The Rocky Path to Unity

I simply did not understand her position—that being asked to sing a song as one, in unity, was a reason for more divisiveness.

A woman I know, who is Jewish, said she watched the Biden inauguration only to the point where Garth Brooks asked all present to join with him in singing Amazing Grace.  She was offended, she said, by being asked to sing a Christian song.

Now, I, personally, do not think of Amazing Grace as being an overtly Christian song.  It was sung regularly at services held by the interdenominational church that I attended for many years, although they did, in fact, change just a few of the words.  Our teaching being that, as children of the Divine, we must never speak badly of ourselves, the word “wretch” became “soul”; grace, we sang, taught our hearts to soar, not fear. Our congregation included members from faiths as diverse as Buddhist and Pagan, yet we all sang Amazing Grace together, raising our voices as one.  It was, to us, to me, a phoenix song; a song of rising from the ashes to experience blessings and mercy; of learning that we could trust, believing we were loved.

But, putting that heartwarming memory entirely aside, I genuinely could not comprehend her position: that being asked to sing a song as one, in unity, was a reason for more divisiveness.

Had I been asked to join in a Hindu or Buddhist chant, a Native American or Pagan invocation, a traditional Jewish song, or the lilting beauty of an old Negro spiritual, one perhaps written over a century before to lift spirits caught in the squalid darkness of slavery—had I been asked to join in any of these, I would have done so gladly; been overjoyed to do so, in fact, for that would have represented to me the true unity of people of all faiths, all colors—all the glorious variety of humanity that makes up the diverse population of America.  I would have happily sung The Marseillaise or Garibaldi’s Hymn or We Shall Overcome. In a pre-pandemic world, I would have reached to join hands with the people beside me and chanted or prayed or sung with gladness.

Already dismayed by her remarks, I later read that many in American Indigenous communities were offended by hearing JLo sing This Land is Your Land. Again, I shook my head. Despite my mother’s oft-repeated claims, DNA testing has proved that I bear not a single drop of Native American blood in my veins, and I have no comprehension of what it must feel to have had one’s home and culture and language and spirituality wantonly stolen; to have been crushed beneath the heels of one’s oppressors.  Yet I’ve read scholarly articles explaining that Native American tribes waged war with one another for, yes, for land, for cultural and religious differences, for slaves and resources, long before the first Europeans ever dreamed of setting foot on these shores.  Humans are, sadly, warlike beings. Stealing land from one another has gone on for all the millennia of our existence. So a song written as an indignant retort to God Bless America hardly qualifies as an intended irritant to the Indigenous community, despite that it was taken that way.

That is, I think, the point I am struggling so hard to make: I am so weary of everyone taking offense to everything!  I am so tired of the lack of tolerance; of the hardened shells people continually build around themselves, claiming that inclusiveness means only that their perspective, their beliefs, be recognized. That theirs is the important viewpoint.  That everyone must not just listen, but bend, to their preference.

Why cannot “Merry Christmas!” be answered with, “Happy Festivus!” instead of a glare and a growl? Why cannot someone simply answer, “Well, I don’t celebrate, being Jewish, but I know you mean that kindly, so thank you.”  Why can we not consider the friendly intent, and respond in fashion? Why cannot we sip the nectar from the flower, and avoid the bee sting  within?

Unity, pleaded both our new President and the performers at his inauguration ceremony. Raise up your voices and sing together.  Put aside our differences and invoke tolerance, consideration, and courtesy. 

“Can we all just get along?” Rodney King asked in 1992.  And now, 29 years later, I fear the sad answer is, “No, Rodney.  No, it seems we can’t.”  Or won’t. Or don’t really want to do so.

But I will go on, attempting to instill my own behavior with tolerance, and understanding, and acceptance, because, as I was taught in childhood, one must set the example by one’s own life. Because it is the right thing to do.  Because the only way forth to unity is to set aside our propensity to hold tightly to our differences and wounded feelings, and accept, and even glory in, our common humanity.

