred to me that there was any special way to lay the flat sheet atop the fitted sheet. You placed it down, straightened it across, tucked in the bottom and put hospital corners on the lower sides.  Period.  End of story.

But just as Dear Abby learned in the Great Toilet Paper Debate, everyone has an opinion.  The writer opined that, if the sheet was laid down “properly”, with the uppermost seam turned down, the flat sheet had to be laid with the printed side downward or “only the maid sees the pretty sheets”.

The maid?!

I had already gotten stuck at that part about the sheets being laid down “properly”. It had certainly never occurred to me to turn that uppermost seam down any which way.  One laid the sheet, as I’ve said, to the correct height on the mattress and tucked in the bottom and corners.

But the maid?

What maid?!  Did the writer of the letter—much less the author of the column—not realize that 99-and-some percent of the readers of this column had no maid?

It suddenly occurred to me that the etiquette lessons I was learning from these articles might not, after all, be applicable to the reality of the life I was living.

I’ll never remember what the author’s answer was to this ultimately silly question, having boggled at those other points in the letter. Despite that, I continued reading the manners advice column daily, extracting from it some pertinent guidance that I continue to use to this day.

But the memory of that letter came back to me when I was recovering from surgery, and a thoughtful friend came weekly to change the bedsheets for me. Laying down the flat sheet, she asked if I preferred to have the embroidered top seam turned down, for that would determine how she lay the sheet over the mattress.  “Hey, you’re doing me the favor,” I told her.  “I’m just grateful for your help. You put the sheet on there any way you like.”

And that, I think, is the essence of good manners: gratitude, consideration, and genuine courtesy.  Truly good manners are manners of the heart.

Reindeer and Bullies

Since my earliest childhood, I have hated the Christmas song, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”.

I associate my distaste for the carol with the fact that I am now and always have been sensitive to the effects of bullying. Bullying was a culturally accepted child-rearing and social practice during my childhood, and, while still extremely common (and if you doubt that, just glance at the comments bandied about at the end of news stories!), is slowly being recognized as the abuse that it is. Nevertheless, when I was a child, no one, neither other children nor adults, thought a thing of verbal bullying.  Parents who did not hesitate to label their own children “dumbass”, “blockhead”, “idiot” or far worse things paid lip service to the ideal that “name calling is not nice”. Those same verbally abusive parents scolded their children when the kids mirrored adult behavior and mocked their playmates. This dichotomy probably resulted in many a psychologically screwed-up adult.

Perhaps it was because I was labeled “skinny” by adults that I felt such a distaste for verbal bullying. (Ah, to have that problem now!)    In the late 1950s, when my adult relatives and my parents’ friends felt perfectly comfortable discussing my physical defects, thoughtlessly and loudly, right in front of me, it was not considered a good thing to be “skinny”.  Like Anne of Green Gables, I had “not a pick on my bones”, and was consequently humiliated in a world of plump, dimpled girls.

But on to Rudolph. I encountered the carol in my first-grade classroom, and I to this day I remember my distress on hearing the lyrics sung so cheerfully by Miss Markey, my teacher.  “All of the other reindeer/used to laugh and call him names…”  The shock I felt at hearing those words echoed right to my bones, but I (always the well-behaved little student) bit my tongue.  At home, I’d been known to occasionally use a word or phrase picked up from my adult male relatives, and, had I been a few years older, I might not have restrained myself.  I’d have burst out with my Pop-Pop’s well known phrase, “The hell you say!”

Uh…if we laughed and called someone names on the school playground, we got at least a token scolding.  So exactly why were we singing about it?

Bewildered, I listened to the rest of the words of the song, feeling even more confused. Mind you, this was 1960.  Civil rights were but a glimmer in the eye of Dr. Martin Luther King, and racial prejudice, even in the nominally-northern state of Indiana, was rife.  But, due to early encounters (see the post of 06/01/2018, “Amosandra”), I, although fish-belly white, was personally familiar with racial prejudice.  And it seemed to me quite clear that  this was what the song was about. Rudolph’s nose was a different color. That made him fair game for exclusion and humiliation.  To reach the status of any other reindeer he had, in fact, to prove that he was better than they were–sort of like Jesse Owens winning the Olympics.

