Lemonade From Lemons

I saw the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” at the theatre on the first weekend of its release. As I left the theatre that evening, I overheard a woman walking beside me comment to her companion, “I wouldn’t have wanted to miss that!”, a sentiment with which I and numerous other smiling moviegoers apparently agreed.  But as I glanced over at her, beaming agreement, I glimpsed the frowning face of her companion.  He proceeded to explode in a plethora of angry complaints about the movie.  It was obvious to me—and to just about everyone nearby in the theatre lobby—that he had NOT enjoyed the movie, and, by golly, she and every one of us present was going to be made aware of that fact.

I’ve had reason to recall this unpleasant moment on multiple occasions as various male companions responded to movies we had just watched together. And I’ve begun to wonder if this is just a facet of my generation—or my bad taste in boyfriends–or if it’s simply a male trait in general to respond to a movie disappointment by behaving as if the writer/producer/director/actors all intentionally conspired to perpetrate upon him a film which he despised.

I’ve attended many a disappointing movie with women friends. Discussing it afterwards, that’s basically what we’ve said, too: “Well, that was a disappointment.”  “I’m sorry I wasted my money on that.” “I didn’t really like it” (with a shrug).  “Well, at least the popcorn was good!” (with a giggle).

But leaving a substandard movie, or turning off the TV, while with a male acquaintance has almost inevitably resulted in an explosion of sorts. And I puzzle over this.

Discussing the subject with various female friends, it actually does appear to me that an irritation or disappointment—not just with a movie, but with outings in general—results in (shrug shoulders) “Oh, well” from the female contingent, while our male counterparts complain bitterly about the vile wrong perpetrated upon them.

Never was this made more clear to me than the time my sisters-in-law and I went to The Festival That Didn’t Happen.

Now, my Chosatives (see my 12/17/17 blog post) and I are small-town-festival junkies.  We love the fair food, the smiling crowds, the hokey little parades.  We adore shopping for homemade crafts and homegrown produce.  So a few summers ago, we hurried out of town to one of the first festivals of the season.

Which, as it happens, didn’t. Happen, that is.  Somehow the organizers had come up with a name for the “First Annual” festival, gotten it listed in the annually-published booklet of festivals throughout the state, named the attractions that would be available…and then somehow just lost momentum.

We arrived and there were no booths selling crafts and produce, no little parade, no corndogs and gyros and elephant ears. No Lions Club barbeque. There was, in fact, no festival, and the few year-long merchants in the area, dishing out ice cream and hot dogs and burgers at their little diners, were just as bewildered and apologetic as people could be.

Oh, there were still a few things to see: the town was an extremely old one, in a picturesque location, and there was, in fact, a wedding being held in that lovely lakeside venue; we watched from the outdoor seating area of a countryside diner as the photographer took gorgeous photos of a young couple. There were historic old houses, an antique shop, and a rustic general store.  And it was a simply beautiful early spring day, soft and warm with scudding, fluffy clouds in a bright, sunny sky.

So we three enjoyed ourselves. We strolled about and licked ice cream cones.  We looked at the town’s lovely old architecture, watched the wedding photos being taken, explored the antique shop and a century-old millworks grinding grain, the general store and a year-round Christmas shop.  We had, in fact, a lovely afternoon.  Then we came home.

But we also discussed what would have happened had the male members of our family been along for this “failed” outing, and shuddered, considering the complaints, angst, bitterness over wasted gas and a long drive, and general grumbles, moans and protests that would have taken place, ruining what had turned out to be quite a pleasant day.

Perhaps, as I say, this is just a personality quirk among my own family and friends, that our womenfolk tend to make lemonade from the lemons of life. Nevertheless, I wonder if, at some future date, I will not read some scholarly and scientific article comparing the rate of wars and generalized destruction to a predominantly-male habit of bitter resentment over the most minor vicissitudes of life.

