Conspiracy Theories

I’m a sucker for conspiracy theories. I find them absolutely fascinating. Not that I am usually persuaded to believe them, but I am completely captivated by the sheer insane dedication to an idea and the endless amount of effort put into creating these wacko scenarios: NASA faked the moon landings.  The Grassy Knoll. (I’ve seen that one worked all the way back to the Prophecies of Nostradamus.)  The Philadelphia Experiment. Paul is dead. (How many people totally screwed up their treasured Beetle’s albums trying to prove THAT one?!)

What I find most intriguing about conspiracy theories is that there is almost certainly a germ of truth hidden somewhere in the midst of the often confusing, usually contradictory web of explanations. The strands of accurate, verifiable fact,  of possibility and probability, and of total misinformation are woven into a whole that veers about 90 degrees north of reality.

And yet… Governments, including the government of the United States, have and do consistently lie, cheat, steal and intentionally harm their own citizenry, often labelling as Top Secret what should have been fully disseminated.  Frequently this is done under the guise of “scientific research”.  Doubt it?  Read about the release of Top Secret documents (following a 1993 story broken by journalist Eilene Welsome, who later won the Pulitzer Prize) detailing the radiation experiments which America performed, without consent, on its own citizenry during the Cold War years from 1944 to 1974.  It’s really not so great a leap from those verified atrocities to “SARS and H1N1 were created as bioterrorism weapons”.

Perhaps the conspiracy theories which most intrigue me are woven about the dreadful morning of 9/11. I’ve read the contradictory accounts of survivors and the statements of witnesses who claimed their lives were threatened if they revealed what they had really seen.  I’ve watched video of experts tracing the path of the jets and proclaiming that events simply could not have happened as they were supposed to have done.  I’ve seen the videos of British announcers broadcasting the bizarre collapse of the untouched Building 7 before it happened.  I’ve listened to architects and engineers question why no forensic evidence was gathered–standard practice at the site of any disaster, yet one which was totally disregarded in this, the face of ultimate disaster–and heard these experts  state unequivocally that the Trade Center buildings imploded in a planned detonation.

And I might have just savored the conjecture and speculation and then dismissed all of it, as I usually dismiss conspiracy theories, but for one thing.

On the afternoon of 9/11, arriving home to find my daughter and her friend sitting in front of the TV, weeping, I heard the commentator discussing the President’s whereabouts. As I listened, he explained that President Bush had been at an elementary school, reading to a group of 7-year-olds, when the attacks happened. And I thought to myself, “Wow, that’s surreal.  That’s like something right out of a Hollywood script!”

Years later, reading the 9/11 conspiracy theories, I suddenly recalled my reaction as I learned of the President’s whereabouts at that fateful hour.

And I wondered.

Nigerian Princes and Dingbats

I was once acquainted with a woman who, although not unintelligent, was somehow still not the brightest bulb in the shed. It was not just that she was lacking in common sense, although that comprised a great deal of the problem; tact was also absent in her makeup, as were diplomacy, tolerance, and objectivity.  Most of the time, though, she simply failed to use the completely adequate brain God had put in her head.  “Dingbat” was probably the most courteous description of the lady, whom we shall, for the purposes of this essay, call “Lorene”.  I added a number of other, less-complimentary labels to my assessment of her character before I finally stopped associating with her, but the Dingbat label still stands out.

Lorene had an on-going feud with her step-daughter, of which she complained bitterly and at great length whenever we were together. I personally witnessed the interaction between the two of them just one time, when invited to a backyard barbecue.  Her step-daughter leaned down, smiling, to Lorene, who was sitting on the back porch steps, to offer her an appetizer from the tray she had carried out.  The look Lorene gave her would have melted steel. The step-daughter quickly lifted the tray out of range and stepped back.  A few days later, I mentioned my perspective on this interaction to Lorene, suggesting gently that she might possibly be contributing to their on-going misunderstanding.  Lorene was genuinely confused.  She hadn’t said anything nasty to her step-daughter, she protested.

After having gotten to know Lorene better, though, I came to realize that the real fault she found with her step-daughter was the fact that the young woman was in an interracial marriage. Lorene was a closet racist, but her mask of “good manners about black people” slipped askew on more than one occasion.  Perhaps the worst of these was when Lorene became the victim of a purse snatching in a mall parking lot.  Her attacker had been black; the detective sent to the site to interview her was African American, also.  As the detective probed for any information Lorene could provide him about the appearance of the mugger, she exclaimed vehemently, “I don’t know what he looked like!  You people all look alike to me!”