To me, a six-year-old child attempting to make sense of the lyrics, this song was not about his eventual triumph over humiliation and abuse…because the humiliation and abuse should never have happened at all in the first place. Why, my child-mind demanded to know, didn’t anyone protect poor Rudolph?  What was Santa thinking?!

It was a rotten song, a song that glorified rudeness and humiliation and prejudice, and I just didn’t like it. I didn’t like it at all.  After that, I mouthed the words, but I refused to sing along.

And in my heart, I’m still that astounded six-year-old, sitting in my classroom, shocked to my core about a song which laughingly portrays bullying and bias. To this day, as each holiday season rolls around, I refuse to watch the classic Claymation show, and I switch off the radio the minute “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” begins to play. My heart will always ache for poor Rudolph, bullied and shunned and rejected for nothing but a physical characteristic.  For me, that pathetic little Christmas carol will never be about Rudolph’s eventual triumph over adversity, for he should never, never ever, have had to prove himself in the first place.

Only At the Holidays

I’ve made my own Christmas cards for nearly three decades now, each year choosing a special photograph or a theme as my holiday greeting to family and friends. At the time I began creating personal cards, the only way to do so involved bringing a printed picture to a photo shop and making a selection from a very limited variety of card designs.  But just a few years after I began sending photo cards, color photocopies became affordable.  Delighted with the new opportunity, that holiday season I had my young daughter draw a picture of  our family at Christmas—Mom, Dad, herself and three cats–added a greeting, and had copies made to send out for the holiday.

Not long after that, I bought our first home computer, which came with a wonderful publishing software called Picture It!  (which, I must sadly report, has gone the way of the dodo, but it was a fantastic software).  From that point on, my holiday cards became more professional, more personal, and involved considerably more effort—sometimes hours of work, in fact.  It didn’t matter; I  thoroughly enjoyed creating my special greeting cards.  I even created a succession of logos for the back of the cards, updating our trademark as family circumstances changed. Logo for Yule

But, just like the software, eventually my state-of-the-art Moo Cow computer—fondly named Hal, after the evil genius computer from 2001–became a venerable antique.  Nevertheless, I kept the old dinosaur hanging around, solely due to that publishing software.   Until Hal went permanently to the blue screen of death, I booted him up once yearly to create my Christmas cards.

In the years since, never having found an inexpensive software with the versatility and functionality of the old Picture It! , I’ve been forced to create my cards using just one side of the standard piece of paper.  They don’t please me nearly as much, but I’ve still enjoyed making them.  And my family and friends assure me they enjoy the special greeting cards and look forward each year to seeing what I’ve come up with.  Some tell me that they even keep each of my cards, while tossing “store bought” ones in the recycle bin at the close of each holiday season.

Yet I have one upsetting memory connected with my personal greeting cards and, each year as I sit down to my annual ritual of creating my special holiday greetings, I recall it.  And it still bothers me.

It was back in the old “photo card” era. Someone, knowing my love of all things Christmas, had given me a giant stuffed Santa.  Reindeer being unavailable, I’d perched Stuffed Santa on my daughter’s old red rocking horse, posed him by the Christmas tree, and snapped a photo, which I used the following year for my holiday cards.

I thought the cards were cheerful and whimsical—bright greens and reds, Santa and the tree, the silly rocking horse instead of a reindeer. But it seemed not everyone felt that way about my choice, for a month or two after the holiday, as I had dinner with a group of friends, something was said that reminded two of them of my annual card, and they began to ridicule it…right in front of me.  Perhaps unthinkingly, or just uncaringly, they made mocking remarks to each other about the greeting card as I sat there, listening and slightly humiliated.

I said nothing; what was there to say? They didn’t appreciate my creative effort. That was their privilege.  But was there any need, I asked myself silently, for them to have humbled me in front of our other friends by scornful remarks?

Gauguin is said to have wept over disparagement of his paintings by art critics who themselves couldn’t have painted a cow barn. And while I hardly compared myself to a great artist, my little yearly creative expression was satisfying, and brought me joy each holiday season…and I felt like crying  to hear it belittled.

I might have let that unpleasant experience put me off creating my holiday cards, but I chose not to. I’ve continued to create greeting cards, as I said, for decades.  And each year as I sit down at my computer and await the magic of inspiration to strike, I recall the casual cruelty of two former friends.  Then I smile and remind myself that the spirit of the season—true loving kindness—should continue not just until the last greeting card is tossed out with the wrapping paper, but throughout the year.