Wearily, though, I know that someone will take offense, if not at this entire essay, to some point made within it.   They will respond with indignation or bitter anger, even threats, to my words.  Nevertheless, I retract nothing.  After all, (to paraphrase yet another song) I can’t please everyone, so I may as well please myself.

If you liked, rather than hated this essay (!), you might also enjoy “Roses of the Soul”, which you can find in the Archives from December 16, 2017.

29 Things, Revisited

In November 2019, I offered this catalogue of traits I wished to see in an American President.  From the day Joe Biden was announced as the winner of the 2020 Presidential Election, I planned to re-run the column for Inauguration Day, but after the dark events of January 6, I had second thoughts, wondering if perhaps I should say more, or provide an update.  But, on consideration, I decided to let the essay stand as it was originally written–for anyone could see, in  these points, a foreshadowing of what was to come.

I am sad and dismayed to be vindicated.  And I pray, desperately, that we are ushering in an era of renewed dignity, truth, and compassion in our nearly-broken country.

  1. I want a President who willingly releases his or her taxes to the American people. 1
  2. I want a President who is totally unconcerned about the number of people who attend the inauguration, knowing that has nothing whatever to do with the actual work of the Presidency. 2
  3. I want a President who will respect and obey the emolument’s clause of the Constitution; who will divest him/herself of business interests which might result or even appear to result in a potential conflict of interest between the duties of a President and personal gain. 3, a & b
  4. I want a President who knows that “The Buck Stops Here”; who will say, “I take responsibility”. 4
  5. I want a President about whom past business associates cannot claim to have been defrauded of legally-earned payment. 5
  6. I want a President who will fire staff, when necessary, face-to-face, in person, in an appropriate and businesslike manner—not by Tweet. 6, a & b
  7. I want a President who totally eschews name-calling, vicious labels, hate speech, mockery, and all manner of bullying commentary. 7
  8. I want a President who does not pander to nor ingratiate him/herself with dictators or the leaders of oppressive regimes. 8, a & b
  9. I want a President who, to avoid even the slightest appearance of favoritism and to demonstrate truly ethical behavior, does not appoint family members to positions within the administration. 9
  10. I want a President who fully believes that the free American Press is one of the greatest strengths of this republic, and who shows them respect, even when they disagree with and lambaste him or her; who would never, under any circumstances, refer to the press by the fascist label of “Enemy of the People”. 10, a & b
  11. I want a President who recognizes that we are a nation of immigrants, and therefore welcomes those who are fleeing oppression; who takes ultimate responsibility for any separation of refugee parents and children; who would never subject children to prison-like conditions. 11, a & b
  12. I want a President who respects the rights and humanity of LGBTQ individuals. 12
  13. I want a President who issues all national policy in the appropriate businesslike manner, in conjunction with his/her staff, and not by Tweet. 13
  14. I want a President who respects the environment and works to preserve it for the safety and health of both current and future generations; who puts environmental concerns above business and financial interests. 14, a & b
  15. I want a President who demonstrates the utmost respect for the opposite sex; who, if faced with disclosure of past inappropriate speech or behavior toward the opposite sex, does not attempt to minimize the unpardonable behavior as merely “locker room talk”. 15
  16. I want a President who is faithful to his or her spouse. 16
  17. I want a President who behaves with dignity: who would not, under any circumstances, push another world leader aside; who would never, ever turn his or her back upon or walk in front of the Queen of England (not just because she is the Queen, but because she is a 93-year-old woman and deserving of courtesy). 17, a & b
  18. I want a President who will stand in the rain in order to hold the umbrella over his or her spouse.18
  19. I want a President who will not welcome world leaders and representatives to hotels that he or she personally owns, thereby being seen as open to or attempting to create undue influence. 19
  20. I want a President who, if faced with video evidence of a statement made previously, honestly acknowledges his or her words. 20
  21. I want a President who is consistent; who, if reaching new conclusions, states that he or she has done so and presents the logical and factual reasoning behind the reversal. 21 a & b
  22. I want a President who would never, under any circumstances, ask a subordinate to lie in order to protect him/herself. 22, a, b & c
  23. I want a President who travels to visit the military in conflict areas without first being shamed into doing so by military press coverage of his or her failure to appear. 23
  24. I want a President who, if he or she did not personally serve in the military, does not provide a sham and bogus excuse for that lack. 24
