Even with your eyes closed, night time in Oaxaca, Mexico, is different from night time in Richmond, Virginia. One reason for this is that buildings in Virginia are sealed up from the weather while buildings in Oaxaca are open to whatever the heavens offer. Even the dentist office is opens to a courtyard.
In Oaxaca, we slept in a room screened off from a small interior courtyard. At night, as I fell asleep, I could hear a brass band playing from a square two or three blocks away, laughter and chatter from every direction, a men’s chorus practicing somewhere close by, sporadic barking from rooftop dogs with strong objectors to the people passing below, and occasional fireworks. (Oaxacans, it seems, consider concussive booms essential to any celebration.) I fell asleep while life went on exuberantly in the city around me. It was an exotic kind of quiet to my ears, almost too stimulating for sleep, but I fell asleep easily and slept well anyway.
Those night noises were all festive, as far as I could tell. My sleep was never disturbed by the blare of hyped-up TV drama, that artificially charged communication designed to upset listeners and reel them in for commercial messages. I never heard voices raised in anger, children crying, or drunken carousing.
Sitting with our morning coffee on the rooftop patio above our bedroom, the buildings stacked on the hills behind us looked down on us, and the other rooftops spread below us were punctuated with flowering trees. Beyond the city, mountains appeared suspended in the low-hanging clouds.
One morning we drove into those mountains, up and up on switchback roads. Our ears popped as the landscape changed. We arrived in a well-kept village clinging to steep slopes with bright flowers trailing over stone walls, hummingbirds the size of sparrows, and goats tethered in the yards. Here we hired a guide to help us hunt for mushrooms. The guide and his bright-eyed seven-year-old daughter led us further up the mountain roads, “fenced” on both sides with huge agave plants, and then on into the pine woods. Two or three hours later, our mushrooms were served to us cooked with fresh trout and soft tortillas in the shade of a pavilion.
That night, we bunked in a comfortable cabin at an eco-lodge still higher up the dirt road. After the maintenance crews left, we were entirely alone. We finished a late meal of grilled steaks and veggies and broke out the dominoes as dusk enveloped our picnic table. Before we (literally) bunked down, we stood on the porch in the chilly dark and looked out across the clearing. No lights anywhere. No sounds except for one bird calling from the edge of the wood. Inside, we slept under wool blankets while logs sizzled in the fireplace and the orange light of flames flickered on the walls.
Just after sunrise, we stood on the cabin porch again. We were inside a cloud. The trees were shrouded. The silence was broken only by solitary bird calls somewhere in the trees we couldn’t see. There was a sound like a river running in the valley below us where there was no river. It was wind passing through the tall pine trees. There was nothing else. It was profoundly quiet.
Back in Virginia, in my own bed, I sometimes wake briefly during the night, as I did this a.m. The windows are open for the cooler air. Everything is quiet.
Of course, quiet here is composed of layers of sound: The distant whoosh of traffic; the occasional shudder of trains coupling from down in the rail yards; the soft whine of a far-off siren. Closer by, frogs call and answer from the drainage ditches, crickets chirp, and a mocking bird pours out his myriad songs into the night that holds us all, note after note after note, all that sweet liquid clarity falling down into the dark.
This quiet is familiar, and comfortable in its familiarity. I am home and the night is playing my song.
We all have out buttons that beg to be pushed. Yours may be different than mine but they are probably equally unimportant in the wider scheme of things. Unless you are an evil dictator with the power of life and death over your cowering subjects, history will remain unaffected by your flare-up when somebody slams a door.
These last few weeks, due to chronic fatigue/fibromyalgia, I’ve been mostly out of commission. I look normal enough, I guess, if you overlook my horizontal posture. When I do stand up I usually lean against something. Sitting? my elbows are propped on the table and my hands hold up my head. Flat or upright, my brains are mush.
With so little energy to draw on, you’d assume I’d just let little things pass me by — that any buttons I have are obviously wired to dead batteries. Go ahead, you might think. Use ‘you and me’ instead of ‘you and I’ as the subject of a verb. Insert random apostrophes. This poor woman may have that coveted* degree in English but she’s in no shape to react!
And you would be right! I am powerless in my own life. Go ahead and push my buttons. I can’t get it together to lecture you on your transgressions so rub it in my face.
Yes, life goes on even when I can’t take part. To fill the hours, I read ten novels this week — eight historical romances, one YA fantasy, and one literary novel (the least enjoyable). — while wonderful things happened all around me. [Editor’s note: The writer does, in fact, go places and do things — just not as many of either as she would like. She’s waving around the proverbial half-empty glass here and spilling a good bit of it in the process.] Real life — engaged, active, vibrant — passes me by. In the meantime, the garden is weedy, the bank balance is a mystery, and the refrigerator is bare.
But if you think a debilitating illness is guaranteed to make you a more patient person, forget it. Struggling with such a condition can bring you to temporary state of acceptance. You might, briefly, step outside the pain and experience yourself as clear water flowing over and around rocks in a dappled stream bed. But this state will not last. At least, it never does for me.
Little things still get me.
After Quaker meeting [Ed: See? she does go places.] another Friend and I were bemoaning how others had come into the meeting room before the hour and, even though some were already settled, they whispered and laughed and walked around greeting others. Why don’t they know that meeting for worship begins as we center, not by watching the hands of the clock? Both of us confessed our disappointment to hear any Friend substitute the word “consensus” for the word”unity,” the end result of our Quaker process. And too many who should know better refer to our meetings as “silent” instead of “waiting worship.”
How spiritual is it to get irritated by misunderstandings of spiritual practice? But without understanding, can there be full appreciation?
While I was taking a stranger on a tour of our meeting house, she asked me, “What do Quakers believe?” I began with “Quakers believe there is that of God in everyone, that we are all equal in the eyes of God. We believe in continuing revelation, that if God ever spoke he is still speaking.”
Afterwards, a Friend asked why I didn’t just recite SPICE — Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality? This never occurred to me. To me, the core of the Religious Society of Friends is how we arrive at what we believe. There is nothing simple about simplicity or peace or integrity or community or even equality. We have to know how to ask the right questions in the right spirit to put our beliefs into action. Quaker process is a gift to the world.