A Crystal Inkwell Pendant

A few years ago I participated in a jewelry exchange. As the rarely-worn but lovely pieces were handed around a circle of women, I was particularly taken with one that no one else seemed to want.  A single golden feather protruded from a large round, faceted crystal with a small gold top.  It was, I realized, an inkwell—an old fashioned inkwell and quill pen.

I loved it instantly and chose it as my gift in the exchange. And then I took it home and never wore it.  For I told myself that this quill-and-inkwell (made of that crystal that no one can pronounce) was meant for a writer.  And I, despite my best of intentions, was not.

Oh, I’d tried to write—or rather, to become a published writer—a number of times. Six of my poems had been published (genuinely published—none of that, “Poetry Contest!” nonsense, where everyone submitting an entry “wins”, and then pays the publisher for the privilege of buying the overpriced compilation in which the poem appears).  No, I had received payment for the six poems printed by Unity’s publishing house in their monthly magazine, and even seen one of my works later reprinted, with permission, in a hardback compilation titled, Truth the Poet Sings.

But none of my other writing projects succeeded. I tried my hand at writing a romance novel, completing several chapters…but since I didn’t actually enjoy reading them myself, I just couldn’t bring myself to finish the book.  I wrote a book of letters to my daughter, recording the wonder of her first year of life.  Melon Patch Letters was read and enjoyed by several women, many of them strangers to me, but despite the approbation I received from my Beta Readers, no publisher was interested in the work.

I even compiled a full manuscript of poetry: poems that traced my healing from depression through spiritual growth. I still believe The Shuttle In My Hands to be excellent, but, then, of course, I would. Again, no publishing house found it worthwhile.

Life itself intervened in my aspirations, and I wrote very little until, years later, I completed my intensely personal manuscript, A Diary of My Divorce.  I never submitted it for publication, although, looking through it again after 19 years, I wonder if I should not have done that very thing.

Enter the world of blogging and e-publishing. As these venues initiated and expanded, I considered them…but life itself has a way of interfering  in the actual business of really living.  As much as I wanted to write, as a single mother, working hard to support the two of us and putting my daughter through college, it seemed that the only writing I found time for was helping my offspring and her friends research and edit school essays and compositions and term papers.

And then, at last, I retired. Promising myself—promising everyone I knew—that I would finally begin writing a blog, I found myself totally intimidated not just by the many blogging platforms, but by the paralyzing fear around the thought, “What if I start my blog, and no one wants to read it?”

Assistance arrived in the form of a new friend whose relative suggested a good blogging forum. Nervous and uncertain of unfamiliar technology, I finally took the plunge.  Literally asking my angels for a title and motto for my blog, I found my fingers typing them out.  I struggled through my inexperience and created the first page.  And, finally, pressing the “Publish” button at last, on October 22, 2017, the post Princess Diana Saved My Life finally appeared.

I’ve written well over 100 blog posts since then, on topics encompassing everything from spiritual beliefs to brussels sprouts, from royalty to poverty to pets to toilet paper–essays that I work hard to craft and polish. In the process I’ve gained a few—just a few—followers, and another few dedicated readers who, themselves leery of a form of technology they did not grow up with,  won’t punch the “Follow” button, but still regularly read my maunderings.  Sometimes I acquire a few “Likes”; more often, I hear later from friends who particularly enjoyed a new column.  Oddly, many of my closest friends and family members never once look at anything I’ve written, while complete strangers and other bloggers laud me.

But it doesn’t matter, really, whether I acquire a following or Likes or even readers. For the simple truth is, I write for my own pleasure.  I write out of dedication to the craft of writing.  I write because the act of composition embodies everything that I am.

And now I proudly wear my crystal quill-and-inkwell pendant, recognizing at last that I always deserved to do so; that I have always been an author; that a lack of publication never once dimmed my enthusiasm or desire to write. Poetry, children’s stories, short stories, books—all are gathered within my file cabinet and occupy space on my computer, possibly doing no more than collecting dust, but evidence, nonetheless, of my intense desire, always, to follow my heart and write.