But how much more relaxing to shrug and say that the popcorn was great, and enjoy sipping lemonade while strolling the boardwalk

Being THAT Person

We all know one: the person who is incredibly thin-skinned. Whose feelings brim close to the surface and who is constantly, easily hurt. Who almost seeks out reasons for offense.

And, of course, at one point or another during our lives, many (most?) of us have been that person.

Thoughts of this behavior hovered in my mind recently when the Universe seemed to have declared a “pick on Beckett” day. One friend, not at all meaning to be unkind (and specifically saying so), pointed out a physical flaw that was likely to worsen due to a minor medical problem I was experiencing. While making this point only with the intention of providing helpful advice, it was, nevertheless, said in front of others, and so embarrassed me slightly.  I said nothing, allowing the feeling to slide off, but it arose like a buried demon and came back to haunt me when I woke in the middle of the night, hovering before me and forcing me to deal with the unpleasant emotions evoked by my friend’s comment.

Later that same day, another acquaintance used a pair of topics from this very blog to press a point in a very negative manner. Once again, the words were said in front of others; this time, I was both startled and taken aback, hardly knowing how to respond. And, once more, I let those feelings slide off, telling myself sternly that no harm was actually intended, and saying nothing. But that memory, coupled with the other incident, haunted me in wakeful moments in the small hours of the night, robbing me of sleep and causing self-doubt and unhappiness.

In the morning, I took time to fully consider my reaction, shining the light of day into my wounded places. Was I really reacting just to my friends’ words, I wondered?  Or was I actually responding to past events of intentional bullying–situations that wrought havoc in my life and left emotional scars. Should I have spoken up at the time to each of these people? By keeping silent, was I behaving masochistically? Would the memory of these events cause difficulty in my future relationships with these friends, resentment casting a pall over our interactions? Was I actually even doing each of my acquaintances no favor by failing to point out that they had distressed me? For if they did not realize they had unintentionally offended, I reasoned, they might easily do this again, to someone else—someone perhaps less prepared to deal with the resultant emotional turmoil.

Or (and this was the hardest thing to consider) was I simply being too thin-skinned, seeking out reason to feel hurt feelings; seeking out cause for offense?

My thoughts ping-ponged in this manner for the better part of a day, until I finally decided that I had wasted enough valuable time thinking through a very minor set of events. In the end, I decided, because no offense had been intended—in the first case, quite the opposite, in fact—I needed to take no offense. To do otherwise would place me in the category of being that person: the one who is always offended, always upset, always drowning in a welter of hurt feelings, always affronted and angry and miserable.

That person, I realized—the hypersensitive, prickly, overly-emotional, constantly aching bundle of nerve endings, has one trait that I shared and was quickly spiraling into as I overthought the events I’d just experienced: an over-inflated sense of self-importance. A unreasonable belief that everyone around me should “just know” what might upset me, and therefore either avoid such circumstances entirely, or, having stumbled into them, immediately apologize.

I am not that important.

Neither are you.

Those around us—friends, acquaintances, coworkers, family members, neighbors—will sometimes, inevitably, inadvertently, hurt our feelings. But if these events are not malicious, nor continual and pervasive—not slyly abusive, nor subtlely cruel– then we, adults all, need to relinquish our over-inflated sense of self importance and just get over it. Shrug. Consider the source. Let it roll off. Save our high dudgeon for the really critical problems of relationships. But, most importantly, we must be certain of our genuine selves: certain of the person who we each are at our core and center, so that the thoughtless remarks of others have no ability to cast a pall over our spirit.

That sure self-knowledge is, after all, the ability that comprises a true sense of self worth: the sure center of our spirit; the Self that can never be harmed by the thoughtless, careless words or behavior of another.

Repainting the Nativity

Following the most recent holiday season, I’ve spent weeks working to refurbish my small nativity scene.  This grouping—just the three main figures—is nearly 25 years old. I purchased the expensive set from a charity-oriented catalog, spending money that I didn’t really have, because I was taken with the unusual grouping. Unlike traditional displays, the child in my tiny nativity scene is cradled in his mother’s arms, while she sits encircled within the loving touch of her husband.