When she recounted this conversation to me, I nearly had a stroke. “Lorene, you didn’t!” I exclaimed, and she looked at me in total bewilderment.  After all, she explained, she was merely stating the truth.  Why on earth would the detective get upset at that?

Associating with Lorene, I learned, required frequent infusions of headache tablets.

But never was the Dingbat label more justifiably hung upon Lorene’s brow than when she was taken in by an e-mail scam. This was during the “Nigerian Prince” era of email scams, and one would think that nobody, nobody at all, could have been stupid enough to fall for those badly-written, misspelled missives that circulated so endlessly. One would think…unless one knew Lorene.

One afternoon Lorene proudly told me that she was assisting a woman in a third-world nation to escape a brutal husband. She’d received an e-mail from an overseas support network for just such women, and of course, she’d immediately responded.  They’d asked her to set up an account under her own name, with money they would wire to her.  When the brutalized spouse arrived in the U.S., she would be directed to Lorene, who would then turn over the account to her so that she could have a fresh start .

The whole “massive stroke/fatal heart attack” scenario flitted once more through my body as I choked out the information that, “For God’s sake, Lorene! This is either a terrorist organization or  money laundering scheme!  And soon they’ll have ALL your personal information! They can steal your identity! They can take everything you have!”  As I spun all the other likely consequences of her actions, Lorene’s face went from disbelief to bewilderment to, finally, dismay.

I quickly located a number for a federal agency to which Lorene could report the scam. But now Dingbat was too frightened to take action, so I suggested she tell her husband what she’d done and let him contact the feds.

Accustomed to his wife’s vagaries, her husband thought the whole affair was hugely hilarious. He did, however, contact the reporting agency, who managed to get the account shut down and somehow protect Lorene from identity theft.

These days I think of Lorene each time I read of the newest, more sophisticated way that scammers have developed to separate people from their money. I wonder if she’s ever wired money to a grandchild stranded in another country, or if she’s answered, “Yes, I can hear you” to the unknown caller, or allowed a “Microsoft Representative” to remote into her computer to “remove a worldwide virus”.

If it happened to anyone, I’m sure it happened to Lorene.

Dying to be Seen

I’m told by a friend’s adult son that I (a lot like my current computer) am now a veritable dinosaur, since I embarrassingly expect store clerks or salespeople to be knowledgeable about the products they sell and to attend me when I come to shop in their stores. He patiently explained that “good customers” are expected to do their research on-line first  and then come in knowing exactly what model and brand of merchandise they need, from computers to cars, as well as the price they should expect to pay.  The salespeople, he said, are only there to direct customers and ring up purchases; they aren’t required to have any knowledge of the merchandise.

I found his remarks both dismaying and shocking, yet I couldn’t quite argue. The dictum “the customer is always right” has swung like a pendulum to the far side of the metronome of commerce. And in recent years I’ve experienced exactly the scenario the young man so patiently explained.

Perhaps six years ago, I ventured into one of the big electronics stores to buy a new computer—the very laptop, in fact, on which I am typing this post. And, yes, I had done my research beforehand, and had a pretty good idea of what I wanted. Speed was not really a consideration for me, as I do not game.  I wanted a full-size keyboard.  My vision is poor, so I preferred a large screen.  But, as I use a computer only for word processing, spreadsheets, reading the news and watching an occasional fluffy-kitten-or-cute-dog video, I really didn’t need anything fancy. Still, I came to the world of computers via typewriters both manual and electric; my understanding of technology is limited. I preferred not to buy a laptop on-line, without first seeing the darned thing and then talking to a living, breathing, knowledgeable human being.

And so, the big box computer store. It was a Friday night, and extremely busy, but eventually I snagged an unoccupied clerk, a young man probably in his 20s, and explained the features I wanted in a new laptop.  He listened impatiently, and then, walking away from me, said, “We don’t have anything like that.”

I probably stood with my jaw hanging open for a full 30 seconds before intentionally closing my mouth and storming out of the store.

In essence, I understood what had just happened. I was obviously not a person highly knowledgeable about technology—not a nerd, a geek—and the young clerk would have been forced to take the time to provide explanations on the features of any computer he recommended.  I was a middle-aged woman, not a hot young chick, so there was no visual compensation for the time he would have to take with me.  I had not mentioned how much money I was prepared to spend, so if he was working on commission, that factor was uncertain.

I was simply not worth the young clerk’s time.

