Surviving the Lockdown

§   Despite the pressures I am privileged to avoid, my personal lockdown is not without penalty.  I marvel at the truth of that saying about the greener grass.  §

Like a good portion of the nation right now, I am living in a State that is “on lockdown”. Those who work in essential fields – hospitals, groceries, pharmacies, that sort of thing—are permitted to go to their jobs; others who can work from home are doing so. Schools are closed (and a friend who has taught for many years tells me that preparing the e-learning lessons and homeschooling packets is much more difficult and time consuming than just showing up in the classroom and teaching). The children without internet access struggle through trying to complete instruction without a teacher, while far too many children who are much too young to be doing so are dealing with minimal supervision. Others who depend upon school meals for their nutrition make due with sack lunches cobbled together at school cafeterias, picked up and then ferried home.

I, who am retired and living alone, am blessedly exempt from many of the stresses endured by those around me as all of us seclude ourselves from an invisible enemy. I am aware of and grateful for my good fortune. I do not have small children for whom I must find nearly-nonexistent childcare; I do not have to supervise homeschooling. I do not have to endanger myself by working in public venue, constantly at risk of viral exposure. I venture out only on the most necessary of trips for groceries or medicine—or, recently, for the materials to sew masks for my family members. Retirement assures me that I do not have to puzzle out how to complete my daily work from home,  fulfilling assignments without coworker or supervisor input. Instead, I’ve been filling my days, or trying to, by spring cleaning and catching up on chores too long neglected.

But, despite the pressures I am privileged to avoid, my personal lockdown is not without penalty. Never  one to watch much TV, Netflix is just a pipe-dream for me anyway, since my internet provider severely limits my data streaming.  And so I read—books, news sites, magazines, other blogs and personal essays ad nauseam. I had never realized, would never have believed, that I could grow weary of reading. More importantly, though, since I live alone, the days have begun to feel torturously like solitary confinement. The only human voices I hear beyond those on videos are caught from people in the street as they walk for exercise, passing by my windows. I find myself quite literally aching—a genuine, physical ache, a hurt–for the touch of a human hand. I imagine with longing just a pat on the shoulder, a touch in passing, a hug. Families trapped in the confinement of their homes with one another hour after hour, day after day, would probably sell their souls, and cheaply at that, for a half-hour of alone time; I would gladly give a pint of blood and my right arm just to rest my head on another’s shoulder; to be wrapped in someone’s arms.

I call to check on others whom I know to be alone,  while waiting vainly for phone calls from acquaintances, desperate for conversation. Video calls, like Netflix, are a pipe dream, also; the cell phone provider which I can afford is just as ungenerous with data allowances as my internet company. And so I shiver to discover that I am holding full-blown discussions out loud with myself. My cats look on as if I’ve gone mad—who the devil is Mom talking to? But they glory in the fact that they’ve never been petted so much in their lives.

I pelt friends and family with too many texts and emails, again often waiting vainly for replies; most of them, after all, have other people in their homes with whom to hold face-to-face conversations. When they do connect with me, they tell me of irritations and disagreements and quarrels brought on by too much togetherness, and, envying them, I marvel at the truth of that saying about the greener grass.

Introverted and inadvertently solitary for much of my life, I plumbed the depths of loneliness for years, suffering  friendlessness and bitter solitude.  But I have never endured so piercing an aloneness as this I’ve experienced during lockdown. Stealing out for a legally-permissible few hours to provide necessary childcare for my granddaughter was like encountering a wellspring of rising joy that rushed torrentially upward,  then cascaded down in sparkling droplets upon my soul. As I clasped her small body close to mine, all the while praying to any available deity that I was not bringing her danger along with my love, I felt as if I had been re-humanized.

We—all of us who survive this plague, that is—will somehow get through these days and hours of social isolation, eventually returning to some form of normality. But for all of us, I hope, our eyes will have been opened, and we will never again take for granted so much of the simple fabric of daily life.

The Wrong Road

§  “…Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken  §

Hmmm. Well, I didn’t take the road less traveled by. I took the one with a traffic jam.

I went to an afternoon party at a friend’s home (oh, heavens—now the first stanza of Ricky Nelson’s “Garden Party” is going to be an earworm, running in my brain for hours!) No, I went not to a garden party but to a girls’ afternoon out–a tea party, followed by a movie. It was a friendly and delightful excursion; one of those lovely afternoons which make me ever so glad that I lived long enough to retire and therefore enjoy such innocent pastimes. It was a brilliant afternoon, too—soft and warm, with just the tiniest chill in the air hinting at the beginning of fall, while sunshine still sparkled.

Now, as happens all too often in Indiana, I couldn’t drive my accustomed route to my friend’s home, since most of the roads around her neighborhood were under repair. (As we who live here often joke, the barrier horse is the Indiana state animal!) But I was prepared for this situation, knowing that half the roads in the city had been under construction during the summer. So I found an alternate route, arriving at her home without any problem.