Despite their cost, the statues I received were formed of cheap plastic, their clothing created by cloth that was probably dipped into some mild hardener, such as white glue, and then draped. The faces were surprisingly detailed and well-sculpted, but because they were created in an Asian country, the skin tones and eyes were representative more of their origins than those of a family from the Mideast. But I appreciated my little set especially for that very reason; it seemed to me to be more universally  inclusive. The muted, uneven colors of the cloth, and its rough texture, correctly represented a family in exodus, travelling in poverty.

One of my own family members, though, found my nativity set comical. A sad person who usually tried to build herself up by cutting others down, her preferred method of criticism was mockery. And so it happened during one holiday season several years ago that she sat at my Christmas dinner table, laughingly examining the figurines where they perched, surrounded in holly garland, on the pass-through to the kitchen (to keep them safe from my cats, who regarded the Baby as a hockey puck). My relative made scathing remarks about St. Joseph’s “sick-looking” face, and the fading colors and battered cloth covering the statues. Where on earth, she demanded, had I found such a pathetic  little display?

Respecting both the day and her status as a family member, I forbore to answer in kind, replying only that my  nativity set had been created in an impoverished country. I neglected to mention how much I had actually paid for it, but explained that the proceeds from sales went largely to people who desperately needed the money. I let the matter rest there.

But I felt stung. I loved my little nativity scene, but I had to admit that it was true: the statues were beginning to show their age. So that January I set about repainting the figurines. I carefully changed their facial tones to accurately represent desert dwellers, and altered their clothing to colors that, while slightly more traditional, were still faithful to the era represented. The smooth acrylic paint restored the cloth to stiffness and luster. I was pleased with the results.

Years again passed, and during this most recent holiday season, I re-examined my nativity set. The colors painted a decade ago had not faded (as had the sting of those long ago critical comments); instead, they had darkened.  holy family loves cats Joseph’s shepherd’s crook had been stolen and used for another hockey game by my ever-marauding cats. The tiny statues no longer quite pleased me, I realized. I made up my mind to refurbish the set once more.

But this time, as I brought out paints and brushes in January, I approached my nativity scene with a different idea in mind. I would not be adding tints to represent a family of immigrants in poverty. Instead, I would be painting them as the sacred souls that they were, not just in Christian legend, but in countless myths and legends of a Sacred Birth from all the eras and all the countries of the world.

Finally finished (I’m not a particularly good artist, and painting comes hard to me), the seated figure of the Divine Mother wears a scarf of silver, touched with opalescent paint. The guardian figure of her husband, standing near her and encircling her and the Child, is partially cloaked in gold—gold, for the nobility of a man who gave up everything: home and family and livelihood, to fly into hiding in Egypt—and all for a child that was not even his. And the Divine Child is swaddled in a shining blanket bespattered with  minute stars.  img_20190115_110047196 (2)

Refurbishing my aging nativity scene has been a careful, thoughtful effort. I seriously debated before finally adding haloes to the figurines, created of gold and stars. It was the finishing touch.

img_20190115_110150240But an acquaintance dropped by one recent afternoon as I was fitting the small, painted twig, shaped like a Scottish thumb stick (a type of walking stick), into Joseph’s tiny hand.

She examined my work with raised eyebrows. It was obvious she thought little of my small, shining saints.  “That doesn’t look anything like a shepherd’s crook,” she at last complained.

I took a deep breath. It wasn’t Christmas day, and she wasn’t a relative! Shooting her as withering a look as my face was capable of producing, I retorted decisively, He wasn’t a shepherd. He was a carpenter.”

No one was ever going to criticize my noble St. Joseph, not ever again.

Laughter in the Midst of Grief

Few people understood humor better than Mark Twain, who is said to have remarked, “The source of all humor is not laughter, but sorrow.”

I know that to be true.