And yet…eventually that evening I landed at another store, where another clerk, just as young but far better trained (or perhaps just in need of that commission), took a great deal of time with me as together we chose just the right laptop for my needs—along with a lot of minor paraphernalia, including case, mouse, surge protector, and software. With an additional fee added for sparing me the trouble of loading programs onto the computer, I went far over my budget, but the young man even downloaded a free antivirus program and presented me with a fully-working, excellent computer.  And though it is now as venerable a dinosaur as myself, I continue to use it.

But I’ve encountered this same experience more times than I care to count in recent years, especially in one large chain hardware store–one which I now refuse to enter, even though it’s conveniently located to my home. As I complained to the manager there after an especially egregious event, I felt that I could have died in the aisle and not even been noticed until the janitors came in that night to sweep my cold, dead body out of the store. (Happily, I will note that I’ve become a customer of a different hardware chain, one where customers are still noticed as well as valued and appreciated.)

Attitudes change. Despite the once-popular slogan, the customer was not always right, not by a longshot.  But it is also true that the customer deserves to be treated with at least a modicum of attention, courtesy, and respect, and to be tended to by salespeople who are at least minimally knowledgeable about the products they are expected to vend.

And no one, middle-aged or otherwise, should have to die merely to be seen.

Letters to the Future

Shortly before the baby shower for my pregnant daughter, a friend sent me a YouTube video of a young girl on her 16th birthday, opening letters that had been written to her by family and friends—some now passed on—at her birth.

I loved that idea, and shared it with my daughter; she was enthusiastic. And so it was that at her own baby shower we passed out paper and pens and asked that those present write a Letter to the Future to be saved for Morrigan Lynn and opened on her  16th birthday.  Laughing, I told the participants, “You can’t tell her that boys suck; she’ll figure that one out on her own!  But give her your best advice, or a blessing–not Maleficent-style, please!–or tell her the most important thing you’ve ever learned in your own lifetime.”

We gathered together the finished letters, carefully sealed into their envelopes, and placed them into two special wooden boxes, painted gold and decorated with dragons and mermaids.

But when it came time for me to write my own letter to this as-yet-unborn granddaughter, I found myself at a loss. For two months, I struggled with what I should say to her.  And then, finally, I simply sat down and started writing, and I found that the words flowed easily.

My dearest granddaughter,

As I write those words above, I wonder…will you be my dearest granddaughter? Will you be someone whom I love, of whom I am proud—an amazing young woman on the brink of life, right at the starting line, preparing to run the good race?

Even more, though, I wonder what you will think of me. Will I be a woman you admire?  Will you dislike me?  Be totally bored by me? Think I’m a fool?

Will I even still be on this side of the Veil when you read this letter?

There are no guarantees in life. Any or all of the above may be true 16 years from now.  But none of that really matters, because the purpose of this letter is so that I may share with you whatever I’ve learned in my 64 weary years of walking this planet.  So here are the bits of wisdom I have assembled in my life.  And though they all seem to be very different, they all essentially amount to the same thing: living your life with courage and kindness.

 The truest thing I’ve learned is that my entire attitude is up to me. No one can “make” me feel anything—anything at all. No one else can “make” me angry; I allow myself to get angry. No one can “make” me feel small or insignificant; only I can take ownership of the belittling behavior some people express, and decide within myself that they are right. I, and I alone, can make myself happy, sad, depressed, exalted, fearful, resentful, joyous. I decide every minute of every day what my response will be to every event and every person I encounter.

 There are truly only two emotions: Love and Fear. All other emotions are merely subsets of those two. Make your own decision about which one you want to act from.

 Read poetry. Remember it. Poetry is wonderful material to think with. Read Kahlil Gibran. Read “The Desiderata”. More than read it: try to live it.

 Be thoughtful. Remember people’s special days. Run an errand for someone who is busy. Go to see someone who is sick. Hold the door open for the person whose hands are laden with packages.

 Always says to yourself, “How would I feel if…” Then behave in the way you would want to be treated.

 Do nice things for people for no reason at all—yes, even for the people you don’t like very well. Especially for the people you don’t like very well.

 Dance with the ugly or geeky guy who has no partner. And then smile at him and thank him for dancing with you.

 Stand up for the person who is being bullied or mocked.

 Remember that, if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

 Say please and thank you. Especially, say thank you.

 Give to charity—not just your money, but your time.

 Stand up for what you believe in.