The irritation of a grain of sand can result in a pearl. Irritation, carefully examined, can guide us to the right questions. We can benefit when we allow ourselves to flow like water around the irritation, calmly taking it in. Quaker process is a way of setting aside ego and listening beyond words. It is not efficient. It’s painstaking and time consuming. To some of us of a certain temperament, it can be irritating. But that’s the price of unity.
Usually, though, there aren’t profound messages in the things that push our buttons. I get perturbed if I trip over my husbands size 13 boots or he doesn’t close a drawer all the way or forgets to turn out a light. He gets ticked if I run cold water in the sink when he’s washing dishes or I turn off a light he needs or I slam a door. We each try to avoid pushing each other’s buttons or over reacting when one of our own buttons gets pushed. That’s the price of getting along.
Some days, I watch myself getting ticked off about everything and snapping at everybody. This is a sign I’m falling into a bad place with the CFIDS/Fibromyalgia again. And then I have to spend most of the day apologizing. And that’s really irritating!
So the the heading of this piece is misleading. I don’t know 3 Ways To Get Over It — I don’t even know one. I get irritated by lots of things. I probably always will. Occasionally, my irritation is instructive. But most of the time, I just take it in stride and step over it.
How about you? How irritating is it that this piece contains no answers?
Have you ever consumed romance novels like potato chips? One right after another until you are licking your fingers to pick up the crumbs at the bottom of the bag?
I just read ten or twelve historical romance novels in less than a week. My other “activity” was sleeping. My excuse is my usual illness — chronic fatigue/fibromyalgia — with the added thrill of a novovirus. (I am recovered from that nasty bug, thank you.)
Over the years, I’ve read uncounted hundreds of romance novels set in England between the loss of the American colonies and Waterloo. But I can’t write them. The books are total fantasies to me. I have an inability to suspend disbelief and that is fatal to composition.
But maybe you can!
First, choose a heroine from the selection below. These are all main characters I’ve met in one or more books and if I haven’t met them yet I probably will in the next book I read. These women are English, of course, and with rare exceptions, they are seventeen to twenty five years old.
The Governess. This heroine is a classic. She’s a gently-bred young woman from on old* family, though recently impoverished. The governess forged her own references and lives in fear she will be discovered. She disguises her beauty by hiding her glorious tresses under a matronly cap, wearing ill-fitting clothes and ugly spectacles and sometimes even hunching her back or feigning a limp. She may be fleeing from an arranged marriage. The children are recent orphans and love her and she’s a gifted teacher. Or maybe they are awful and she’s about to be sacked.
The Young Widow. Her late husband was a bully or a pervert or a wastral or a gambler or a drunk or (if she’s still a virgin) a homosexual. She may believe herself repulsive because her late husband couldn’t consummate their marriage. She is left penniless and must marry again — and soon — if she doesn’t want to starve. If she has children, she is a devoted mother, and will marry anyone to provide them with all the advantages of their rightful station. Society believes the widow is heartbroken and will never recover from her grief.
The Bluestocking. This foolish woman is so over-educated she’s ruined all chances of womanly happiness. She pretends she doesn’t care and studies astronomy or botany or hieroglyphics. She can read Latin and Greek! She doesn’t need a man. She doesn’t even want a man.
The Diamond of the First Water: This beautiful young thing is the toast of the town. Exquisitely gowned and coifed and suitably demure, eligible men swoon at the sight of her, but she longs to be loved for her true self, not her looks.
The Kid Sister. After her mother died in childbirth, her indulgent father and brothers let her run wild. She can ride, shot, swear, and puff on a cheroot with the best of them but now her ferocious great-aunt takes charge to mold her into a fashionable, compliant miss. Our tomboy is laced into corsets and carted off the London to snare a rich, titled husband. But her less than lady-like ways offend society. She’s a disgrace! Oh — and she’s secretly in love with her brother’s best friend.
The Wallflower. This mousy, plump, firmly on the shelf spinster is barely tolerated in her brother’s house where her sister-in-law resents her every bite of food. No man has every looked at her twice and no man ever will. At twenty-five, she is resigned to being the poor relation for the rest of her life, always an aunt and never a mother.
The Madcap. This is a girl who rescues abused dogs from street urchins and brings them home, fleas and all. Or she might adopt one of the street urchins. Or an elderly cart horse. Impulsive and adorable, her heart leads her into compromising situations verging on scandal. She lacks decorum. Respectable gentlemen avoid her like the plague.
The Girl Next Door. The girl from the bordering estate has always been in love with her handsome neighbor but all her sees is his former playmate. How will she convince him she’s all grown up?
The Soiled Dove. Circumstances beyond her control forced her onto the stage/into the demimonde. She has a loving heart, but love and marriage is not for the likes of her.
The Virgin. This beautiful and pure-minded soul was inexplicably born into a disreputable family. She makes excuses for her father or older brother as long as she can but when they die and leave her with nothing but bills, she must bargain whatever she has to marry money, even as she shudders at her own base motives.
I could go on — but you get the idea. Any likeable young woman in a desperate situation will do for your heroine. If she’s not plucky and brave on the opening page, she will be by the last page. So pick one of these heroines or invent one of your own.
The heroes are always English, usually thirty to thirty five, invariably “one of the wealthiest men in England.” These gentlemen, are magnificent, dangerous specimens — superb horsemen and fencers and boxers. Under their immaculately fitted jackets and trousers, they hide the physiques of Greek gods (judging from the Elgin marbles). Lesser mortals can’t meet the commanding gaze of their piercing amber eyes (or stormy grey eyes, or unearthly blue, or even pale green). They move with leonine grace. If one of these men enters a ballroom unexpectedly, the awe-struck assembly falls silent. They are skilled at eluding the snares set by manipulating mothers with marriageable daughters.
The Arrogant Duke. The Duke is as rich as Croesus and he is in the market for a bride worthy of himself. He requires impeccable lineage, a generous dowry, stately bearing, and good taste. Love is beside the point.
The Rake. He is a gambler who never risks more than he can afford to lose, a drinker who is never loses his head, a lover who never loses his heart. He beds only widows and other men’s wives. He hides behind his reputation as a shallow man, but he’s really a spy.
The Soldier. After he unexpectantly inherits the family title, he resigns his commission . He must marry and get a heir, but he feels guilty for surviving when better men fell. Love is the last thing on his mind.
The Dark Earl. After several years exile on the continent, he’s returned to London. Maybe he killed his best friend in a duel. Maybe he abandoned his betrothed at the alter. Now he needs a wife. Any wife.
