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.

Apples of Gold

“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” Proverbs 25:11

I first read that proverb many years ago in a book of daily prayer, and it caught my imagination and lodged there. I visualized a tiny, beautifully-crafted, three-dimensional, 24-karat golden apple, suspended within a shining circlet of silver.

If I had start-up funds, I would produce a thousand such pendants, and around the edge of each silver circle would be inscribed the words, “Thank You”.

It strikes me that saying thank you, either in words or writing, is fast going the way of the dodo. I genuinely doubt that toddlers are taught these days to sing the little rhyme that small children of my generation sang repeatedly: There are two little magic words / that will open any door with ease / One little word is “thanks” / And the other little word is “please”.

Thinking on the lack of gratitude displayed by recipients today, I vividly recall the dismay that I felt, years ago, when a coworker for whom we’d given a baby shower came in the following week with a single thank-you card which she proceeded to hang on the office bulletin board. Thirty people had gone to a great deal of trouble for this woman: provided funds for food and decorations, bought and wrapped lovely gifts.  They had each individually done a good deal of work to make the event special for her.  Yet not one of them received, even verbally, personal thanks—just a cheap card, quickly written, stuck on a corkboard with a pushpin.

Years later, as I discussed this upsetting recollection with a friend, she related to me an even worse incident: A family had moved into the area, and one thoughtful neighbor had stopped by to welcome the newcomers to the neighborhood with a home baked pie. Standing there on the doorstep with her offering in her hands and smiling words of welcome, she was told by the new neighbor, “Well, if I’d wanted a pie, I would have baked one!”

I’d barely recovered from my shock at this story when my friend went on to describe a further incident of rudeness in place of thanks and courtesy. She’d taken a loaf of home-baked bread to a neighbor out of appreciation for several things he’d done.  Weeks later, not having heard even so much as what he thought of the bread, she innocently asked him if he’d enjoyed it.  “It was awfully dense,” was all he said to her.  Not, “Thanks, can’t remember the last time I had home-baked bread”, nor even, “It was nice of you to go to so much trouble.”  Just a criticism of the food’s texture.

These and a dozen other incidents are the reason that I feel saying “thank you” is, like so many other common courtesies, becoming a dying art. And that saddens me, for it speaks badly of our civilization as a whole.  If we cannot express gratitude to the giver, do we even truly experience feelings of appreciation?

I don’t give myself a free pass on this situation, either, for I know there are all too many times when I’ve forgotten to at least speak words of thanks. Those memories shame me.  But I have a few other recollections, perhaps balancing the shameful ones, in which I’ve gone the extra mile to thank someone.  I especially remember the time when my teenage daughter, driving home late at night with three friends in the car, was t-boned by a driver who ran a red light.  A witness to the accident not only called 911 but stopped, got out of his car to direct traffic around the accident scene until the police arrived, and then provided the officer with a description of the accident.

Days later when the police report became available, I found the name and address of the witness. I sat down immediately to write him a thank-you note for his actions, concluding my words with, “You helped keep those kids safe, and I’m so grateful”.

I hoped then, and still hope, that he felt he’d received an apple of gold in a setting of silver.

The Miracle on Route 16

She is weeping.

Uncomfortable, I drop my gaze, fiddle with the fastenings on my purse, and brush unnecessarily at a speck of lint on my coat, before sneaking a glance from beneath lowered lashes to confirm what I’ve already seen.

The Invisible Woman, I think of her. She’s ridden Bus 16 faithfully for months now, boarding  from the tumultuous Market Street stop.  Evenings past counting,  I’ve glanced out of the smeary bus window to see her distancing herself from the bustle and craziness of the Market shelter.  She wears an invisible force field, I think; a Romulan cloaking shield, standing there amid the commotion as though she is completely alone.

Perhaps she is.

Like most of us as we board, she scans the bus for the rare empty seat; frustrated at that, she tries to find a forward-facing seat. But—also like most of us riding this substandard bus always assigned to our low-ridership route—she is usually forced to clamber awkwardly up the mid-aisle steps and take a place in the uncomfortable sideways seats.  Consequently, I’ve sat facing her for many evenings now.

Her invisible armor does not dissipate once she is seated. Nondescript in a worn beige coat, she sits staring into a distance that is obviously inward.  She does not speak, nor smile—not even the casual “bus buddies” smile we regular riders toss so carelessly  to one another.  She sits, alone, quite alone and silent, in our midst on this crowded vehicle.

But tonight she is weeping. At first I think her eyes are merely watering; it is, after all, Indiana in allergy season.  But the initial brightness is not blinked away, and with slow momentum, the gathering tears skim down the curve each cheek.  She tries not to be noticed.  She does not sob. She blinks hard, and surreptiously lifts a hand to dash at the moisture sliding beneath her chin.  But it is hopeless.  The tears tumble faster and faster; her pale face crumples more and more.