 No matter how angry you are, calm down before you speak. And remember that it matters less what you say, then how you say it. There are a thousand ways to say even hurtful things in a kindly manner.

 Be slow to anger. Learn to keep your temper.

 Remember that there is no failure. There are only lessons to be learned.

 Be grateful even for the bad times. You cannot appreciate the light if you’ve never seen the darkness.

 Keep an open mind, but keep it like a window: put up a screen for the bugs!

 Remember that resentment is like taking poison while hoping the other person will die.

 Go ahead and cry; it truly does help, and there is no shame in weeping.

There is never enough kindness in the world. Be sure that, at the end of your own life, you will be remembered as the person who was kind.

 And, finally, always forgive. You don’t have to forgive the wrong done to you, but always forgive the person.

All my love to you, my dearest granddaughter,

Mimsey

Welcome to the World
Morrigan Lynn
“Great Queen of the Water”
Mermaid Queen with the Heart of a Dragon
August 23, 2018

The Staff Spotlight

Near the final few years of my working career, a new supervisor gave me an assignment that surprised and pleased me, but made me very nervous: to put together a monthly newsletter for the staff. He envisioned something simple; an information sheet that would introduce new staff or say farewell to those leaving,  note staff member birthdays, or provide timely warning to our employees on the constant changes coming our way (which, in our little corner of State service, might mean almost anything–from new programs or phone service to picking up “lock, stock and barrel” and moving the whole division right across the building).

Over time though—and I wrote the newsletter for several years—that simple paper grew in complexity, and, I hoped, usefulness to the employees who read it. Certainly, my supervisor thought so, for when I retired, he wrote me what I found to be one of the finer compliments I’ve ever received, saying that I had taken a simple assignment and turned it into something quite remarkable.  It was true that regular features and columns in the newsletter sprouted: Pete the Pet Peeve and The Staff Photo Gallery; the Welcome Mat, The Q&A and the ever-popular Secret Code—a quiz or puzzle with tiny prizes awarded to the staff members who solved it.

But of everything I worked on during those years of creating the monthly newsletter, the column that gave me the greatest enjoyment—and trepidation—each month was The Staff Spotlight.

At the suggestion of another employee, I began to do a monthly interview with one person and write a feature article about him or her. In point of fact, I corralled the woman who suggested the column and told her, à la Aesop’s famous fable, to bell the cat: I made her agree to be interviewed and featured first.  In doing so, I learned much about the young woman that I’d never even suspected.  Someone who had been to me just another employee became vivid, real, three-dimensional—so much so that when, a few years later, she lost a family member, I was able to go to her and, when offering my condolences, say, “This was the grandfather who taught you to ride and gave you a pony, wasn’t it?”

Occasionally, I nearly tore my hair out while trying to coax a reticent and introverted staff member to share something that would make for good reading without intruding on her or his personal reserve. But always the column aligned with one of my truest and deepest beliefs: that everyone—every single person—is interesting, remarkable, noteworthy; has depths and abilities quite unsuspected.

I learned that one woman made balloon animals at street fairs and events; that a man I rarely spoke with led expeditions for Eagle scouts and travelled extensively. Two women, both immigrants from India, shared their vivid memories of the wonder of seeing snow for the first time. Another employee had done missionary work in extremely poor countries and had a lively recollection of the joy of some young children on being given a soccer ball.  A woman who fed feral cats laughed about being known to the neighborhood’s strays as “a sucker with a buffet on the porch”.  In the most macabre and unsettling of all the columns, a young man mentioned having witnessed death and injuries during the collapse of the bleachers at a concert on the Indiana  state fairgrounds, and then spoke of several favorite Indie bands, laughing and saying, “They all have ‘death’ in the band names; I don’t know why!”  Just a few weeks after his Staff Spotlight column appeared, this young man died suddenly, choking to death in a dreadful accident.

The Staff Spotlight provided me—and every staff member who read the columns–a window on the world of dozens of people whom we otherwise would just have known as nothing more than coworkers: liked, disliked, friendly, interesting, boring, difficult, or simply there.

I remember with pleasure that, almost inevitably, the featured staff member would ask me to print a hard copy of their column for them, or to e-mail them a file of the newsletter, so they could share their feature with family and friends.  When that young man died just after his Staff Spotlight feature ran, I printed a copy of the newsletter for his widow, so that she would be able to share it some day with the toddler and infant sons who would not remember their father.