The Noble Bastard. He was born on the wrong side of the blanket, educated as a gentleman. He makes his own way — as a pirate, a financier, an industrialist or a gambler. Maybe his swarthy good looks come from a mother with Moorish blood or a maharaja’s daughter. He might be a companion to the sons of a good house, but he can never marry one of the daughters.
The Widower. His adulterous wife died in childbirth. He is bitter and vows to never love again but, for the sake of his small children, me must marry again.
In todays’ politically correct historical romances, feel free to create a hero who secretly funds a home for orphans or a school for reformed street walkers or a haven for retired race horses. Today’s enlightened hero usually knows the names of his servants, pays them generous wages, favors progressive reforms, is a responsible landlord and good steward of the land and treats his lessors well. Sometimes he is emotionally scarred from a bad childhood or a bad love affair. Sometimes he is too proud to enjoy life.
(And it’s anachronisms like these that throw me right out of the book and makes me laugh. Like English lords during the Napoleonic Wars were SO concerned about the well-being of the servants. And their stupendous wealth never came from children mining coal or slave labor on a sugar plantation. Some contemporary authors feel compelled to make these men out to be paragons of virtue even by today’s standards.)
To me, no matter how writhing with hidden hurts, or how motivated by high morals, the heroes are not particularly interesting. Their only excuse for existing is as a vehicle for the heroine’s happiness. I read to see the woman saved from starvation/despoiling/a life of thankless toil and delivered into a life not just of new gowns and jewels and pin money, but of perfect happiness. At the end she must be respected, deeply cherished, and sexually sated. (But I really don’t need the details though the current fashion is for pages and pages of details! Oh, Jane Austen and Georgette Hayer and Marion Chesney, you set such a good example! Biting wit! Clever conversation! Chaste sex. Why must time march on?)
So — you have chosen your fair lady and her hero and you are about to have them meet each other, however unlikely. The more unusual the situation, the better. Have the girl fall out of a tree into a pond where your hero bathes unclothed. (Maybe someone else already did that.) Have them, two strangers, be discovered in a dark room alone and be obliged to marry. Have one crawl into the other’s bed by mistake during a thunderstorm at a house party.
Make sure they hate each other on sight, or, conversely, fall in love on sight and fight the mutual attraction through 75% of the book. It’s typical to have them consumate the relationship halfway through the book but — you are the author! — you can have them, somehow, engaged in sexual intercourse on the first page if it leads only to confusion and keeps them apart for another two hundred pages. Because that’s the whole plot: one thing after another keeps them out of each other’s arms. Choose from below:
They love each other but won’t admit it.
She gets kidnapped.
He gets bonked on the head and gets amnesia.
They are about to confess/make love/blurt out the truth but are interrupted by one crises after another.
They endlessly misunderstand each other.
One of them is convinced the other is in love with someone else.
Me? I’m really tired of kidnappings, so please skip that plot device when you write your romance.
For additional interest throw in a haughty mother-in-law, a younger brother begging for money from the new bride, a jealous ex-mistress, murder attempts by the next-in-line for the dukedom, a ghost, or a mysterious bequest. Just find some way to keep the lovers apart for almost all of the book while simultaneously maintaining enough tension to keep the reader interested. It should be easy. After all, I’ve given you all these prompts and told you what’s essential.
Even if I can’t write one of these, it’s only a romance novel.
It’ll be a piece of cake.
Let me know when you’re done. I’ve got my fork and I’m ready for another book.
*And aren’t all families equally old? But we all know what this means, so I won’t belabor the point further.
My house is a mess right now. All the kitchen stuff is in open boxes set on, around, and under the dining room table. There is a gaping hole where the kitchen sink used to be and the countertop is in pieces at the end of the driveway. Every piece of furniture is not-so-lightly dusted with yellow pollen, an annual offering from Mother Nature.
So when my good friend Mary calls and says “I can arrive tonight!,” what do I say?
A. Oh, dear! I’m sorry, but that will be inconvenient.
B. Which hotel will you stay at?
C. What time will you get here?
I picked C. Then my husband and I scurried around. We moved the lumber out of the guest room and put the furniture back where it belongs and washed the sheets and picked a bouquet of naricissi for the upstairs bath. (It was clean. We hadn’t been washing paint brushes in there.)
Once, during a party at my house (a different house than this one), one of the guests told me that she envied how I could invite people into my home —- and here I forget exactly how this tactful woman phrased it — but what she meant was that she envied how I felt free to invite people in when my house was torn up. We’d ripped out the wall-to-wall carpeting without refinishing the scruffy flooring or replacing the baseboards.
She implied that she did not always feel free to invite people over. My friend lived in a large, handsome home, beautifully decorated. She and her spouse worked hard to keep it nice. They were generous hosts and set a lovely table. Even the landscaping was immaculate. When would home like hers not be ready for guests?
And, if I lived by her standards, when would a home like mine ever be ready for guests?
We lived in this house more than ten years before the landlady agreed to sell it to us. We rented because it’s a duplex and my mother lived in the upstairs. Now her former apartment is a guest suite with a connecting door to our living room. But after decades as a rental, this house suffered from a lack of TLC. As owners, we’ve done some major work, but we can’t do everything at once. We may not live long enough to get around to everything.
The roof is new but the replacement windows are not holding up so well. We ripped up the carpet here, too, and haven’t (yet) refinished the floors. Plaster crumbles around a few of the windows. The woodwork is splotchy with mismatched paint. You get the picture. Not “Architectural Digest”.
And then there’s the dust and dog hair.
In the house I grew up in there was a place for everything and everything was in its place. This was less true in my bedroom and not true at all in my brother’s room. The remainder of the house was neat and dust-free.
The only telephone in that house was tethered to my father’s double sided desk. The phone was a black, heavy unit with a rotary dial. Daddy seldom used it, but, in his mind, telephones belonged on desks — so it was on the desk in the most uncomfortable room in the house. And if you were the fidgety sort and fidgeted with anything on that desk — a pencil maybe — you’d hear about it later. Later, because you were almost certainly not gabbing away on the phone and fidgeting with pencils or the like while Daddy was sitting on the other side of his desk. If Daddy was at his desk, phone conversations were as brief as possible and pencils stayed where they belonged.