  25. I want a President who will stand in the pouring rain to honor the brave men and women who died the World Wars to preserve freedom. 25
  26. I want a President who, despite disagreements, will honor and speak with respect of a fallen comrade; who would never disrespectfully raise the American flag during that individual’s funeral; who will not permit staff to speak rudely of deceased, gracious First Ladies of this country; who will not allow foreign dictators to disparage former American leaders in his or her presence. 26 a, b & c
  27. I want a President who will not obstruct justice. 27
  28. I want a President who will not abandon allies due to a financial conflict of interest.28
  29. I want, in fact, a genuine President: an honorable leader, who will demonstrate dignity, truth, courtesy, kindness, patience, composure, ethics, morality, and, above all, integrity.
  1. https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/15/politics/donald-trump-tax-returns-white-house-sarah-sanders/
  2. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/1/21/14347298/trump-inauguration-crowd-size
  3. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/IF11086.pdf
    https://www.citizensforethics.org/trumps-ethics-promises-have-not-been-kept
  4. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-donald-trump-russia-blame-20180319-story.html
  5. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/09/28/i-sold-trump-100000-worth-of-pianos-then-he-stiffed-me/?utm_term=.6ab2e9c42d4d
  6. https://www.theverge.com/2018/3/13/17113950/trump-state-department-rex-tillerson-fired-tweet-twitter
    https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/trump-fired-kirstjen-nielsen-by-tweet
  7. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/01/28/upshot/donald-trump-twitter-insults.html
  8. https://www.npr.org/2017/05/02/526520042/6-strongmen-trumps-praised-and-the-conflicts-it-presents
    https://www.cbsnews.com/news/who-is-viktor-orban-hungary-prime-minister-trump-meeting-white-house-today-2019-05-13/
  9. https://www.thedailybeast.com/meet-the-trump-officials-making-government-a-family-business
  10. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/10/29/18037894/donald-trump-twitter-media-enemy-pittsburgh
    https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/437610-trump-calls-press-the-enemy-of-the-people
  11. https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/03/06/after-locking-migrant-children-cages-dhs-chief-tells-congress-theyre-not-cages
    https://www.npr.org/2019/03/09/701935587/judge-immigration-must-identify-thousands-more-migrant-kids-separated-from-paren
  12. https://democrats.org/press/15-things-the-trump-administration-has-done-to-roll-back-protections-for-lgbtq-people/
  13. http://time.com/5099544/donald-trump-tweets-first-year/
  14. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/05/02/offshore-drilling-donald-trump-administration-safety-rules/3657752002/
    https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/trump-rsquo-s-epa-made-it-easier-for-coal-plants-to-pollute-waterways/
  15. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/28/us/politics/donald-trump-tape.html
  16. https://www.businessinsider.com/trump-melania-stormy-daniels-affairs-marriages-timeline-2018-3
  17. https://www.nbcnews.com/video/icymi-president-trump-walks-in-front-of-queen-elizabeth-ii-1277051971981
    https://www.cnn.com/2017/05/25/politics/trump-pushes-prime-minister-nato-summit/          
  18. https://people.com/politics/donald-trump-wife-melania-rain-umbrella/
  19. http://time.com/donald-trumps-suite-of-power/
  20. https://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2019/04/11/wikileaks-julian-assange-arrest-donald-trump-sot-vpx.cnn
  21. https://www.statnews.com/2019/04/26/trump-vaccinations-measles/
    https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2016-election/full-list-donald-trump-s-rapidly-changing-policy-positions-n547801
  22. https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2019/05/barr-not-a-crime-for-trump-to-demand-staffers-lie-to-investigators?verso=true
    https://www.wsj.com/livecoverage/mueller-report-release-latest-news/card/1555608005
    https://www.justsecurity.org/62785/trump-told-cohen-lie-congress-collusion-general-not-moscow-tower-deal/
  23. https://www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2018/10/17/top-senate-democrat-urges-trump-to-visit-troops-fighting-overseas/
  24. https://www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2019/02/27/trumps-lawyer-no-basis-for-presidents-medical-deferment-from-vietnam/
  25. https://abcnews.go.com/US/trumps-rain-check-honoring-americans-killed-wwi-prompts/story?id=59119504
  26. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/onpolitics/2018/08/27/john-mccain-flags-white-house-full-staff/1108717002/ https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/04/06/donald-trump-adviser-roger-stone-mocks-barbara-bush-death-after-book/3386028002/ https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/28/us/politics/trump-biden-north-korea.html
  27. https://www.foxnews.com/opinion/judge-andrew-napolitano-did-president-trump-obstruct-justice
  28. https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2019/10/reminder-trump-has-a-massive-conflict-of-interest-in-turkey/