Working as a State employee, much of what I did in my job for many years was mundane, rote, routine and even soulless…but not the writing each month of that little column in a newsletter that reached fewer than a hundred people. I still look back fondly on the years of drawing careful word sketches of disparate and varied individuals, coming to know them as the special souls they were.

The Sunflower Rescue

Each summer, I take on the personae of  ‘Mom the Free Gardner Lady’.  Every ten days or so finds me parking in front of my daughter’s home and schlepping a large tote bag filled with trimmers, trowels, forks, flower food and weed killers up to her front porch.  I spend hours pulling weeds, trimming bushes, and pruning and feeding roses–and, in the spring, planting sunflowers, which she adores.

So it’s quite likely that a recent Saturday, sunny and mild, would have found me there even if my beloved daughter weren’t a million months pregnant and at home on modified bed rest, unable even to bend, much less pull up a weed. We chatted while I worked on the flower beds.  Then, finally finished and covered in thorn scratches and chigger bites, I left to make a quick run to the ATM and replenish my languishing wallet. From there I debated the best route to the gas pumps at the local Kroger.  Should I travel down Main Street to the avenue and across the side road to the store, the straightest route?  No, much too heavy with traffic, I decided as I pulled out of the bank’s parking lot.  I turned to drive a longer but quieter route.

And from such minute decisions are often spun the slender threads on which life hangs in the balance.

As I reached the back road leading across  the busy avenue to the Kroger, my phone pinged with incoming texts. Despite having left my daughter’s home not twenty minutes before, my immediate thought was, “She’s in labor!”  Although the traffic signal was barely yellow, there were no cars behind me, so I stopped completely to give myself time to check the texts.

sunflower bouquetThe texts weren’t from my daughter–of course not. Instead, my friend Gloria was sharing a story of having just gone window shopping at a local festival.  She’d admired the bright sunflowers at a vendor’s booth, and was pleasantly surprised when the young clerk came out to hand her a free bouquet of those sunflowers.  It gave her spirits such a lift, Gloria told me, making me smile and reply that I’d forward to story to my sunflower-loving daughter.  Gloria’s second text mentioned that, as she’d left her home that day, she’d decided to expect a miracle. She felt the gift of sunflowers from a stranger was just that small miracle.

The light was still red as,  having read her texts and briefly replied, I  looked up, startled, hearing horns blaring.  I watched in horror as, just up the street where I was headed,  cars scattered in every direction like marbles tossed by the hand of a giant,  trying to avoid a three-car pileup.

Had I not stopped to check Gloria’s texts, I would likely have been right there in the midst of that accident.

Later, arriving home, I read Gloria’s final text, which said simply that she had just felt moved to share that story with me. I responded with shaking fingers, replying that by doing so, she might very well have saved me from a very bad accident.  We each felt chills, thinking of the intuition that had led her to relate the tale of such a simple moment, and me to stop and read the texts.  Divine intervention, my daughter declared, when I described the whole thing to her a little later.  Tell her there aren’t angels?!  No way, José, she scoffed, returning to her favorite childhood saying.

I am still pondering the sequence of events that led to my being protected from harm. Gloria left her home, expecting a miracle.  A young woman thoughtfully gifted a bouquet of flowers to a stranger, raising her spirits.  The recipient of her gift,  listening to intuition, felt moved to share that sweet story with me.  I, notorious for stomping the accelerator to beat the yellow light–and who would under normal circumstances just have waited until I reached the gas station to read the text–pulled to a stop in order to check the message, and consequently was not on the road when a terrible accident occurred.

And, as a final caveat, when I reached the filling station at last after maneuvering around the accident, a lady across from me was in despair of being able to get her discount card to register at the pump. Since I’ve encountered this problem a number of times, and been shown by a kind stranger how to deal with it,  I was able to demonstrate how to make her card work correctly.  From there, we began to chat, as women always do, and ended up in a happy conversation about the leaves caught in my hair from my gardening adventures, the pregnant daughter, her two sons and grandchildren, my expected grandbaby….

On such small dimes does life turn: often, sadly,  to sorrow, accidents and ugliness; sometimes, joyously, to protection, happiness, and the kindness shown by total strangers to one another. And, if we listen hard enough, above it all, we might hear the whispered rustle of angels’ wings.

Crappy Toilet Paper

I have to use dreadful toilet paper in my bathrooms.

It’s not that I can’t afford the “downy soft” or pillowy versions of this necessary household accoutrement. It’s that the original owner of my condo, prior to my purchase, installed very high-end, brand name, low-flow toilets that are, if you will excuse the awful pun, not worth a shit.