That house was always ready for company but company was a rare thing for my parents. Occasionally, we might find Mama with a friend at the kitchen table with cigarettes and coffee when we got home from school, but never on the weekend. Our friends might be around during the day but seldom for a meal and never overnight. There were no dinner parties and few gatherings of any kind at our house.
My husband is not like my father, but I have more than enough a-place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its-place genes for both of us. We have to compromise. He tries not to leave his workboots where I’ll trip over them and I try not to nag.
When our four children were little, neatness was not a top priority. There was still a place for everything and important things — my keys, my glasses, the checkbook — stayed there. But laundry, toys, books, records, and magazines migrated freely, in herds and solo. We vacuumed and dusted anything at eye level. (Once, a friend cleaned for us after my father-in-law’s death. She lifted, intact, a hollow skin of dust from a vase way up on a high shelf.)
If we invited people in for a meal or a party, we cleaned up first. But our friends usually just showed up unannounced and made themselves at home. It was a messy house, in need of a good cleaning and repairs, but there was always a place to sit and a cup of coffee for anyone who stopped by.
My mother did her own cleaning, and took pleasure in it, until, at 85 and with only a few weeks to live, she hired someone. I cancelled the last scheduled cleaning, since Mama was no longer responsive. Maybe I shouldn’t have. Maybe the sound of the vacuum cleaner would have soothed her.
Mama expected me to keep as clean a house as she did herself, even though there were many days I couldn’t get out of bed, laid low by CFIDS/fibromyalgia. My husband was on the road for weeks at a time and my boys still at home had jobs and school and their own lives and barely kept up with the dishes. But I still had a China cupboard with open shelves and, once, Mama walked up to it and drew a line in the dust. “There,” she said. “Now you’ll have to clean it!” I didn’t. I summoned what energy I had and chewed her out. (And I got rid of the China cupboard.)
What does all this talk of dusting and neatness have to do with being a good host?
Everything and nothing.
Like everyone else, I appreciate a well-maintained home, with art on the walls and flowers bordering smooth, green lawns. I am happy for my friends who wake up to this everyday. I like visiting them in their beautiful homes, but I doubt that I will ever acheive this sort of perfection.
I like my space neat and orderly for myself, so I can find my keys or my scissors or the electric bill or my shoes. And it’s easier to keep up with things now that there’s just the two of us, even if our dog sheds. There are usually dust puppies drifting around. If we invite people to visit, we clean before they come, as much as we can. If friends drop-in, we like to open the door and say “How nice! Come in!” And then we sit down and enjoy our guests.
Guests are not ticket holders for the Spring Home and Garden Show. If they are, and they come to our house, they’ve come to the wrong house and garden!
But I can make you a cup of tea or coffee and listen to you tell me about your life or the book you are reading (or writing) or your latest project, whatever it is. I hope you leave knowing I was happy to see you.
And that’s what I want , too. I want to feel that you are happy to see me. Isn’t that what we all want?
So don’t wait until your house is perfect — perfectly clean, perfectly neat, everything repaired. Open your door with a smile. Apologize for the mess and the car hair if you must — but just say “Come in. I’m happy to see you.”
This isn’t the Spring Home and Garden Show.
This is your life.
P.S. Can you read WELCOME written in the pollen/dust in the photo above?
In meeting for worship, the question was asked: “What does it mean to have a personal relationship with the Lord?” A previous message had claimed this “personal relationship with the Lord” and offered a definition of God as “Love and Light, Good and Right, Wisdom, Knowledge and Compassion.”
I learned faith from my father, a birth-right Quaker and a devout atheist. Daddy was an equal-opportunity anti-God fanatic. With little provocation, he delivered passionate sermons aimed at converting believers to Reason and Logic. He was evangelical — a missionary among the washed hordes of Christians in semi-rural Ohio. Like all True Believers, my father suffered for his faith. In our little town, people like Daddy who openly, loudly — even brazenly — didn’t attend church were looked upon with suspicion, to say the least.
He tried to raise me as a Quaker without God and hundreds of miles from any Friends’ meeting house. Social justice, the equality of persons, the evils of war — he lectured me on these topics. Countless times, as the sole member of his congregation, I listened attentively as he thundered on in rolling tones about the curse of ignorance that breeds superstition, the hypocrisy of worshipping on cushioned pews beneath stained glass windows instead of feeding the hungry, the impossibility of the virgin birth and the resurrection, the contradictions of the bible, the pagan antecedents of Christian holidays, and so forth and so on, ad nauseum.
I soaked up his every word. I believed. God was an invention of men. Religion was anti-science. If something can’t be proved by scientific, objective measures, it doesn’t exist. Daddy’s worldview wove a thick cloak of superiority about him while others stood naked and exposed in their ignorance.
But now I’m a Quaker, and I consider myself Christian within that tradition.
I didn’t abandon the faith of my father overnight. Mine was a gradual turn about. Even while I was still enthralled by his pronouncements, I was reading heretic texts like The Sleeping Prophetand devouring “non-fiction” on mysteries like Big Foot and UFO’s. (Decades later we moved to Virginia Beach and I came to know people who knew Edgar Cayce and offered more stories of his second sight.) My friends and I were fascinated with Ouija boards and ghosts.
Even in junior high, the idea of reincarnation appealed to me. The way Cayce explained it, reincarnation sounded fair, and we all want the world to be fair, right? Maybe my life this time is an easy one because I starved to death in the last one. Of course, reincarnation can be used to enforce a caste system and justify inequality. In that way, it’s no different than a religion to keep people under the thumb of the King or in the rifle-sight of a tribal chieftain because obedience and piety are rewarded in the after life so keep your mouth shut and do what you’re told.
Though I liked the idea of reincarnation, it wasn’t enough to undermine my faith in Fundamentalist Atheism. Even from where I stood — a place of relative privilege and comfort — it was obvious any God worth worshipping wouldn’t allow people to suffer like lots of them obviously were. If there was a God in charge of this world and all its hunger, sickness, and premature death, he wasn’t a god I wanted anything to do with anyway.
About mid-way through college, five months pregnant and not married (this was a big no-no back in 1970), I was sitting on my dorm bed at college idly considering a jump from the window and a plunge to the asphalt three stories below. (This sort of thinking I learned from my mother.) Then I heard that still small voice: You don’t have to do that. Things will be difficult for awhile but everything will be all right in the end.