However, after the movie concluded and I had made my goodbyes, I realized that I was leaving right in the middle of rush hour. Again, not a problem. Although driving an unfamiliar route in heavy traffic can, and sometimes does, spark one of my anxiety attacks, in this instance I had nowhere to be at any particular time. I could saunter along toward home without hurrying, driving defensively. If worse came to worst, I decided, I’d just pull over at one of the stores along the way and shop for a bit until the traffic thinned.

As I approached one intersection, though, I had a choice to make: turn left, and continue the quicker route down the busy highway until reaching the cross street I needed, or saunter straight ahead for a distance down a road that crossed a lovely area called Banta Woods. The Banta Woods neighborhood had once had been a minature, heavily forested woodland. When housing was later constructed on the parcel of land, the building company saved and incorporated into the landscape dozens of the tall, old trees, as many as possible. Banta Road was was usually a very pretty drive, with sunlight dappling the pavement through the nodding leaves of the trees.

I chose woodland over highway.

It was possibly not one of my brighter decisions.

With so many of the east/west roads under construction and detoured, Banta was one of the few streets still available to the rush hour traffic. Within just a few seconds, all traffic had come to a virtual standstill.

I started to fume. Wasted time, wasted gas… But then, amazing even myself, I recalled the reason why I had decided to cruise down Banta Road in the first place. I reminded myself that I had no need to hurry. Lifting my eyes, I began to admire the lovely foliage: leaves shining under the soft afternoon sunlight, some just beginning to show a hint of fall color. I admired the landscaping of the yards surrounding the large, lovely homes of this luxurious housing edition. When the line of cars ground to a complete halt, I shifted the car into park and took a few moments to safely text my daughter. I watched as cars ahead of me whipped into neighborhood cross streets, their drivers’ faces set in grim lines as they made U-turns and charged back the way they’d come, thereby allowing the rest of us to slide ahead a few car lengths.

Eventually, finally, I came to the end of Banta Road and turned left onto the wide avenue that would take me to the cross street I needed. But what could have been an exercise in frustration had, instead, been almost a meditation. I arrived at the busy avenue refreshed and relaxed, and wended my way home.

I am still astonished at how a simple change of attitude turned a frustrating and irritating circumstance into a pleasant afternoon’s drive.

I did not take the road less traveled; I took the one with the traffic jam. And it did, indeed, make all the difference.

Reading the Comments

§   Despite knowing that reading the comments probably isn’t wise, I still get sucked into doing it. Much like watching a train wreck, I sit at my computer, staring in horrified fascination.   §

I’ve been reading the comments at the end of news stories again.

This is never a good idea. Never, ever. Not under any circumstances.

Despite knowing this fact, I still get sucked into doing it occasionally. Much like watching a train wreck, I sit at my computer, staring in horrified fascination as I scroll through viciousness, ignorance, name-calling, uncivility, brutality and bullying. I read words smacking of Nazism and Fascism, and retch to see politics dragged into even the most innocuous stories. (A kitten rescued from a drainpipe? Someone will sling “libs” and “cons” into the comments, or blame Presidents present and past.) And despite the fact that I am aware that much of this trolling is done by paid performers–more on that in a moment–it shocks and terrifies me.

[As an addendum to that “paid trolls” remark: A few years and one President back, I read the comments at the end of a review for one of the never-ending Star Wars series of movies. A commenter who had apparently not liked the movie ended his remarks with a bitter, “Thanks, Obama”. My reaction was, at first, “Huh?! Say what? Excuse me?!” Then I realized that the commenter probably hadn’t finished his weekly quota of anti-President Obama remarks and was in danger of not getting paid. I really do wonder, sometimes, if the money is good enough that I should look into becoming a paid troll.]

Trolls aside, though, the level of sheer, vile nastiness in the news comments inevitably leaves me gasping in disbelief. Then I find I must give myself a stern talking-to regarding my own naivete. I realize that my generation, as well as my middle-class upbringing, has led me to hold certain unrealistic expectations regarding manners and civility. As a child, I was taught to address adults as Mr., Miss, or Mrs. (Ms. was not yet a glimmer on a feminist horizon), or as Sir or Ma’am. I might despise the individual whom I was addressing with a depth of coldness unknown even to Dante’s hell, but I had to be polite. As I grew to adulthood, courteous behavior extended to those with whom I had political disagreements. I might debate with them, ignore them, avoid them, or, in the depth of extremity, roll my eyes and walk away—but, overall, I had to be polite. Conservative or Liberal, Democrat and Republican, were points of view, nothing more; they did not define someone as a person any more than did being Roman Catholic or Buddhist.