I should have found it telling that, when I viewed the home prior to purchase, there was a plunger stationed beside each toilet. But it wasn’t until after multiple drainage backups (the most memorable being the day that I was running both the washer and the dishwasher at the same time when the pipes refused to drain), that a plumber explained the culprit to me.  Arriving after my panicked call–my toilets had begun making big burps, as though some hideous monster was trying to climb out of them, while both the dishwasher and the washing machine, hitting their drain cycles, began spewing their contents onto my kitchen floor–he ran one of those pipe-colonoscopy things.  Then he showed me the screen of his apparatus, and there lay the problem: paper.  Lots and lots of paper clogging the main drainage pipe.

If I followed his instructions, Plumber Guy kindly explained, I wouldn’t ever experience this problem again. And the main information contained in those instructions was: Use crummy toilet paper.  The “septic safe” kind.  One ply.  Not beaten into soft, fluffy submission.  About the same consistency of the paper used for dressmaking patterns or gift wrap.  That little change, and a monthly addition of special drain-clearing, paper-eating enzymes (usually reserved for those who have a septic tank, not a city sewer system) would clear up my problem and allow me to avoid further catastrophes.

Plumber Guy was correct. Following his advice, I’ve gone three years without further drainage incidents. But the price I have to pay is using toilet paper that is, shall we say, unkind.

I’ve become accustomed to it, and really don’t notice the substitution except on those unhappy occasions when I’m not well and must make multiple trips to the porcelain throne. Then it hurts—and not just my pride.  But I do, nevertheless, run about like a madwoman when guests are expected in my home, replacing those unpleasant, scratchy, septic-safe rolls with the “nice” toilet paper.  The super-soft, cushiony kind.  I run out to my garage, where the cache of spare paper towels, Kleenex and toilet paper is stored, and there, reposing on a special shelf is the “good” toilet paper, reserved solely for guests.  I do sometimes angst over this when the rare unexpected guest drops in, but have finally decided that if you show up unexpectedly on my doorstep, welcome as you may be, you must take what you can get.  And I have made the rare mean-spirited decision to leave the rude toilet paper on the role when an expected guest was someone I’d prefer to not have in my home!

This whole situation loomed heavily on mind, though, when many people were coming in and out of my home to help out while I was recovering from surgery. After a long talk with myself, I decided that requiring them to deal with a drainage disaster would be to add just another layer of onerous responsibility to their tasks.  So I compromised by putting the “nice” toilet paper in the downstairs half-bath, which they were most likely to use, and leaving the same old nasty stuff in the main bathroom upstairs.

Someday, perhaps, I will have reason to replace my current toilets and the problem will be solved for once and for all. Having done considerable research on the subject, I know what brands of toilets have a good rating in regard to this problem, and what I will select.  And I will happily—joyfully, even—trade in my high-end brand toilets for the less fancy and much more effective ones.

Truthfully, though, I recognize in the grand scheme of things, having to put up with scratchy toilet paper is so extremely minor a problem that it is not even a blip on the radar. But, there you have it: it’s my problem, and I am constantly aware of it.  I am tired of dealing with crappy toilet paper.

Touching the Angel’s Hand

Aged not-quite 19, I moved out of my parents’ home to a basement apartment in a slum. Years later, that same slum area would undergo urban renovation, and the once-gracious mansion, restored to dignity, would become a psychiatric clinic, located on a street of other restored mansions not far from the President Benjamin Harrison home.  But at the time I and a roommate lived there, it was decidedly a slum.

And that was okay. We were young, and, like all the very young, totally believed ourselves to be invincible. We ignored or laughed off the very real dangers of the area in which we lived.

Unlike my roommate, however, I did not see my newfound freedom and my escape from the rigors of my family’s problems as license to live riotously. Disturbed by her use of drugs and alcohol and her sexual promiscuity, only three months later I moved once more, this time to a tiny studio apartment  just a few blocks away, carved out of what had been a hotel in the 1930s.  It had lovely parquet floors, a gigantic, time-worn old bathtub, and a miniature kitchen fashioned from what had once been a closet.  Most of the population of the building were elderly pensioners, living in this low-rent district to eke out their Social Security, and the local hooligans, aware of the dates when then-paper checks were delivered, lay in wait and regularly mugged residents in the front hall.  My youth helped me to avoid such a fate, but more than once I was unfortunate enough to walk in just after such a frightening assault had taken place.