And then the miracle happens.

The comfortably-upholstered, pleasant-faced black woman seated beside me looks—really looks—at the Invisible Woman.   Wordlessly, she rustles through her purse, and pulls out a tissue.  Leaning across the aisle, she hands it to the Invisible Woman, who stares at the blue paper Kleenex as if it’s something she’s never seen before.  Kindly Black Lady firmly pats the hand into which she’s tucked the tissue and says, “Whatever it is, it’s all right, baby.  This too, shall pass, you know.  I’m saying a prayer for you right now.   And, baby, when LaDonna prays, God listens.”

Lady LaDonna’s stop is coming up. She gathers up her handbag and stands.  But before she moves up the aisle, she nods forcefully at the Invisible Woman.  She is praying.  God is listening.

Invisible Woman dabs at her eyes. Tears continue to fall, but, for just one moment, her wary armor slips.  She smiles—tries to smile, faintly, tremulously—at Lady LaDonna’s retreating back.  Then her look slides inward again, to stare into nothingness.  But she clasps the crumpled tissue carefully in one hand, holding it across her heart like a shield.

My Kindness Journal

I’ve recently begun keeping what I term a “Kindness Journal”. This isn’t a list of kind or thoughtful things I do for others (although, as a caretaker personality, that list would certainly fill a page or two).  No, this is a journal about kind things I do for myself.

Finding fault with myself has been almost an hourly pastime since I was an adolescent. Sometimes this is a helpful trait, sparking new levels of maturity. You weren’t as supportive as you could have been, the Critic in My Mind tells me.  You should not have said that. You should have done this; not have done that.  Was that really necessary? Did you actually listen to your own tone of voice? You were thoughtless and you need to apologize.

When I’m in a rational frame of mind, these self-criticisms are benign and constructive. Questioning my motives and behavior drives me to at least try to improve myself.

The Constructive Critic also reminds me that we most dislike in others the same behaviors that we despise in ourselves. Although I would challenge that concept on the basis of its being a generality, I accept that it’s often true.  The Constructive Critic has become adept at confronting me when I am irritated or furious over something that another person has said or done. Am I actually upset, I ask myself, only because I make similar remarks? Behave in the same manner?  Isn’t that really why I’m angry?  Again, when it comes to moments like these, the Constructive Critic is a genuinely helpful personality quirk.  Uncomfortable, but helpful.

But for me (and I suppose for a lot of people), the Constructive Critic all too often descends into a cruel and vicious faultfinder; a tyrant who sits in judgment from a high throne of hypercritical conviction. Speaking in the voices of actual detractors and censors from my past, the narrator which I term the Nazi Critic descends into bullying and cruelty. You were always plain; now you’re just plain ugly, the Nazi Critic declaims. Stupid bitch; why did you do that? No wonder no one ever loved you—I mean, who could?!

It’s hard to turn off the Nazi Critic in its evil mode of psychological warfare. My emotions spiral downward with each fresh self-administered slap on the ego.  I think of this as the emotional equivalent of a medieval penitent scourging herself across the shoulders with a cat o’ nine tails. Just as the clawed whip tore into flesh, so the Nazi Critic’s malicious words rip apart my self-worth and confidence, strewing them like the dead across the battlefield of my own soul.  The results of this clash soon become physically visible upon my face, in my bearing.

And so to combat the occasional incursions of the Nazi Critic, I’ve begun my Kindness Journal. Each evening I list a few things (sometimes very few) that I’ve done to simply be nice to myself.  Often it’s something physical: a good, long walk, or a relaxing bath with lavender salts instead of a hurried shower.  Occasionally it’s doing something that I find truly difficult, but rewarding, such as saying “No” to a request that I really don’t want to fulfill, all the while reminding myself that it’s better to refuse a request than to agree and nourish resentment.  Sometimes kindness to myself means that I must state plainly but calmly that I disagree with another’s viewpoint—something which I find difficult and scary.  Rarely, it’s standing up for myself, as in those instances when I have to remind someone that they owe me money and I expect repayment.  Those and many other things are now entries in my Kindness Journal.

I realize now that I have spent years of my life when I was at my lowest ebb, hoping and wishing that someone, anyone, would be kind to me, all the while believing the brutal words of the Nazi Critic—my own mind, twisted and tormented, telling me in the voices of cruel people from my past that I am worthless and ugly and useless and uneducated, undeserving of anyone’s attention or affection or courtesy or kindness.