Perhaps, like the poet Emily Dickinson, the body of my works will be discovered someday after my death, and be recognized and published. Perhaps not.  But it doesn’t matter.  I am not writing to please a faceless public; I am writing because it is, inescapably, entwined within my soul.

Mathematics Makes a…WHAT?!

More years ago than I care to remember, during the era in which the Sunday newspaper was a regular establishment and chock-full of information, I always enjoyed reading the small magazine that accompanied the paper. For several years one of my favorite features in that magazine was a column written by a woman acclaimed for her high I.Q. Much as I do with this blog, she simply discussed ideas and events that interested her, and, whether I agreed with her observations or not, I thoroughly enjoyed reading them.

The topic of one such article was the necessity of teaching and learning mathematics. Since math has been my stumbling block since I got to the point of learning (uh, being unable to learn) my “seven plus” tables—I’ve since discovered that I may suffer from dyscalculia, the mathematical equivalent to dyslexia–I read her column with real curiosity.

The author explained her point of view carefully, and her observations made great sense, until I reached a remark near the conclusion of her essay, in which (to the best of my memory; this was decades ago) she stated that “…mathematics makes a better poet”.

Say what?!

I put the article down and pondered. This being the pre-Internet era, I could not easily check my supposition, but I did not recall that anyone had ever mentioned or published Einstein’s shining examples of verse.  (I’ve looked them up since, and the few poems of his I was able to locate on-line were, at best, ordinary; certainly in no way comparable to notable poets such as Byron or Millay.)  I thought further on the subject and realized that, whether one believed that William Shakespeare was, in fact, Shakespeare, or any one of another half-dozen candidates for having written his works, I simply didn’t recall his equally-brilliant ventures into the field of mathematics.  Hmmm. That is, other than his ability to write in iambic pentameter—a feat which basically relies on tossing all the grammar books and rules out the window and brilliantly twisting language to fit emotion.  (In fact, most truly excellent poetry does just that.)  Da Vinci—certainly the ultimate Renaissance man and brilliant at mathematics, as proved by his engineering marvels—Da Vinci wrote quite an essay explaining why poetry simply did not measure up to painting.  He may have loved numbers, but he certainly had little enthusiasm for verse.

Pondering the article further, I mused that, having written several hundred poems myself–yes, most of them quite ordinary; I am admittedly not a Keats or  Dickinson or Millay–and even published a (pathetically) few, I did not ever recall needing any more mathematical a skill than that of counting out the syllables and establishing the rhythm of verses by tapping my fingers on the desk.  And this drumming occurred only when I was writing verse with rhyme and meter…a skill that wasn’t even necessary on the occasions when I wrote free verse.

Mathematics makes a better poet?

Nonsense. Despite the fact that my own I.Q. was obviously lower than that of the author, her contention was definitely pushing the point due to her personal bias.

The truth, I thought, lay more in the fact that mathematicians absolutely love math, finding it everywhere and searching for it in everything, while those who adore language do the same with words, from “Let there be light” right on down the freeway.

My personal bias is, of course, language. That may very well be why I toss the “mathematics makes a better poet” argument right out the window of the highrise to watch it shatter on the pavement below.  Introduced to poetry at an early age by a mother who loved it and who read it aloud with great skill, I was able to write competent verse by the third grade despite my compromised mathematical skills (and let me tell you right here and now that surviving elementary school while suffering dyscalculia, in an era in which the disorder wasn’t even recognized, was no picnic!)  But all I needed to compose poetry was the kindergarten skill of comprehending rhythm, the ability to count to no more than 14 or 15,  and fingers that could tap out a tempo—a feat that barely involved mathematics.

So while I respect those who regard numbers with the same worship and understanding that I extend to language, I do not share their perspective. I comprehend their view that the entire universe is mathematical…but I do not, cannot, see emotion as based on that theorem. And poetry is inherently emotional.

In any case, I know that there are just as many of us who, respecting mathematics, nevertheless want nothing more to do with numbers than we absolutely must deal with to get by on a daily basis in modern society. To that point, I’ve always recalled the comment of a brilliant young social worker I knew years ago.  He sat with a group of us, laughingly discussing all the courses he’d been forced to take in college that in no way contributed to either his work or the adult life that he actually led.  Having mentioned a laundry list of worthless instruction, he shook his head violently, flung his hands upward and rolled his eyes in an expression of utmost disdain, exclaiming with a bitter sarcasm that I completely understood, “Oh, and calculus!  I’m so glad I put myself through that!”