My choice was usually, whenever possible, to avoid those with whom I had no common ground. When contact was unavoidable, or when faced with a comment so utterly outrageous that I found myself nearly choking, I preferred to stand my ground by saying calmly, “I do not agree” and walking away. If pressed further, I would firmly refuse to discuss the matter, falling back on worn but useful phrases: “This is neither the time nor the place”; “We must agree to disagree”; or the straightforward truth: “My mind is made up on this matter, and I refuse to debate it with you.” Once I was even heard to say, “I simply don’t like you well enough to continue this discussion.” That was as near to being rude as I, brought up to be civil, allowed myself.

But the anonymity of the internet has erased the requirement for civility, and that viciousness has extended into real-time, everyday interactions. Perhaps the number of road rage incidents were the first breach in the bulwark of civility; now the madness extends to every moment of life. Hearing details of parking lot quarrels that end in fatal shootings evinces little more than a sigh from the news audience, while spiteful, malicious political commercials are an accepted part of the barrage leading up to elections.

I sometimes contemplate a terrifying idea: What might happen if it was possible for the words written by commenters at the end of news stories to cause physical harm? There would be a bloodbath each newsday! As I envision that possibility, I am forced to wonder if it might not prove be a profound solution to the problem of uncivility in today’s society. After all, if Darwinian theory is to be believed, races evolve when those best suited to survive reproduce. And so I picture those of us who choose civility standing back, hands covering our eyes and faces turned aside from the horrifying carnage, as all the mannerless, bullying, cruel individuals destroy one another via their brutal comments and remarks. Then perhaps we survivors—broken-hearted but courteously and with compassion–could respectfully bury the dead, pick up the pieces, and establish rational debate as a measure of civil society once more.

The Sturdy Pine

§  I found myself ridiculously anxious to see my little trees and discover if they had survived.  §

A few years ago my Dad called me at the beginning of summer, asking if I would like to transplant a tiny volunteer evergreen tree that had sprouted in his garden. Although I didn’t really have a place to plant a tree in the tiny yard of my condo, I agreed to dig up the little specimen, planning to see if I could nurture it in a pot on my patio. The seedling was not even four inches high when I spaded it up.

A few weeks later, while weeding my daughter’s garden, I found another tree seedling, this one a black walnut. I transplanted it also, again to a pot on my back patio.

In the years that followed, these two saplings thrived. During the bleak winter months, I carefully moved their pots from the patio to a more sheltered area of my yard, swathing the ceramic in bubble wrap and piling straw on top to warm their roots. Each spring I waited anxiously to see if the thin stick that was the trunk of the black walnut would sprout new leaves; each summer I watered the evergreen tree just as anxiously, telling it to hang on through the hot and humid months. I regularly provided Dad with progress reports on the condition of the small evergreen, measuring it like a little child standing against the doorway to see how much it had grown. Both trees were re-potted into successively larger containers, while I worried each time that transplant shock might harm or kill them.

But the little trees continue to thrive. Carefully sheltered, bitter January winds and ice storms did not bow them over; scorching summer heat failed to dry them out and bake their roots.

Finally, though, it became clear that these now not-so-little saplings could not survive much longer in their current environment. They were outgrowing their pots at a faster and faster rate. They needed to be put permanently into the earth if they were to survive. I spoke with a relative and we agreed to haul them out to her acreage in the country.

We carefully chose a spot where the black walnut would not affect any garden plants and I dug a wide hole for the roots and set it into the earth. Then we selected a space nearer her cabin, although not sheltered by it, to plant the small cedar pine. I wished my carefully-nurtured little saplings the best and told them to continue to grow strong and healthy.

It was over a year before we returned to her cabin to tromp through the woods and picnic and enjoy the outdoors. I found myself ridiculously anxious to see my little trees and discover if they had survived.

IMG_20191114_091840As we pulled into the parking area in front of the cabin, I smiled: there stood the sturdy little evergreen, now thigh-high and bushy, still thriving. But a quick review of the area failed to reveal the black walnut. At last I found it, upright only because of the bittersweet vine that had wrapped around the little stick of a dead trunk. Looking at it, I felt infinitesimally sad. I realized that I had invested a great deal of myself in nurturing both these little trees.

There’s a metaphor somewhere in this story, I think. Much like any two very different siblings anywhere in the world, both little saplings were given the same care, attention, and nurturing. Both were appreciated, despite their differences; both were beautiful, each in a different way. Both were released to be on their own in the world. But only one survived that transition.

So it is with one’s children. Parents raise them with the same care, attention, and love; appreciate both their beauty and their differences, and finally send them out to succeed or fail on their own in the wide world. Some of those children survive, or even thrive, while at other times they crash and burn, destroying their own lives and, sadly, sometimes the lives of others in the process. Parents, being parents, often blame themselves for their failures of their offspring, despite all they did to nurture them. Parents invest a great deal of their spirit in their children, and it’s painful to watch when that investment fails.