Defining Your Word of the Year

§  I’ve used many Focus Words over the years, and I’ve learned to choose them very, very carefully!  §

I stopped making New Year’s resolutions nearly two decades ago. I saw no point in setting myself up for certain failure; it was simply depressing, and merely reinforced my bad opinion of myself. (I feel the same way about goals.  Goals are something I set just to prove to myself that I am a failure.  I don’t set goals anymore, either.)

For a long time prior to that decision, I’d followed Robert Fulghum’s sound advice: On New Year’s Day, I sat down and wrote a list of every good thing I’d done in the previous year, backdated it, and called it my resolutions. This was eminently satisfying for a number of years, even though I knew I was sort of missing the whole point.

So, casting about for some way to set myself some type of goal-yet-not-a-goal, I was struck by an idea: I could still forego a resolution, yet choose something—some character-building, life changing something, to focus on during the coming year.  Not a goal, I decided; a focus.  With that in mind, what if I chose just one word, one meaningful word, and attempted to concentrate on it throughout the coming year?  Not to accomplish it—simply keep it at the forefront of my mind, and make it active in my life.  One word was so little.  Surely I could do that much.

I liked the concept. One word, one focus, seemed like a challenge I could meet.  The trick, I realized, would be finding a way to make myself remember to focus on that word— to keep adding it to my life.  (Well, that, and picking my word in the first place.)

Amazingly, having come up with the concept, I found that my answers came easily.  I’d recently discovered that a lack of assertiveness had caused me a number of problems; assertiveness, then, seemed like a very good first focus word.  But how to keep it at the forefront of my mind?  How not to forget, not just the word itself, but the need to concentrate upon my focus word?  That was going to be the real challenge of my not-resolution.

During that first year, I found that tricking myself into remembering my focus word was the best way to go. I took post-its and scraps of note paper and proceeded to hide them throughout my home in places where I knew I would not find them to easily, yet was sure to look.  Since I wasn’t about to turn the heavy mattress on the bed more than once a year, one of the notes emblazoned with “My Focus This Year Is Assertiveness” was pushed into the thin hollow between the mattress and box springs.  Another went under the couch cushions—I had been known, from time to time, to actually lift them up and vacuum beneath them (or at least search for loose change).  And, yes, one note, slipped into a plastic bag, went into the bottom of the vegetable bin in the frig!

And, amazingly, it worked. I came across those notes again and again throughout that first year and was forced to keep my attention focused on becoming more assertive.  And while I cannot now say that it changed my life, I can say with certainty that being reminded to focus on assertiveness did make a difference.  By the end of the year, I knew that I still had a very long way to go on learning to be assertive, but I was no longer quite the wimp I’d been twelve months earlier, either.

I’ve used many Focus Words in the intervening years, and I’ve learned to choose them very, very carefully. The Universe, I’ve discovered, will cooperate with me—oh, yes, will it ever!  Choose Peace as a focus word, and every possible non-peaceful situation imaginable will be tossed at me like errant baseballs.  And, for the love of heaven, never, ever, choose Patience !