Despite the ever-present threat of robbery and muggings, though, I often found myself walking to my job. For the same reason that I lived in the low-rent district, I had to forego taking the bus; I could not always afford the 35-cent bus fare.  I earned only minimum wage at my job as a file clerk, and most of my salary went to pay my rent while saving for the required deposit and installation fees to the phone company, a monopoly which had a stranglehold on communications and could charge whatever it pleased.  It took me months to save enough cash to have a landline phone installed.  My groceries each week, purchased after a long walk to the only grocer in the area were, again, all I could afford, and numbingly the same: a gallon of milk, a loaf of bread, a box of cereal, seven cans of soup, two packages of cold cuts, a carton of eggs, and some salad goods.  When my brother and sister-in-law brought me a kitten, I added a few cans of the cheapest pet food and cat litter to my purchases.  Each week I carefully hoarded quarters so that I could do my laundry using the machines in the scary basement (also the site of many an assault—I learned to do my laundry at the crack of dawn on Sunday morning, when the muggers were sleeping off the previous night’s excesses).  The uniforms that I wore to my job, which were supposed to be dry-cleaned, I carefully hand-laundered in the bathtub, hanging them over it to dry.  Dry cleaning would have been an expensive luxury, even had there been a cleaners within walking distance.

Oddly enough, although the rigors of my existence at that time were trying, frightening and heartbreakingly lonely, I don’t regret a moment of it. What I learned from those two years of poverty and isolation was resilience. I learned that I could take complete care of and responsibility for myself, and even for another helpless little creature.  I found that I could be so terrifyingly lonely that suicide seemed a viable option—yet that I was strong enough to resist that lure, to fight despair, and to carry on.  I learned that I was competent.  I discovered that I was a survivor.

The experience gained in those two years of living on the raw edge of life, aged only 18 to 19, was incredibly powerful and contributed to my later hardiness in a life that has often been filled, as are most lives, with anguish, tragedy, fear, and difficulty.

I will never claim that I enjoyed that period of my existence, but I will always recognize that it gave me many undeniable and precious gifts. Because of those two rigorous years, and the lessons I learned from them,  I can agree, wholly and completely, with what Fra Giovanni wrote centuries ago in 1513, counseling about the vicissitudes of life:  “Welcome it; grasp it and you touch the angel’s hand that brings it to you. Everything we call a trial, a duty, or a sorrow, believe me, that angel’s hand is there; the gift is there….”

The gift was, truly, there, and I touched the angel’s hand.

Rah-Shar!

The other evening I poured myself a glass of sparkling, barely-alcoholic blush moscato wine, using one of my lovely pink Depression glass stemware pieces. I held the glass up to the light and admired the bubbles of rosy wine sparkling within the equally-pink glass, and then sat down to sip my treat as I relaxed with a book.

It didn’t quite work out as I had planned.

Having perched myself on the corner of the couch, I set my glass down on the wooden arm and picked up my Kindle. A moment later, reaching for the stemware, I knocked the glass right off the arm of the couch, splattering wine everywhere and smashing the glass into a thousand shards and fragments as it hit the wall.

Whereupon I exclaimed, “Rah-Shar!”

You see, years earlier, my Chosative (Chosen Relative: for an explanation of that term, see my 12/18/17 blog post) had told me of a magazine article she’d once read, which explained an especially lovely concept: When some beloved, treasured item breaks, it is essentially taking the hit for a loved one—taking harm upon itself, so that the person or people you care about will not be harmed. Consequently, instead of regretting the loss of something unique or cherished, one should acknowledge the event by exclaiming the word which embodied this concept.

We both loved this idea. Unfortunately, my Chosative hadn’t written down the foreign word and was quite unable to recall it.  The two of us spent the next few years searching for the word across the vast reaches of cyberspace, to no avail.  We even each separately contacted one of those of  public radio shows that explores the delightful concepts of language, but they failed to respond.  Perhaps they couldn’t find the word, either.

And then one day, while desultorily once more searching for the word as she waited for a repairman, there it was. Algerian.  The concept was part of the consciousness of several Eastern countries, but the word itself, the single word embodying the concept, was Algerian.

“Rah-Shar!”

The listing was far down under the thread following a question, “What do you say when you break a glass?” There were many answers, ranging from the downright silly to the rude, but a number of Eastern countries seemed to have assimilated this concept that a broken treasure was protective; that to break something beloved or cherished was actually lucky, for it meant a family member or friend was now safe, the broken object having taken upon itself the harm that would have otherwise befallen them.