Now it is with a touch of trepidation that I look forward to returning to that cabin in the woods once more this year, to discover if the sturdy little pine continues to grow. I hope it will do so; I hope I have added one long-term green and growing thing to our struggling planet. But, live or die, I’ll always appreciate the lessons taught me by the little black walnut and the sturdy cedar pine.

The Freedom of My Years

§ What I really remember about her essay is how profoundly sorry I felt for this young woman.  She still hadn’t managed to figure out that growing older is inevitable, but growing up is optional. §

As I’ve mentioned previously in this blog (see Barbie Shoes, published November 13, 2019), for many years one of my favorite ways to waste time at the office was to read a Lifestyle section which scoured the Net for interesting personal blog posts. The essays shared there were rarely boring.  Shocking, irritating, enlightening, silly, funny or thought-provoking, but not boring. Some still stand out in my memory.

One that I remember vividly had been written by a woman who was just entering her 30s. It was directed to other females of her age group who, she felt, were failing to take seriously their sudden elevation into true “grown up” status. It was time, she chivvied, to cast off the last remnants of wild, uninhibited youth and start behaving like mature, responsible adults. To this end, she offered a great deal of advice, most of it having to do with makeup, hairstyle, and dress. (Surprisingly, she provided no suggestions about behavior, which makes one wonder if she really comprehended the concept of “mature”, but, well, shrug…).

Her first recommendation was: No Graphic Tees. It was time to give them up, she pronounced. Graphic teeshirts were for teenagers and 20-somethings, and We’re All Adults Now. Plain colors and quiet prints only, please.

Then there was eyeshadow. No colors, she directed–no muted blues or soft greens; no lilacs or lavenders, and certainly no wilder shades, no matter what one’s eye color. Ivories and sandy browns and smokey greys, only, please, with perhaps the barest hint of eyeliner. A touch of pale lip color and mascara, but not much in that department, either. Remember, We’re All Adults Here Now.

Fingernails, too, had rules: no bejeweled nails, nor longer lengths; no sparkle, no swirls, no deep, dark colors. Soft, rosy tones or a French manicure, and a single shade only; never different colors on each finger. Don’t even think about unnatural shades, such as electric blue or diamanté black! The same rules applied, of course, to pedicures: muted colors, no shimmer, one shade only.

And hair! Chop off those long locks. Get a very short, wash-and-dry style, and never, ever, choose a hair color other than the normal brown, black, or dark blonde, or, at a stretch, red.  Highlights were acceptable, but, again, only in quiet shades. Don’t even think about adding a streak of purple at Halloween, or Kelley Green at St. Patrick’s day! Adults, remember! Adults!

This “mature” blogger provided numerous other rules for the adult females of her acquaintance; these are only the ones I recall. But what I really remember about her essay is how profoundly sorry I felt for this young woman. At the minimal age of 30, she had become an old woman. She still hadn’t managed to figure out that growing older is inevitable, but growing up is optional.

At 65, retired, I no longer have to deal with office clothing. I have one dress for weddings, and one outfit for funerals. All the rest of my clothing consists of teeshirts, shorts, jeans and sweatshirts.

And every one of my teeshirts is a graphic tee. Every last living one of ‘em.

I have teeshirts from which tiger and cat faces stare out; teeshirts with funny mottos; teeshirts with cartoons. A wide-eyed kitten proclaims, “Doom Is Near!” The shirt that I wear when feeling particularly grumpy reminds me, “No Bad Days!”

During the months just before my retirement, I took to wearing glittering gold eyeshadow. I wanted some bling in my life, I explained, and eyeshadow was one way to begin. Eventually I tired of ending up with sparkles on my contact lenses, but I still occasionally break out the glitter shadow just for the hell of it   I also have a sort of muted gold dust shadow that I periodically take to wearing. I line my eyes heavily when I’m of a mind to, and I prefer rich mauve and berry shades of lip gloss that stand out and define my lips.

I rarely paint my fingernails because the paint always chips and looks awful, while the feeling of fake nails drives me nuts. But for my daughter’s wedding I wore sparkling, iridescent eggplant-color nail polish that exactly matched my gown, while my toenails shone in my sandals with glittering, besparkled bright purple polish. In fact, throughout each summer, my pedicured toes are almost always topped with glittering polish that shimmers in the sunlight.

And my hair, long for most of my adult lifetime, is long still. I wear it up in topknots and Gibson Girls, and down in braids and twists and ponytails. And every five weeks it is still dyed the very standout shade of a brand new copper penny, which brightens my ultra-pale skin.

And, yes, I sometimes even wear a red hat trimmed with a clashing purple ribbon and a sparkling purple rhinestone brooch. Because I can. Because I no longer chose to follow the “grown up” rules. Because my years have given me the joyously complete and utterly unfettered freedom to be young at heart—a freedom that the genuinely young can never experience, but may (if they are lucky) someday come to understand.