But, defiant in the face of overreaching myself, the focus word I chose for 2017 was Magnificent.

And it was.

Afterword: In 2018, the Word I chose was “Kindness”.  I was astounded to learn that kindness is not just something we extend to others, but that we must also, humbly and with gratitude, receive.  It is also something we must extend to ourselves.  Foolishly brave, in 2019 I selected the Word “Restful”.  Oh, dear! I did learn a much-needed lesson: that we choose our response to events.  In 2020, I chose the word “Recognition”.  I am still discovering all the unexpected ways in which that word has come to play in my existence.

I would love to know what Focus Word you select for 2021, if you would care to leave it in the Comments section.

Families, Holidays, and Chaos

§  In this perhaps the most divisive of years in America since our Civil War, I turn again to this essay, originally posted in 2017, and its theme of tolerance, kindness and courtesy–for what better behavior can we ever display?  §

Several years ago I stumbled across Dar William’s humorous and touching holiday song, “The Christians and the Pagans”. It was a good-natured glimpse into the utter chaos experienced by a  family of very dissimilar individuals, all trying to navigate their way through the minefield of a Christmas dinner without triggering nuclear meltdown.

I found it so delightful and thought-provoking that I forwarded the YouTube video link to most of my contacts. A few of them had encountered the song previously, but were glad to enjoy it again.  To others, as it had been to me, it was a revelation: a couple of laugh-out-loud verses woven into an authentic description of the bedlam relatives endure as they try to practice acceptance and caring for the sake of family at the holidays.

But, to my dismay, a couple of my contacts found the song very offensive. To say that I was bewildered at their reaction is an understatement.  This was a song about tolerance—about the triumph of love over personal differences—about the curiosity of children, as well as their inability to lie for the sake of tact (“The Emperor has no clothes!”)—about finding common ground in the midst of seeming contradictions.

Eventually it became clear to me that, for those who found the song distasteful, their rejection of it lay in the very fact that the song was, indeed, about tolerance: about a Christian family struggling to accept and love their non-Christian and unconventional relatives (it is implied, though never outright stated in the lyrics, that the young niece is in a lesbian partnership) at Christmastime. To some of my acquaintances, this concept—that Christians would willingly welcome the company of their non-Christian relatives at Christmas—was anathema.

It is a mindset that I cannot even begin to comprehend. I glory in the traditions of other cultures, so many of which celebrate a religious or secular holiday near the winter solstice.  Soyaluna, Diwali, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Solstice, The Return of the Wandering Goddess…to me, they are all beautiful traditions, evocative of the universality of the human spirit reaching out to the Divine.  To reject loved ones because they have chosen a different faith (or even no faith at all) is, to my way of thinking, so far from the genuine practice of Christianity, as I understand it, that it boggles the mind.

I was simply stunned to learn that some of my Christian acquaintances thought that their non-Christian counterparts would be encouraged to “find Jesus” if they were cast out and treated as lepers; that they believed children should be shielded from the spiritual differences of those they encounter, instead of simply receiving an explanation as to why the family believes other faiths to be in error. I could not comprehend their feeling that families should not at least try to join together in love and caring at the holidays, no matter what their dissimilarities.

It’s always seemed to me that the surest way to draw others into one’s own belief system is to demonstrate, by the very life one lives, that it is a faith worth emulating. How, I found myself asking, how could shunning loved ones, subjecting them to rejection and disgust and dislike—how could that in any way inspire them to accept the faith of those who cast them out?  Wouldn’t such behavior just convince them that their own spiritual path was the more noble choice?

In a question between my own belief system of that of others, I will always choose the path of learning; never relying on rumor or medieval bad press or intentional misinformation, but seeking to know the genuine principles surrounding a belief system (or even atheism) in order to find the thread of commonality woven into all that is the human spirit.

But, no matter what they do or do not believe, all those who demonstrate love, acceptance, kindness, courtesy and tolerance will always be welcomed to a seat at my holiday table.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Apples of Gold”, which may be found in the Archives dated November 20, 2019.

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?