Controlling the Rainbow

(This post was originally published on December 4, 2017, and is now rededicated to Amanda and John. Happy First Wedding Anniversary, my dearest children!  What an eventful year!  And, yes, little Morrigan Lynn, our magnificent miracle–yes, someday you will be a young girl counting on your fingers…but I assure you, your birth was a full ten and one-half months after your parents’ wedding day!)

There was a rainbow on my daughter’s wedding day.

As omens go, that’s hard to beat.

Neither she nor I actually witnessed this phenomenon, but were told about it afterwards by the relatives, smokers all, who had stepped outside to indulge their nicotine habit.

I’d been praying for days—weeks!—for lovely weather to grace the outdoor wedding ceremony of my only daughter. The venue she’d chosen had an excellent hall, and we knew that, if the weather didn’t cooperate, the ceremony could be moved indoors.  But she wanted an outdoor ceremony—wanted it desperately.

And things weren’t looking good.

I began scouring the weather reports two full weeks in advance of the ceremony, constantly checking on my phone, Kindle and computer, comparing predictions that somehow never quite seemed to mesh except for one thing: rain, rain, and more rain. I continually reminded myself that “weather forecaster” is the only job where one can be wrong 95% of the time and still remain employed, but that wasn’t convincing me. So I decided the best thing to do was gather all of my friends and family and issue a request (command!) for prayer.  Prayer and petitions to whatever deity, saint, deva or nature spirit they believed in.  If they didn’t have a favorite divinity, I supplied them with options, using my favorite search engine (NOT Google, but that’s  subject for another blog post).  I tracked down the names and antecedents of every saint, goddess, god or nature spirit said to have authority over the weather.  And there were a bundle of ‘em.

And so the prayers and petitions and appeals and entreaties went up from a dozen hearts and lips. But the weather forecast remained unswerving.  Rain.

However, the forecast began to alter slightly, from rain all day to “rain in the afternoon”. Raindrops, just wait until after 4:00 p.m., I prayed.  That would get us safely through the ceremony and all decamped to the reception hall.

Smaller Walking Up Aisle
Her Dad and I walking our daughter up the aisle at her outdoor wedding, October 7, 2017.

And, in the end, that is exactly what the deities, gods, goddesses, saints, devas, divinities and nature spirits (most likely, heartily sick of hearing so many desperate petitions) provided: The perfect early fall day. A temperature that rose to no more than 80, a light breeze lifting the brilliant leaves of the trees, and fluffy white cumulous clouds cruising through a blue sky…all of it lasting until just that last shutter click as the final formal portraits were taken.  Just at 4:00 p.m., a dark thundercloud rolled over to obscure the sun, and we all made tracks for the reception hall and food, music, drinks, dancing, cake and joy.

And, at some point during the proceedings, a rainbow.

And that was the one thing I’d forgotten about in my desperate need to control every last detail and thereby provide my daughter the perfect wedding day: the possibility of a beauty even greater than clear, warm weather. A rainbow.  The ultimate promise.

Let go and let God. I’m a great proponent of that saying…in theory.  Practice is an entirely different matter.  However, my daughter’s wedding day was a firm reminder to me of that concept.  Another was taught to me by a Hindu friend, who explained that rain on one’s wedding day is considered “a blessing of water”.  Sunshine, warm breezes, trees clothed brilliantly in green and gold and ruby, rain and a rainbow. Every possible good luck omen.  My daughter and new son-in-law got it all—more likely in spite of, rather than because of, all my desperate pleas to the heavens.

Now, though, laughingly thinking of omens, I’m forced to remember my own wedding day to her father, right here in my home state.  Omens indeed!

Indiana had an earthquake.

Assumptions Always Start With An Ass

More years ago than I care to remember, I was a young secretary working in an office directly outside the bank of elevators of our aging building. Sound from the foyer around the elevators seemed to funnel directly into our office; consequently, I was often privy to conversations that weren’t meant for my ears.

During the first weeks that I worked there, several of the conversations I overheard among the younger female staff centered around the behavior of another young woman in a nearby office. All of the comments were critical.  The remark I heard most often was, “She is so stuck up!”  Sometimes I heard elaborations on the theme, such as, “She never talks to anyone”, or, “She thinks she’s too good for us.”