Thinking on his quote, I recall a long, long day spent with friends helping one of our number pack her possessions for a cross-country move. Late afternoon found two of us, tired to the bone, but working steadily away in the kitchen.  We both sat on the floor, wrapping breakable items and putting them into boxes.  We had finished kitchenware from nearly all the drawers and cabinets when one further drawer, suddenly visible from our position on the linoleum, caught my friend’s eye.  As I was closest, she asked me to see what we had missed.  I rose to my knees to open the drawer, but it was stuck.  I tugged a bit, and then a bit more, and finally gave one walloping giant yank to the handle…which came right off in my hand, sending me tumbling backwards to the floor.

It was a false drawer.

I lay there on the floor, waving the broken handle above me, completely helpless with laughter, my bones seeming to have dissolved to jellyfish, while my partner in crime laughed until tears streaked down her face. After several minutes of hilarity, we finally composed ourselves and went on a secret mission to hunt down some glue and put the handle back in place—a undertaking that induced another round of stealthy, hysterical laughter.

Not exactly sorrow, that event, but certainly sheer slapstick comedy, accompanied by utter, laugh-until-you-ache hysterics. Later, driving home from that tiring day, I recalled a Dick Van Dyke routine about slapstick comedy, in which he proclaimed such base humor not to be amusing even as he stumbled about, tripping and smashing fingers and generally pretending clumsiness while the audience howled with laughter.  Why, I  wondered, was it funny, clowning about that way?  But it was, just as my misadventure with the drawer handle had been comical.

And then there was the incident with the mailbox post…  My Evil Neighbor (about whom the less said the better) was at that time the president of our condo owners association.  So when my mailbox post rotted one summer and crashed to the ground, I propped it up as best I could with bricks and waited for the association, whose responsibility it was, to make repairs.  The darned thing was so wobbly that it was only with extreme caution that I could ease it open each afternoon to retrieve my mail, fearful that it would topple over once more.  This situation went on for 18 months, as I grew increasingly irritated.  Then, late one afternoon, as I was weeding the flowerbed that surrounded the mailboxes, I reached about to lever my aging hips up from the ground, and grabbed at Evil Neighbor’s own mailbox post to balance myself.

It went crashing to the ground.

I’ve often wished I had a video of my own face at that moment! I swiftly scanned the area and saw no one watching—no cars going by in the street, no faces at windows—so I scurried hastily into my garage, hopped in the car, and got the hell outta Dodge!  I drove to my daughter’s home, wheezing with laughter, and I told her and my son-in-law the whole sorry tale, all to the accompaniment of gales of laughter.  (And, yes, both mailbox posts were repaired shortly thereafter.)

I’ve noticed that funerals and wakes are also bastions of hilarity. I experienced this for the first time when I was about 11 years old, and my grandfather died.  My Aunt Diana gathered several of us children around her in a corner of the room far from the casket, and began to tell us hilarious true stories.  Time has dimmed my memories of the tales she told us that evening; I don’t know if they were stories of my PopPop or just funny events from her own life.  What I do recall clearly, though, is the comfort  and protection that laughter provided us children as we dealt with incredible sorrow. I remember, too, the glares of disgust from our more staid and sedate relatives.  Obviously, Diana’s efforts to provide us children and herself a path out of pain were not appreciated by all. But I have thought many times since on what a kindness she did us, gifting us with laughter in the midst of grief.

I don’t really remember too many comical misadventures in my own life, aside from the incidents of the fake drawer and the mailbox post…oh, yes, and the Great Paint Can Head Splash, which is probably best saved for another blog post. Yet we rarely see ourselves as other see us. So I hope that at my own memorial service someday, there will be hilarious, comical tales told.  I hope people will smile, chuckle, and giggle at memories of my silliest moments.  For while the ancient Egyptians believed that, without a name, our soul could not survive,  I believe it cannot only be our name, for everything that we truly are resides in the glorious laughter limning others’ memories of us.

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!”