Seasons of Light, Seasons of Darkness

§  Parties. Death.  The two will forever be inextricably intertwined when I remember the year 2019. §

As I pointed out in a 2019 essay (The Name of My Year, January 30, 2019), most of us find that the years slip by in our memories not by a numerical designation but with a verbal title recalling events pertinent to us: The Year Mom Died. The Year Amanda Was Born. The Year of the Flood, the Tornado, the Hurricane. The Year I Bought the Condo. The Year of My Divorce. The Year of Job Hell. These titles lend a richness and flavor to our memories as no numerical equivalent could possibly ever do.

It’s especially true that the years since my retirement have become a series of chapter titles in the book of my life. Beneath each follow subtitles and paragraphs of meaning and explanation, tracing details and events quite unrelated, one would think, to that chapter title. I tick them off across my fingers as The Year I Retired, followed by The Year of the Cookbooks. Hard on their heels follows The Year of the Wedding, and then My Dickens Year (which is subtitled The Year of Cancer and of Morrigan’s Birth: Season of Light; Season of Darkness.)

And so now, looking back, I realize I have invested 2019 with a macabre little title by which I will forevermore recall it: A Year of Parties and Death.

Parties… Twice now, I’ve thrown myself my own birthday party, once for my 60th and then for my 65th birthdays. Milestones, these, that I felt should be marked, so, following the lead of an elderly relative who’d done so for her own 80th birthday, I didn’t wait for someone else to do it; I threw myself a party. For my 60th birthday, I decked myself out in a red hat and purple shirt and called all my women friends to come celebrate with me at my home with food and cake and friendship and gossip and laughter. Placing candles on my cake that bore wild animal markings—tigers and leopards and cheetahs—to represent the courage and strength with which I hoped to begin the final decades of my life, I blew them out with gusto.

IMG_20190228_072333378_HDR (2)But in 2019, my 65th birthday was different. As I recounted in My Totally Un-Grownup Coloring and Tea Party, having survived uterine cancer the year before, I wanted something simply fun. Thus, gathering family and friends together again, I invited them to dive into the childhood pleasures of coloring books and tea parties. Blessed with fine weather and great food, the party was simply wonderful.

Six months later found another major party in my sights: my first grandchild’s first birthday party. My daughter chose a luau theme, so I shopped for every coconut cup, grass skirt, and flamingo-decorated plate that was to be found in the mile square.IMG_1162 We invited everyone, simply everyone, renting a shelter house at a local park for the event. Again, we were blessed with wonderful weather and food and fun. It was a magnificent day.

Two very special parties, then.

And so many transitions to the next life.

One by one, they left this earth: former coworkers and their spouses—like me, older people whose deaths were perhaps not unexpected, but brought home to me the fragility of each day that I still draw breath. The passing of a dear friend’s elderly grandmother just prior to the holiday season. The terrible loss of a young life when the grandson of a former coworker was shot to death. The sudden death of a friend of many years in an auto accident. The painful, soul-searing loss, too early, too soon, of a young life, when the 30-year-old son of an friend died alone in his home of an asthma attack.

So many times during 2019 I received the phone calls or e-mails or sat in shock, as someone told me of yet another passing.

Parties. Death.

The two will forever be inextricably intertwined when I remember the year 2019.

Dickens said it perfectly: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

And now I wonder—oh, how I wonder!—what my year of 2020 will be titled.

 

Clearing the Clutter

§   In the years of dealing with my Cleaning Lady personality quirk, I’ve learned one important thing: If you’re going to have an “episode”, clearing the clutter and disorder in your own home is the least problematical way to deal with what is, in truth, the need to clear something in your own spirit. §

A friend has been in the throes of a start-of-the-year Clear the Clutter episode, and e-mailed me about the mess, the lack of serenity in the process, and the things that are driving her to sheer madness, such as a water spot on the ceiling and a broken cabinet door. She took down all her wall hangings, she explained, because they were no longer (in the popular parlance of the day) “giving her joy”, and now there are little holes all over the wall. Pain, and yet still no gain!

I sympathized. I regularly endure the pain of clearing the clutter. In fact, a favorite cousin and I, each raised in similar childhood circumstances of dealing with an alcoholic parent, have, as a result, a few (well, perhaps in my case, more than a few) control issues. This might be a problem except that, for each of us, we have channeled our control issues into what we consider the healthiest possible outlet: We are OCD housekeepers. Cleaning Freaks. Totally, almost unforgiveably, neat. I have even been heard to say–totally without irony–that my house, dirty, is cleaner than most people’s homes are when clean.

In the scheme of things, there are far worse ways that we could have channeled our need for control.

But, as I counseled my distracted friend, in the years of dealing with my Cleaning Lady personality quirk, I’ve learned one important thing: If you’re going to have an “episode”, clearing the clutter and disorder in your own home is the least problematical way to deal with what is, in truth, the need to clear something in your own spirit.