I heard the voice. I never doubted the words. It was enough to keep me going. I didn’t bother to weigh the silent voice on any scientific scales. I just accepted it and moved on.
Three years later, I returned to campus with my daughter to finish my degree. And I met a really nice young man. And I heard that voice again: This is the man you are supposed to marry but you’ll never have any money.” This was an Oh Shit! moment for me, because, in my (still) atheist worldview, money was the only security. The more money the more security.
So I set aside my need for money and that kind of security and married that nice young man. We never were hungry or homeless but we had some lean years and some hard years. I never doubted that we were supposed to be together — I’d been told — and we came through those years a out on the other side.
But in spite of these and other mystical life-changing moments, abandoning the faith of my father was a gradual process. My husband had been raised in a strict Baptist Church and was in no hurry to ever join another one. Years went by and were we unchurched, but, soon after we moved to a town with a Quaker meeting, we began attending.
I suspect anyone who’s been gifted with trustworthy directions and guidance from a source that defies rational explanation longs for frequent communication from that source. In my life, that voice has been crucial and rare. The best substitute I’ve discovered is to fill my life with good people and learn from their examples. And in that little Quaker meeting we first joined, there were people well worth emulating.
When I told my father I was attending a Friends meeting, his first question was “Race Street or Arch Street?” I assured him we’d joined a Hicksite congregation and he seemed, for an atheist, oddly satisfied. He took great pride in his Quaker forebears and cousins in spite of their irrational beliefs.
Once Daddy got over being pleased that I’d joined the Religious Society of Friends — that his daughter had come into the very fold he’d abandoned — he felt compelled to argue with me about the existence of God — God anywhere, in any form. Since you can’t prove God exists, Daddy argued, God does not exist.
[Oddly enough, I have a disease — CFIDS/ME — that cannot be confirmed with a laboratory test or x-ray. For years, doctors used that same argument against people like me: We can’t prove you’re sick so you are not sick. In spite of their sound reasoning, I am sick. Medical science is catching up with my experience.]
I came back at my father with arguments for the existence of music and love, neither of which have scientific explanations. (Or so I said at the time. I’m wouldn’t make such pronouncements today.)
My current and fluctuating understanding of God is whatever It Is that binds us, makes us human — like the force that holds bees to a hive, working together for the greater good. It’s hard for me to see any sense in altruism without God. If there’s no meaning beyond one’s own individual needs and pleasures, what’s wrong with doing whatever it takes to achieve whatever’s best for yourself? Ayn Rand, anyone?
Do I have a personal relationship with the Lord? Well, it’s an on-again, off-again kind of thing. I don’t always stay in touch. But here’s what faith means to me: an ability to accept uncertainly.
My father and other fundamentalist atheists I’ve met — the brand of atheist compelled to harangue us ignorant church-goers — have a great deal in common with religious fundamentalists: the drive to be RIGHT! The basic flaw in atheism is the claim of certainty. To me, agnosticism seems more consistent with reason.
The idea that something can only exist if human science confirms it’s existence is a strange one. It’s like claiming the Grand Canyon didn’t exist until Joseph Ives sent his Report upon the Colorado River of the West; Explored 1857 and 1858 to Washington, D.C.
This idea also overlooks the expansion of human knowledge, the way new discoveries overturn old understandings.
I can’t explain what I believe and I can’t justify it to a non-believer. That’s fine with me. I don’t care if I’m wrong and I can live with uncertainly.
Take this moment right now — seriously, take it!* The skies are lowering and my head is closing down. Yes, I can still make the bed and sort-wash-switch-dry-fold-put away the laundry and I ought to be grateful for that. And a friend called this morning and we laughed and the kids stopped by and they are wonderful and my husband and the dog didn’t ride off into the sunset in his pick-up BUT I had plans for today that required thinking and my brain isn’t working well enough to think and I am not grateful!
If my whole life were like today, I’d have a hard time convincing myself to stick around. To do so, I’d have to graciously accept that every day would be just like this one: maybe two productive hours in the morning for everything that requires any effort or initiative — planning meals, figuring out the bills, answering emails, making phone calls, etc. — all the usual responsibilities we all have of being who we are and living where we do. Then my brains depleted. Voluntary mental excursions — writing, leaving the house, practicing piano, answering letters — get shoved to the side where they jealously glower at me as my hours are consumed by romance novels and Facebook scrolling.
Terrible pain and constant nausea are, nowadays, rare for me, and I am grateful for that. A touch of vertigo, some localized discomfort — you’d think I had nothing to complain about. But I want to Do Things — fun things — and I can’t. Sometimes it gets me down.
I listened to Ted Hour program on NPR the other afternoon, and it just made me feel worse. (And her’s the entire Ted Talk by Jennifer Brea.)
Especially during turbulent weather, I can expect to experience strings of days where my life seems suspended. I wait out my allotted hours, unable to focus, or really, even remember what I’m trying to do. I should expect this stuck-in-amber, outside-my-own-life state, but I never do. I always begin the day believing that today, this is the day the Lord hath given and I can do all the things I couldn’t do yesterday.
And, many days, that’s true. And sometimes those good days are in a long string, too.
I know more about this illness that dogs me than I did at the beginning of this year. This is because my daughter asked me to accompany her on a car trip to clinic specializing in chronic fatigue/fibromyalgia. This clinic requires all new patients to bring another person with them for their initial consultation.
My daughter drove to our house and spent the night. We left the next morning for Charlotte, North Carolina, and, in the late afternoon, found our Airbnb in a well-maintained neighborhood with lots of trees and birds.
Our Airbnb suite was over a newly constructed garage and workspace, up beige carpeted, interior stairs. A sign next to a chair at the bottom of the steps instructed us to leave our shoes by the door. We hauled our overnight cases and insulated cold packs (and my knitting) up the steps in our stocking feet. There was a big room with a kitchenette, TV and sofas, futon and windowsills and table and chairs, and a roomy bathroom and a bedroom, also with lots of natural light. The furnishings, too, seemed to be newer and chosen for inoffensive good taste but there were enough personal touches to make it a welcoming space. My daughter admired the round dining table, it’s glass top supported by the spreading branches of the metal tree that formed the table’s central column.