“Rah-Shar!”

Considering this concept, I compared it to what I had once written in this very blog in November of 2017: that we should never refrain from using our beautiful or special things, never save anything “for good”, for our good is right now; that as much as our guests deserve to be served upon our fine china, with our costly glassware or silver—even as they deserve to dry their hands upon those lovely embroidered guest towels, or to enjoy the scent of our expensive perfume–so do we deserve it, also. We are, always, every day, deserving of our own best.

In the same vein, then, we should never hesitate to use our lovely things: our glassware or silver or china, our best perfume, our embroidered towel—even the favorite toy still kept in the box and never played with. For if these precious things do shatter or tear, if they break irreparably, they are serving a much greater purpose than that of merely providing us pleasure: they are protecting those we love.

As I cleaned up the fragments of my once-lovely pink Depression glass, I murmured a thank-you to the wreckage. And as I placed the remains in the trash bin, I said quietly once more, “Rah-Shar!”

A Work in Progress

In my path to healing old emotional wounds, I spent a lot of time attending groups such as Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics, as well as an excellent but now-defunct journaling group called SEAS.  In the long run, I did derive some good from each of the meetings I attended. But in many cases I was not what one might call an optimal member.  In fact, with one exception, most of the groups I graced with my presence were probably really glad to see the back of me when I finally decided to pull out.

Let me say it without shame: I could never stand what I considered the time-wasting and nit-picking traditions of so many of these associations.  There were minutes to be reported and treasurer’s statements to be announced and chapters to be read aloud, often by people who could barely read, and altogether too much nonsense that bore no relation whatever to the stated reason for everyone’s presence: recovery.   The plethora of formalities seemed just an extrapolation of the burden carried by every codependent; that is, the need to control, due to having lived in uncontrollable situations.

I grew tired of the repetitive and downright silly statement required of each member prior to speaking: “Hi! I’m Whatshername, and I’m a co-dependent!”  To be followed, of course, by a cheery group chorus of,  “Hi, Whatshername!”  After one or two meetings, everyone knew who Whatshername was, up to and including some of those vague people who barely seemed certain of their own names.  And we all knew we were co-dependents or an associate thereof, or we wouldn’t have been there in the first place.  Not to mention that repeating the statement prior to every single word one uttered  was time-wasting overkill.  But never will I forget the tongue-lashing I took from a group leader when I side-stepped all the silliness and announced, “Hey, you all know me now and we all know why I’m here.”  Everyone laughed, several members nodded, but Group Leader puffed up like an adder about to strike. After heaping scathing verbal abuse upon my unbowed head, she ordered me out unless I was prepared to “take tradition seriously!” I gathered up my purse and left,  suddenly realizing that, although still in need of recovery, I was actually a bit more mentally healthy than a lot of these people (Group Leader being one of them).  When I dared return the following week, that same Group Leader failed to show, and the rest of us ran a meeting totally free of tradition, hunkering down to essentials in open and free discussion so thoroughly that we overran our allotted time by an hour.

Control issues aside, however, my greatest problem with the groups I attended was their insistence that I say such terrible things of myself. “I am a co-dependent”.  “I am the adult child of an alcoholic”.  Oh, it wasn’t that the names themselves weren’t the truth—the problem I had with the phrase was in its way of diminishing me.

“I am that I am”.  That was the name given by God in answer to Moses’ question.  The church I attended for many years taught that to say “I am” was to recognize the spark of divinity within that made one a child of God.  Therefore, one never diminished oneself by adding a negative to the words “I am”.

I learned not to say, “I am angry”, but “I feel angry.”  Depressed, bitter, frightened, ugly, a bad person…  I learned not to connect negatives with the Divine within me.  So I simply could not say, “I am a co-dependent”.  I could rephrase my truth and say, “I am currently expressing co-dependence”— “I have learned co-dependence and am trying to heal”–“I demonstrate the effects of growing up in an alcoholic’s household”.  But I simply could not state the required phrase about myself by attaching a negative label to my acknowledgement of the Divine within me.  And that fact brought me into conflict with one recovery group after another, usually after only a few meetings.  So I would take whatever good I had gleaned from yet another disappointment and move on.

And, in the end, moving on was precisely the right choice for me, for I’d learned essential truths about myself from those disappointments: that I was my own best judge of what was necessary for my healing and recovery, and that I was willing to do that hard work, even if I had to do it completely alone.

I’m still a work in progress. But I’ll get there.