After a few weeks, having gotten to know everyone involved, I ventured to speak up the next time these same old, tired comments were reiterated. “Actually, I don’t think she’s stuck up or a snob,” I remarked gently.  “I think she’s just really shy.”

The looks I received in return for this remark told me that, without doubt, my days as a welcome member of this group of women were distinctly numbered. Nevertheless, I pressed on; I’ve never been very bright about that whole “holding your tongue for social reasons” sort of thing.  Braving the laser-like eyes boring into me, I explained, “Well, you see, I’ve been shy for most of my life, and I think I see that in her.  She has trouble meeting your eye.  Her shoulders hunch up when you speak to her.  I don’t think means to come across as a snob.  I think she’s just really shy.”

I received a volley of protests from each woman present, pressing her point that the person I was defending was a snobbish prig rather than an introvert. I decided to back down; there was obviously nothing to be gained in continuing my unwelcome observations.  The group had made up its collective mind, and nothing I said was going to change that.

True to my supposition, though, I was also not often asked to lunch with that group again. My remarks had made them uncomfortable.  I hadn’t intended to be pointing the finger at them, but I’d nevertheless opened up a nasty can of worms in the possibility that they might be behaving in a judgmental manner – or, even worse, just plain wrong.  My viewpoint was distinctly unwelcome.

Those of us who have the bad taste to defend the underdog, or to profess a different belief than the commonly-held thought of the day, I’ve learned, tend to become persona non grata.

I’ve never forgotten that lesson, nor the others that I learned from that long ago incident, the first and most important being that our assumptions about a person—any person–do not constitute reality. I learned that we must be willing to relinquish those assumptions if we are going to truly come to know another person.  Most important of all, though, was that I came to realize that we all continually operate on the assumptions we’ve made about the people we’ve just met, or even those whom we’ve known for years.  We make snap judgments about behaviors and situations.  We categorize groups of individuals.  We make assumptions about our friends, family members, even our pets. Sometimes we call it instinct, such as when we decide, wisely, that there is something not quite right about that person who just approached us at the mall.  Most of the time, we don’t even realize that we are making an assumption; it is done without conscious thought or recognition.  Frequently our suppositions are right on target.  Often, though, they are built only out of our own experience; they have nothing to do with the reality of the person or situation with whom we are dealing.

I am ashamed to admit that I never really made the necessary effort to get to know my extremely shy coworker. Looking back at the situation through the lens of many years and acquired knowledge, though, I suspect that the very introverted woman may have suffered from disorder such as Asperger’s Syndrome.

But that, too, is just my assumption.

Epitaph in an Elevator

“Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone…”  Those lyrics have been running through my head continually, because it was just yesterday I learned that a former coworker, a woman whom I’d worked with long ago, had died.  This is someone who, if I hadn’t known her well, I’d at least interacted with on a daily basis over the course of several years.  Hearing of her passing made me recall, uneasily, some experiences from the long years of my working life.

Working as an administrative assistant, it was often my sad duty to pass the hat and arrange flowers or a memorial gift for a coworker who had died.  At times, when the offices I covered were quite large, I barely knew the person for whom I was making the collection. But I came often to find that each member of the office, especially those who were better acquainted with the deceased, would take a moment to share their recollections when I came to dun them for what we euphemistically termed the “Flower Fund”.  In those brief conversations, I usually learned more than I’d ever before known about the coworker who had died.

In our large agency, I also often heard snippets and snatches of information about individuals in other divisions who had passed on—people whose names I vaguely recognized, knowing nothing else about them beyond that. And so it was that I stood one day at the back of the elevator, listening, as the group of people who’d just entered discussed a coworker who’d died unexpectedly.  Not once, but multiple times that day, I found myself nearby as employees gathered in corners, discussing a woman who had passed.  I found myself so saddened and disturbed by these conversations that, arriving home that evening, I exorcised the demons of my emotional reaction by turning some of what I’d heard into a poem–a simplistic poem, but nonetheless heartfelt.

Epitaph in an Elevator

She died, oh, a week ago Sunday.
Yes, I went, and it all was so sad.
She seemed like a nice enough person.
Well, the whole thing is really too bad!