The best way to handle my need for clean control is, I’ve discovered, to use the time as a sort of meditation. Yes, that water spot on the ceiling is incredibly ugly, but does it represent something more to me?  Does its ugliness evoke an ugly memory? Is that stain caused by falling raindrops evocative of tears? More than I need to plaster and paint, do I really just need to cry?

Yes, my cabinet door is broken; why, then, haven’t I either fixed it, or called a repairman, or just saved up the money to replace it?  Okay, so there are now little holes everywhere in the walls where I took down the photos of relatives who caused me pain, deciding that a family connection was not worth the reality of having to look at their faces and remember how they abused me. And, yes, I know that a dab of putty and a lick of paint will fix those holes, so why am I so absolutely furious about having to do that?  Is it because it’s just one more damn thing I have to do? One more problem they caused me? Or because I know I’ll be doing this, as I do everything, all alone and without any help?

And why, in the name of heaven, have I been keeping all this crap?! Why didn’t I get rid of it a long time ago; in fact, why did I ever keep it in the first place? It isn’t just a case of “Well, this is actually useful, and I might need it”, now is it? No. It’s fear. It’s fear because so much has been taken from me in my lifetime that hanging on to something I don’t really need—something that could possibly be of use to another person—seems to smother that uncomfortable, burning feeling deep within my spirit that I won’t have enough. It’s a barrier, this clutter of stuff I don’t really need and am not using, and don’t even particularly like. It’s a moat against emotional attack.

But in truth, there is no moat, for the real emotional attack is within myself: my habit of castigating myself with cruel words; of rerunning dark videos in my brain of old, damaging scripts; of hearing the voices of abusers, some now long dead, forever muttering criticisms and invective, all within my head. And there is no moat, no barrier, tall enough, deep enough, wide enough, to stifle those soft, invidious whispers of pain.

I have developed a word for myself, one less prejudicial than being OCD or a compulsive housekeeper: I am a “Clear-ing” Lady. I am constantly processing old emotional damage through the method of cleaning my physical surroundings. And that, I’ve decided, is okay. It is just who and what I am, and I am no longer going to chastise myself for a personality quirk that at least results in pleasant and orderly surroundings.

But the most useful technique of handling an episode of clutter clearing, is, I’ve discovered, to go deeper, and to use both the time and my actions to put my soul in order, as well as my home.

The Secular Light Show

§  As always seems to happen these days, some sourpuss simply had to comment!  §

In early November, a local family initiated their holiday light display—an astounding and impressive effort; simply lovely. It was, perhaps, a tad early, but what with the invidious daylight savings time having begun two weekends prior, the winter nights were certainly quite long enough to make such a light show worthwhile. They noted the display on our local neighborhood website, posting photos and inviting people to drive by and enjoy the spectacle. Several website members commented on the exceptional light show, and I punned that it was “delightful”.

But, as always seems to happen these days, a sourpuss simply had to comment. “This is a very secular display,” he groused. “Christmas without Christ is not Christmas.”

Other members quickly shut him down, pointing out that not only does not everyone celebrate Christmas, but that a light-up baby Jesus in the front yard really made no more of a statement than a reindeer; that religious beliefs were best celebrated in the home and the heart, not on one’s lawn, and not just at a particular season, but throughout the year; that at the holiday season it was best to be building people up, rather than tearing them down; and, finally, that whatever else it might be, the light display was certainly fun and festive and was bringing smiles to the faces of those witnessing it and wonder to the eyes of children.

Nothing that was said to him, however, no matter how thoughtful or theologically sound, altered the Religious Grinch’s opinion; he remained stubbornly resistant to these various peaceful remarks, responding emphatically with his opinion that the light spectacle was insulting to the true meaning of Christmas and intimating that he felt picked upon for having stated his opinion.

Mindful of our ever-watchful website “Lead”, who had deleted my comments before, I merely replied with a carefully-pointed remark that I thought it was a lovely gesture that this family had taken so much time, effort, and expense to make so beautiful a display just ahead of World Kindness Day on November 13th. It seemed to me, I continued, a truly a kind thing to create such beauty for one’s neighbors to enjoy, and I, for one, was most appreciative of their efforts. Then I private-messaged two of those who had made the most rational and courteous responses to the Religious Grinch, and told them how much I appreciated their efforts, receiving in reply their thanks, good wishes and blessings—blessings and good wishes that they also offered publicly to the Religious Grinch, and which were (perhaps not surprisingly) not returned by him.