We made ourselves at home for the evening. We had hauled all our food with us. We are both on gluten-free and sugar-deprived diets and weren’t going to try to find a restaurant in this strange city. All our energy was reserved for visiting the doctor. We heated up our meals, read the books we’d brought, and went to bed.
The next morning, the route to the clinic took us through cute shopping areas, lovely neighborhoods, and multiple medical complexes, interspersed with one massive church after another. These astounding, huge buildings housed mainstream Protestant congregations, Catholics, and those self-labled “non-denominational” Christians (or “Christian factories,” as one long-ago acquaintance called them). The biggest church featured multiple entrances through the extensive lawns and satellite parking with numbered signs that reminded me of of the parking lots at the Richmond International Raceway.
Charlotte, North Carolina, probably boasts many attractions. However, our sight-seeing was limited to driving by these astonishing churches. We did go shopping at CVS in one of Charlotte’s up-scale shopping malls. My daughter filled a prescription and I bought a paperback. It was a nice CVS, but we have those here at home, too.
I remained in the examination room with my daughter for the initial consultation. The doctor walked in carrying a file with all the medical records my daughter had submitted ahead of time, as requested, as well as the numerous additional forms the clinic required. She looked up briefly, before taking a seat at the computer. “Were the lights on when you came into this room?” she asked.
“Yes,” my daughter said.
“Did you ask the nurse to turn them off?”
“That was me,” I said. Overhead lights usually irritate me. They don’t bother my daughter. Light and noise sensitivity, as we were shortly to learn, are just two of the many symptoms, conditions, and sensitivities that may be fellow travelers with a case of CFIDS.
The doctor had many additional questions for her patient, of course. My only useful contribution was to prod my daughter into a fuller description of her life beyond just the demands of her job.
During the doctor’s lengthy and detailed explanation of chronic fatigue syndrome, I heard several new things. I learned that crippling pain, like I experienced at the onset of my own illness, is not characteristic of CFIDS. Apparently I’ve had fibromyalgia from the beginning. I didn’t just develop it a year or so ago when I (mistakenly) thought I had shingles with the rash.
The doctor displayed a chart with a zig-zag to showed the course of CFIDS: steeply plunging and ascending in the first years and eventually becoming less steep but still zigging and zagging, up and down, but less deep and less high. My own gradual improvement over the years had lulled me into hoping I might someday outlive the disease. Nope. That is not in the cards.
I zoned out before the doctor finished her long explanation of the role of Vitamin D deficiency in CFIDS. (Maybe she wasn’t even talking about Vitamin D?) My daughter seemed to follow it better than I did, and just in case she didn’t, the doctor gave her a three-ring binder and a DVD so she could review everything on her own, at her own pace. Obviously, a lot of her patients wouldn’t be able to grasp all of the information at one sitting.
Before this doctor’s visit, when I heard that doctors were recommending aerobic exercise for people with chronic fatigue, it made me want to scream. (I didn’t actually scream, of course. I didn’t have the energy.) But the aerobic exercise this doctor was recommending was only five minutes of walking at a time! Plus gentle stretching exercises.
I was not surprised to find that CFIDS can rob a person of 30 IQ points. Thick brain fog makes life difficult.
The doctor stressed that a good night’s sleep is vital. Insomnia comes with the condition and several night of insomnia in a row, I know from experience, worsens other symptoms. Hence, the sleeping pills.
One welcome piece of information is that only 10-15% of children of patients also succumb to CFIDS, and almost all of them are girls. This relieved my anxiety for my youngest son. He is now about the same age as my daughter and myself each were when we were struck down with the disease.
I remained in the waiting room with my Kindle while my daughter underwent computer tests, coordination tests, the treadmill and a tilt-table. She passed out on the tilt-table. So I proved essential after all. I drove us back to the Airbnb. (Other patient reactions to these tests have included falling asleep, marked confusion, and vomiting.)
We spent another comfortable and uneventful night over the garage (our rating as guests? “quiet and nice”), and packed out in the morning before returning to the clinic where my daughter got back on the treadmill for one last test.
Then we headed north, out of the Land of Mammoth Churches, and back home.
That was some weeks ago. My daughter quit her job and is following the advice the doctor tailored just for her. She rests flat on her back for at least five minutes of each hour (sometimes it’s the whole hour) even when it is inconvenient or potentially embarrassing. She has a handicap parking permit. She now owns a wheelchair. She paces herself. Etc.
When she calls her voice is brighter and quicker than I’ve heard it in years. She’s adjusting to a changed life and changed expectations.
Would you be surprised that I am glad my daughter has a wheelchair? Well, I am glad. In a wheelchair she toured the Museum of Natural History with her brother and his young family. All that walking through the museum would have exhausted her. She would have crashed and lost a week to recovering. Instead, she wasn’t on her feet and she got to carry her niece on her lap.
Going to Charlotte, North Carolina, was well worth the effort it took.
You might be wondering, if I’m in such a bad place today how did I put this blog post together?
I took a three days.
And now I am grateful. I’m grateful I finished this post!
I appreciate a well written blurb. It’s an art form I understand and admire. It takes skill to compose a terse but compelling summation of a novel. A good blurb dives right into the emotional heart of the book, plunging into the throbbing core of the plot. It grabs you by the eye-balls and says READ ME!
The blurbs on my Kindle screen, on the other hand, are usually bad. These blurbs and the corresponding book cover appear on the screen before I swipe the screen to read my own book. The ad is meant to entice me to buy the book. But, rightly or wrongly, when a blurb is bad, I assume the book is bad, too: probably a self-published novel that has never passed through a critique group, let alone fallen under the eyes of an editor. To be fair, a Kindle screen blurb — at twenty-five words or less — has to be the devil to concoct. (And I’ve never tried to do it.)
Here’s a bad blurb from my Kindle screen:
A baby vanishes from the womb without a trace. A fossil upends two centuries of scientific theory. A prehistoric virus kills thousands within days.
Would you buy this book? I didn’t. Those three sentences just make me think of that Sesame Street song “One of These Things (is not like the others).” Except I can’t pick out which thing doesn’t belong.
Here’s another blurb:
20th Centry Fox developing for film. An award-winning story of one family’s struggle to survive a massive terrorist attack that destroys America.
This is better. But the hype at the front is off-putting. Do I believe it? Do I care? Does it make me want to read the book? Not really. And the second sentence is the plot of every other contemporary dystopian novel.