Oh, you must remember her: short gal,
sort of plump, sort of plain—sort of dull.
She worked here forever and ages,
but I can’t say I knew her at all.

I wouldn’t have known, but I needed
all those files, and that room was a mob!
She always seemed smiling and helpful.
I just wonder who’ll cover her job.

She’s dead? Well, I’ll never pretend that
it upsets me one bit. Truth to tell,
I’m sorry she didn’t die sooner!
And I hope that she’s burning in Hell.

No, I didn’t know much about her.
I just heard that she died from a fall.
She seemed like a nice enough woman,
but I just didn’t know her at all.

I heard that she died—you recall her.
Sort of quiet and plain; not too bright.
It must be so sad for her family.
Takes some time, but then they’ll be all right. 

She couldn’t have died at a worse time!
What the hell will we do with her work?
The whole thing’s just plain inconvenient.
(No, I am NOT being a jerk!)

I can’t say that I really knew her.
She just wasn’t my type. Yes, she fell.
I daresay that someone will miss her.
But I just didn’t know her that well…

All too often, the very people with whom we interact on a daily basis are those who we, indeed, don’t even try to know too well.  It’s possible that we miss so much thereby.  And that is the core of greatest sorrow about any passing.  

Studying Geography

In the long-ago era during which I attended elementary school, the study of geography began in the fourth grade. To this day I recall some of what I learned that year, for the wide, fat textbook that we were given was filled not just with photographs but with stories—stories of the people, mostly family units, each in a different country of the world.  The tales described their holidays and customs, the foods they ate and the clothing they wore, how they attended school and worshipped, the strange animals that inhabited their countries and were kept as farm animals or pets, and even a touch of the history of their home territories.  I especially recall my awe in learning of those countries where the sun disappeared for months at a time, swathing the land in darkness, and the joy felt by the inhabitants when the light finally returned.

I absolutely loved it. Geography—how marvelous! I had never heard the song “Far Away Places”, but now I thrilled to them: far away places with strange-sounding names.  There was even a tactile element to studying geography, I found, for one of the globes that we were shown was three-dimensional, with mountain ranges one could touch, and oceans that were delineated with swells and currents.  I was enthralled and fascinated.

When fifth grade began, I couldn’t wait to see what we would learn in Geography class. I remember the anticipation as I opened the book and turned the first few pages of my new geography text.

And then the world, quite literally, crashed down about my ears. I found it hard to believe what I was seeing.  Instead of stories, tales of other lands that drew me in and caught my fascinated attention, there was a dry tome filled with information on imports and exports, language spoken, past rulers and present political tensions, oil and mineral reserves and rights….

I had never been so disappointed in my life. From that point on, I had no interest whatever in geography.  Oh, I studied it well enough; I was a decent student, and I memorized enough information to pass tests, putting forth the minimum of effort to keep a passing grade.  But I never again cared.  For me, the heart, the soul, of my geography lessons had been stolen.  Everything that made learning about the world fascinating—the people, the animals, the customs and foods and clothing and history—all of that had been taken from me, and with it, my curiosity and interest.

With all that we are now learning about the human brain, about its growth and function and development, I look back on my geography lessons and ponder why it should be that we haven’t yet figured out that all brains aren’t meant to learn the same things in the same way. Children are still taught in the manner of the 15 and 1600’s: sitting in rows, obedient (or not) to an authority figure, memorizing for just long enough to pass a quiz, or a test, or a state-sponsored exam.  Wonder, curiosity, creativity are rarely encouraged—are the exception, rather than the norm.

I recall virtually nothing of my geography lessons from the fifth grade onward; become confused, as an adult, as to the placement of countries on a map or a globe.  Yet I can still recall the cultural lore of a half-dozen lands that I absorbed in delight at the age of nine. Are there others of my long-ago classmates who learned nothing of the world during that first year of Geography class, but for whom the following lessons remain clearly embedded in their memories?  And why can we, progressive and innovative, not learn to teach each child in the manner best suited to her or his abilities?

Now, decades later, even the names of many of the countries I once studied are non-existent. Czechoslovakia, Burma, Siam—gone.  Transmuted. Erased from all but history.  The Earth turned on its axis, and those countries, those cultures, disappeared.

But not my memories of everything I learned in that first, delightful year of studying Geography.