So it is time, at last, to be kind to myself, gentle with myself, courteous toward myself.

It isn’t always easy. But perhaps by writing a few words every day in my Kindness Journal, I can lay the Nazi Critic to rest at last.

The Speech of Angels

As I was signing some paperwork at an office the other day, the clerk at the counter complimented my handwriting. Admiring my signature, she asked if I was a very creative person.  That’s what my penmanship seemed to indicate, she explained.  Both surprised and perhaps a touch embarrassed, I laughed a little and shrugged; I don’t consider myself to be especially creative, and I said so.  “Well,” she continued, “then I think your handwriting shows an inner beauty.”

Her words sent a little frisson of pleasure spiraling through my spirit. This was, I realized, ppossibly the loveliest compliment I’d ever received, and I told her so quite sincerely as I thanked her.

In simple truth of fact, though, my handwriting is less about my personality than it is the product of eight years of parochial schooling. Each week we students were given a lesson in penmanship.  We spent hours scribing softly connected circles and loops and slashes before practicing each letter with the attention of a calligrapher.  I doubt that all my schoolmates developed fine handwriting as a result, but I enjoyed penmanship lessons and took them to heart. To this day, unless I’m struggling with one of those irritating electronic credit card pads, my handwriting is careful and attractive.

But the true importance of that compliment given me about my handwriting had nothing to do with either my eight years of training or my signature’s appearance and what it might indicate about my personality. Instead, those gracious words were valuable in that they lifted my spirit, suddenly and unexpectedly.  Her observation made an enormous difference to my feelings, both about myself and about my jaded view of the world around me.

You see, I’d been having a, well…shall we say, a challenging week. (That sounds so much nicer and is probably more accurate than, “The week from Hell.”)  I’d wrangled twice with an extremely unpleasant and officious clerk at a county office, managing to keep my temper, but searing my soul in the process.  I’d painfully wrenched my back, so that I was hobbling about like a troll.  I  had barely crossed anything off an extremely long to-do list, which appeared to be growing rather than shrinking.  I was, like Anne of Green Gables, “…considerably rumpled up in spirit…”.  And so that heartfelt compliment about my handwriting fell like balm over my bedraggled soul; like grace and benediction.

I’d experienced this before, of course; I think (hope) that we all have: the words or behavior of a stranger or acquaintance that might well be the speech of angels, channeled through a human entity, and sent specifically to heal us of melancholy. After the incident of the handwriting compliment, I drove home recalling a similar event from another year.  I’d had the day from, well, not Hell, but possibly Purgatory, at the office.  The dreadful hours had finally drawn to a close and I’d dragged my way out to my bus stop, step by lagging step, feeling only about a minute or so removed from tears.  As I sat there waiting on the bus (which was, of course, late) two women, complete strangers, approached me.  Both smiled at me and one spoke, saying, “We just wanted to tell you we absolutely love your hair.  The color, but especially the style.”  I found myself smiling back at them — a big, wide, heartfelt smile — as I thanked them.  The compliment was especially welcome because I’d had a “bad hair” morning.  Unable to get my long hair to behave, I’d sort of smashed it on top of my head with a lot of bobby pins and hairspray, just to get it out of the way and be done with it.  The two strangers’ compliment could not possibly have been more unexpected or more welcome.

My cousin once described to me a similar incident in her experience: an “earth angel”, a total stranger, walked up to her at a store while she was feeling deeply depressed and gave her a compliment. The remark upended everything she’d  been experiencing.  From being dejected, she’d swung into feeling exalted, if only for a moment.  And gratitude (that twin to happiness) poured over her toward this stranger for her moment of unexpected kindness.

So often, that’s all it takes to make a vast difference in someone’s day: a genuine smile, an unexpected kind word, a heartfelt compliment. A courteous gesture, an offer of help.  Holding open the door for someone whose arms are laden with packages.  Offering your place in line to the person who has only one item when you have a cartload.  Courteously allowing in the car trying to enter the busy stream of traffic.

And, sadly, yes, sometimes our kind gestures are scorned. A compliment is shrugged off or denied.  The person in the car behind you honks loudly because you permitted another car to nose in.  Two people cut in when you offer your place in line to another, or a healthy young teenager slides into the seat on the bus that you stood up to offer to the elderly man.  We’ve all experienced this, too.  But though an unwelcome reaction to kindness can cause us dejection, it isn’t enough reason to stop doing it.  Not reason enough at all.  Because a single kind gesture can change a person’s day entirely, can soothe emotional pain or lift the recipient from melancholy to gladness.  It can change the world for one person.

And if just one simple word or gesture can change the entire world for one person, what, just what, might a whole world of kind gestures or words do to change humanity?