Although my true thoughts remained unsaid on the website (at least by me; some others dared make some of these points), there were so many things I wanted to say to Mr. Religious Grinch. I wanted to suggest that perhaps the light display had been set up by a Hindu family celebrating a belated Diwali, not Christmas, or even a NeoPagan family whose spiritual holiday, celebrated with light, is not Christmas but Yule, the winter solstice. I didn’t know, I pondered, if light displays comprised part of the celebrations of Hannukah or Kwaanza, but those holidays, rather than Christmas, might be what the lights represented. Soyaluna, Saturnalia, Festivus—even the 6,000-year-old holiday of the Kemet Orthodoxy faith, called “The Return of the Wandering Goddess”, might be the reason behind the glorious twinkling and blinking and racing lights in the front yard of a neighborhood home.

I wanted, too, to ask Mr. Religious Grinch what he had done, or planned to do, to bring a smile to the lips of his neighbors during this holiday season; to provide them a moment’s joy. He certainly had not provided his good wishes to those on the website, so was he planning some other random act of kindness?  How would he express his Christ of Christmas during the season?  Would he speak a word of  loving encouragement to someone sad and depressed, or haul an elderly neighbor’s trash bin through the snow to the curb? Would he be dropping a dollar into a homeless person’s outstretched hand, or volunteering at a food pantry, or giving a contribution to a domestic violence shelter?

Finally, furiously, I typed my reply to Mr. Religious Grinch–the reply that (lest I become a Grinch myself!) I ever so carefully deleted before my finger, hovering anxiously over it, could press the SEND button:

”Well, sir, since this light show disturbs you so much, perhaps you should set up on your own lawn a very non-secular display, full of stables and Holy Families and angels and stars and Magi and shepherds and sheep and oxen—and YOU could be the ASS!”

The Ghosts of Christmas Trees Past

§   This year, as I turned out the room lights and lit my tree for the first time, it seemed to me that there was a ghostly presence inhabiting the room with me.  §

When I was a small child, my father one holiday season brought home  a tiny, thin book titled An Ancient Story of The Christ Child. I have the book still. It is bound in green velveteen, tied at the spine with a gold cord. It is beautifully illustrated, and a yellow Christmas star illuminates each page of text.

I loved the story, which is based on the moral of being kind to strangers, for by doing so, one may, all unaware, entertain saints or angels. But above all, I loved the illustration of the Christmas tree. My child self thought it was the most wonderful Christmas tree I’d ever seen: hung about with polished red apples, and trimmed with popcorn strings and candles.Christmas Story_20191022_0001 (2)

Many years later, as an adult living in South Carolina, I stopped in an ancient dimestore one afternoon near the holidays. There, as if waiting for me, were shining little red apple ornaments, and strings of plastic popcorn and wooden cranberries. I could not resist. For that Christmas and several that followed, my inner child thrilled to a red apple and popcorn decorated Christmas tree.

Eventually, those apple ornaments of painted styrofoam began to deteriorate; the plastic popcorn yellowed; the cranberries lost their color. I reluctantly retired them for more modern decorations.

My lovely red apple tree had not been my first holiday tree, though. As a 19-year-old living in a one-room apartment in the slums, with no money to speak of and only a kitten for company, I’d scrounged to buy a little three-foot tree, tromping through slush and snow in the dark to purchase it. I crafted cheap ornaments from painted plaster of  Paris, using bent paperclips as hangers. That little tree and plaster ornaments served me for several years, cheering me as I returned home evenings to my lonely digs. It apparently cheered my kitten, too, who viewed the small tree as a pine-scented cat toy! Abandoning my evergreen room spray, I bought a concoction called “Cat No!’ and doused the tree liberally with it. It smelled awful, but it did deter Doski’s forays into Christmas tree destruction. (And to this day, I weirdly associate the smell of cat repellant with Christmas.)

In the years that followed, my Christmas trees were garlanded with beads of gold and silver and hung with silver bells, some topped by a star, others by an angel. I enjoyed each new version, always taking photos, especially after the tree had been lit and the gifts piled high at its base. I learned to place a hook in the ceiling and tie the tree to it with nearly-invisible fishing line, so that my cats could not, despite their best efforts, tip it over. I learned, too, to place only unbreakable ornaments within the reach of their sneaky little paws, and never to drape tinsel where it could be swallowed. (One cat, Domino, was nicknamed “Tinsel Butt” for months following the holidays.)

Following my divorce I divested myself of old holiday decorations and their associations with the Christmases of my failed marriage. I  briefly considered the newly-revived “shiny aluminum trees”,  rejecting them after realizing that nothing would ever equal my Grandmother’s aluminum tree, rotating to a color wheel and laden with pink glass ornaments.  Instead, I loaded up on red velveteen ribbon to garland my tree, pairing it with golden ornaments.  Later I traded out the aging velveteen for wide ribbon in Stewart plaid, and acquired a set of tiny brown glass acorn ornaments to scatter amongst the gold. I dispensed with the cat-menacing tinsel and began using realistic plastic icicles.