Gabriel Miller swept into my life like a storm. There’s one way to save our house, one thing I have left of value. My body.
We are not amused. If there’s a connection between the first sentence and the second, you wouldn’t know it from this blurb. And would I trust an author who uses a period instead of the colon I am expecting? But at least this blurb pricks my curiosity. Is the body in question valuable for organ harvesting? Blood plasma sales? Scientific experiments? (My curiosity wasn’t strong enough that I bought the book.)
I think the blurb below has been on my Kindle since I bought it. Maybe absence would make the heart grow fonder because familiarly, in this case, has definitely bred contempt.
3 massacres, 2 detectives, 1 writer and 0 answers. A dark thriller you can’t put down with a twist you won’t see coming.
Plot? Hero? Nada. I didn’t buy this one either.
Here’s the plot of the books I buy over and over, in every permutation, as long as the setting is historical British Isles and there’s a Duke somewhere nearby.
Two people meet and instantly hate each other. Through misunderstandings and mishaps, desire flares between them. They succumb. They marry. The end.
Predictable? Yes. So why would I read such a predictable book and not, say, a novel like Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle (which I found in our Little Free Library):
“An absolutely terrific thriller, so pulse-pounding, so ingenious in its plotting, and so frighteningly realistic that you simply cannot stop reading.”
And ” . . . leaves the reader suspended as the book speeds to a breathless finale!”
I don’t read thrillers. I don’t read fiction that scares me, shocks me, keeps me in suspense, or keeps me awake. No rapes or mutilations or blood dripping through the floor.
I do read fiction other than bodice busters but it’s always fiction that entertains, transports, intrigues — unchallenging fiction to effortlessly pass the hours when chronic fatigue/fibromyalgia has me down and I’m not up for anything else. I read fiction to escape from the things that scare me in the real world.
And it’s harder every day to ignore those scary things.
For example: It’s only February and my asparagus is up more than two weeks earlier than we’ve ever seen it. And the bluebirds were fighting the sparrows for the birdhouses in the yard two weeks earlier than last year. (The bluebirds lost again.) The sparrows are sitting on eggs already, which is something I don’t keep track of from year-to-year but I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen them sitting on eggs in February.
Very early this month,out on the screened porch, about twenty of the black swallowtail chrysalises opened and the butterflies came out, only to die trapped in the cheesecloth-covered mason jars. Three or four of the insects died still crawling out of their winter homes, probably felled by the sudden return of cold weather. I had intended to remove the cheesecloth in time for the butterflies to fly away and find flowers to feed on. Who was looking for butterflies in early February? Not me.
Two butterflies were still alive. I placed them in a garden bed, on top of the foul-smellng purple deadnettle, and hoped these early blooms appealed. I hope the butterflies enjoyed a few days before winter temperatures caught them.
There were a dozen more chrysalises intact. Those are now in the refrigerator until I am more confident of the weather. This February looks like spring and the birds and peepers sound like spring. But it makes me uneasy.
It makes me uneasy in the same way finding caterpillars on the parsley made me uneasy last November, when I brought them inside to save them from the frost. It makes me scared in the same way watching video of the calving of an iceberg bigger than Manhattan scares me.
The world I know has changed. It continues to change in unpredictable ways.
I read non-fiction. I read newspapers and informative magazine articles. I attend forums and listen to podcasts. I can find my cheeks wet with tears during a discussion of health delivery systems for impoverished children. Real life offers more than enough to make my pulse pound, my blood boil, and my heart sore. Real life is more than enough suspense for me.
The seas rise and powerful tornadoes scour the land as dangerous shifts in climate threaten the lives of all earth’s inhabitants. An extraordinary tale of greed and ruthlessness, of bravery and sacrifice — with a heart-stopping climax of unforgettable power!*
I like the blurbs for the thrillers. I just don’t enjoy the actual books.
*This blurb is based on rave reviews of Eye of the Needle.
Back in Virginia Beach, my neighbor Dee was a genius at cutting hair and she came to my house and she only charged $10. For someone like me, with a chronic illness and little energy, this was great! Even without her cowboy boots, Dee stood over six feet tall. She had long red hair halfway down her back. I’d sit on the front porch to wait for her. She was easy to see striding down the sidewalk.
Sometimes she’d come and just cut my hair. Other times I’d gather a small group of family and friends and we’d all get haircuts. Dee was an artist. When Dee was finished cutting your hair, it looked super. My hair cut incited envy every place I carried it. Perfect strangers would stop me wherever I went and ask me who cut my hair. Dee was THAT good.
So, all right, the hair cut experience might include strange conversation about imminent danger to the immortal souls of Pat Robertson and other regulars on the 700 Club. According to Dee, there were people out there in the clutches of Satan and they knew she was working to overthrow them and they knew where she lived so she had to take special precautions so they wouldn’t come after her. Which might be why she moved and left no forwarding address or telephone number.
Without Dee, I went longer than usual without a haircut. Then I moved here to Richmond and I went even longer. Dee would cut a swing bob for me that could go six weeks without a trim. But it was several more than six weeks and I had to do something.
So I walk into one of these chain shops with multiple chairs and no appointment required, right? I figure the beautician can look at the hair cut I’ve got and just cut it shorter, right?
HA! And I can look at the Mona Lisa and just paint it larger, too!
So I walk out with a similar haircut to what I had, but somehow without the pizzaz. A swing bob missing the swing. Nice and neat and BORING.
Two months later, I try another chain. I know, I know — this fits that classic definition of insanity — “trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results” — but I was so busy painting walls, planting flowers, reading street maps to find the post office, etc. that I hadn’t found a place in the brain under my hair cut to assign the task of finding another true artist to cut the hair cut.
I arm myself with a magazine photo of a woman with (what looks to me) a simple hair cut. The beautician says Sure, she can do that for me because I have very fine, straight hair just like in the photo. She cuts away. Wet, it looks like she’s pretty much cut what I ‘d hoped for — but then — completely missing the point of this haircut — she spritzs my hair with volumnizing gel and blow dries it into a style. I am totally puzzled but figure this will wash out.
Once home, it’s obvious she must have put a bowl over my head when I wasn’t looking and cut around it. The hair persists in looking like this even after I wash the flowery smelling gel out.
So I took the scissors into my own hands. My hair came out looking like a different photo — my great grandmother in 1932. Sadly, my days of turning heads were over.