SnowQueenTree (2)Finally, having grown weary of the red/gold theme and its links to some less-than-joyous Christmas days, I gave away all my decorations and began completely anew with a fresh tree of opalescent ribbons and turquoise and silver ornaments.  The Snow Queen tree, I called it: frosty and icy and different.

No doubt I’ll enjoy my Snow Queen Tree for years to come.  And yet, this year, as I turned out the room lights and lit my  tree for the first time, stepping back to admire my handiwork, it seemed to me that there was a ghostly presence inhabiting the room with me. A little child—myself—stood staring in wonder at a tall, tall, green tree, garlanded in polished red apples and strings of popcorn and white candles—staring in wonderment and joy, while a visiting angel held her by the hand.

Merry Whatever-Doesn’t-Offend You!  As my blog posts are published on Wednesdays, I will be taking Christmas and New Year’s days off.  My best love and blessings to you and yours for a peaceful, healthy and joyous holiday.  See you the first week of 2020! 

Paper Calendars

§   I don’t believe that I can be the only person who eschews technology to use a paper calendar, despite those convenient (and often so, so irritating!) reminders on one’s cell phone.  §

I use paper calendars. I do put the odd reminder (“Take the trash bin to the curb”) into my phone, but my paper calendar is sacred to all the genuinely important things in my life: not just the birthday, but the date by which I should mail the card or wrap the gift or call the person celebrating. The unpleasant reminders of dental visits. “Write to the twins.” “Touch up my roots.” “Babysit Morrigan”. “Shakespeare in the Park performance tonight”. Those events are entered the right way: with colorful stickers and bright marking pens and occasionally even glitter—entered, and then satisfyingly marked off.

As the close of each year approaches, I take down the paper calendar, now grown wrinkled and spotted, and, sifting through its pages, transfer vital notations—the birthdays and anniversaries and all the other important detritus of daily life–onto the pages of the pristine calendar that I will be using in the coming year.

I don’t believe that I can be the only person who eschews technology to do this, either, despite those convenient (and so, so irritating!) reminders on one’s cell phone. I know it can’t be just me using this old paper method, for the stores each fall are clogged with pretty paper calendars and desk pads and planners, while charity organizations (the same ones which so consistently dun me for donations) also mail free wall calendars by the dozens.

But I am choosy when it comes to selecting my annual calendar. I require spacious boxes in which to write notations—none of that square-cut-into-triangles nonsense squeezing in a date at the bottom of the page! I have one other very specific requirement: that the photos which decorate the pages of specific, special months always be ones I like.  Everyone using a paper calendar knows precisely what I mean, I’m sure: out of a dozen lovely photos, there will always be at least one, if not two, that just don’t appeal. I find it acceptable to look at a few such unappealing pictures throughout the year just so long as the scorned photos do not decorate the pages for my own month of birth, nor that of my daughter and granddaughter. Those pages must always contain pictures that I genuinely enjoy. I also appreciate seeing notations for phases of the moon, as I am moon-mad, loving to witness the changing lunar landscape. I’ve been known to page through the dates of the upcoming year making notations such as “Blue Moon”, “Super Moon”, “Lunar Eclipse”. One of my old calendars bore the rare notation “Transit of Venus”; others remind me of the annual Perseids meteor shower.

But these days when I hang up my new calendar, I always recall one year, one very sad year, when I waited desperately for New Year’s eve so that I could pull down and dispose of the very lovely calendar hanging on the side of my refrigerator.

My calendar that year had been a gift—and a constant reminder of a terrible day. A friend, Terry, diagnosed one awful afternoon with stage four lung cancer, had wakened the very next morning to the death of her sweet old giant of a dog. Having no family close by to help, she reached out to her friends.  After we ferried poor Sadie dog on her final journey to the vet’s office for cremation, two of us kept Terry occupied, first with brunch and then shopping.  It was then that we’d found some lovely paper calendars, and our friend bought one for each of us.

That same paper calendar was hanging in its usual spot on the side of my refrigerator when, just nine months later,  Terry died.

Each month that year as I turned the calendar to a new page, I’d been reminded of Terry’s diagnosis and loss and consistently failing health. Each month, I wished that I’d hung up any other calendar–even one I didn’t like–rather than this one which bore such sad associations.

Three months after Terry’s passing, I was finally able to consign that lovely, unhappy calendar to the trash bin. I hung up another, brilliant and new and totally free of links to distressing events.

I still use paper calendars, and plan to continue doing so. But I have learned an important lesson: I’ll never again put up a calendar chosen on a day with painful associations. And I will forever keep a spare calendar in abeyance, to be substituted if necessary, should the one I am using become connected with a terrible pain or loss or death or sadness.

I’ve never lived a year of my life without heartbreak occurring somewhere on the page; I don’t expect I ever will. But I hope to never again keep a reminder of sorrow hanging for months on the wall of my home.