So, years ago, I’ve settled into what is essentially a non-decision that takes no energy at all: I just let the stuff grow. I trim my bangs. If I still had a waist, my hair would be waist length.
But if you see Dee coming down your sidewalk, head and shoulders above the crowd, long red hair swinging across the back of her denim jacket — grab her while you can!
My brother has had a Facebook page for years. His son set it up for him, and, as far as I could tell, he never looked at it. But now, suddenly, he is appearing live on Facebook. So he chats with me:
“Hey, Julie! Do you remember the phrase When Lou gets his organ?“
“Remember it? I still USE it!”
“Do you remember Keep those elephants moving?“
“No. What was that about?”
Does every family have certain catch-phrases particular to that household? In our house on West Main Street, back in Shelby, Ohio, we tossed out catch-phrases as shorthand to sum up a situation, or as the punch line, or just for silliness.
When Lou gets his organ began life as a straight line. My brother’s first rock band was a sketchy proposition. He had a guitar, his friend had a bass guitar, and another friend had some drums. Lou, who didn’t have an organ — yet — was part of the band. Lou would sit by as they practiced, attentive, listening for the places where his instrument should join in. After every song, one or another of the band would say “That will sound great when Lou gets his organ.” Lou never got the money together to buy an organ and the statement remained stuck forever in future tense.
In our family, we could be talking about something we were going to do or wanted to do, or something someone else said they wanted to do. The chances of you pulling it off? Yeah, right. When Lou gets his organ!
In this same way, Mama might tell us to Keep those elephants moving! This line jumped out of a scene in a bad movie* where Hannibal is crossing the Alps to take Rome by surprise. I mean, who would even try to cross the alps with elephants, right? That’s a surprise right there, let alone the horses, legions, chariots, and everything else.
The tension in the scene is that there’s a blizzard and if the elephants stop they will freeze to death. So over and over we hear someone ordering someone else to Keep those elephants moving! It was an awful movie. We watched it over and over on our black and white TV. The same movies got played on rotation late at night like they were re-runs or something. Or anyway, that’s how I remember it.
For us, Keep those elephants moving! morphed into an admonition to get the dishes washed or get our butts out the door. A very useful string of words, Keep those elephants moving! Nagging without the sting. You might want to adopt it yourself, even if you haven’t watched the movie. (I’d advise against it.)
Then there’s He’s got trunks of them in the attic. This comes from a joke so simple even I can (usually) tell it though it will lose a lot in translation to text. So here’s a summary.
Patient: Doctor, my friends think I’m crazy!
Dr. stroking his goatee: Do they now?
Patient: Yes! They tell me I’m crazy because I like pancakes.
Dr.: You like pancakes?
Patient: Yes. I like pancakes.
Doctor: There’s nothing wrong with liking pancakes. I like pancakes myself?
Patient: You do? You like pancakes?
Doctor: Yes, I do. I like pancakes.
Patient: Doctor, you must come home with me. I have trunks of them in my attic!
This joke made a big impression on my family. Even my father liked it. It sums up an aspect of human nature we are all familiar with in one form or another.
She’s got trunks of them in her attic applies to those quilters who whisper SABLE (Stash Acquisition Beyond Life Expectancy) to themselves when they see their own face in a mirror. Anything –even beautiful cotton fabric, or gorgeous yarn, or blank canvases — accumulated in excess is a sign of trunks in the attic.
Overworked and put-upon? Or you think you are? We had a phrase for that, too. And then I had to feed the guppies. SIGH!
This was from my Gram, who, it seemed to us, had had an easy life. She’d grown up with servants and a summer cottage bigger than any home I’ve ever lived in. Her married life began comfortably, too — bridge, bonbons, furs, cook, gardener, maid. But these privileges gradually fell by the wayside until she was doing the housework herself. Her letters included lists of slights suffered and onerous tasks, culminating in and then I had to feed the guppies. (We tacked on the SIGH! )
I think Gram projected her many disappointments onto those innocent guppies. My uncle left a few guppies behind when he got married and moved out and those few guppies multiplied as my Gram overfed them. Their descendents filled the big tanks in the sun room. I can imagine poor Gram, overwhelmed with unwelcome changes to her life, and on top of everything else, standing by helplessly as there were more and more hungry guppies to feed.
I don’t know what ever really became of those swishing swarms of little fish. There was some story about one huge guppy per tank. But all I know for sure is they weren’t there when Gram and Gramps moved out of that house and into an apartment near the Norristown zoo. After that, Gram sometimes complained about the screeching of the peacocks, but she never took it personally.
The whole world is MUD! was often the final pronouncement of my three-year-old daughter as she collapsed into sudden sleep, naked atop a bare mattress, with the pillows, books, toys, blankets, sheets and pajamas strewn about on the floor where she’d thrown them. My husband and I can’t load this phrase with the indignant certainty our daughter did, but we sometimes use it to convey a more subtle sentiment than the mundane Oh, shit! The girl had a way with words, even at three.
Once, when two of our young sons lay on the floor with legs tangled together, neither boy could get up off the floor when asked because, they each explained, He’s holding me down. I call up this phrase when my husbands asks me to do something that requires me to stand up. I might indicate my reluctance with He’s holding me down.
Since we are a book-loving family, we quote classic literature, too. My husband might be looking for his keys or phone or hat and he might say to himself; Look on the chair, Teddy Bear! (I didn’t say we quoted high-brow literature.)
Go! Dog, Go! was a big favorite with our children. When I first got sick with chronic fatigue/fibromyalgia and we had just moved to a strange city, I often got lost. As I would drive over the same bridge in Dayton, Ohio, for the second — or third — time, one of the boys in the back seat was sure to recite Go around again! from the page where the dogs are riding a ferris wheel. Later, Go around again! fit the circular reasoning of the teenage boys of the household, trying to wheedle their way out of something. And it still works when I get lost, which still happens.
Do you have words or phrases that your family members understand but which make outsiders scratch their heads?
Do you know the stories behind them?
*Perhaps “escaped from” is more accurate. That movie was really bad.
I complain to my husband that on top of a fever, now my left ear hurts, too, and I have an infected toe and he says to me,”Sounds like your warranty is about to run out.”
Last week, I was well enough to be away from home for three days and enjoy it. Coming home to three days of email at once, a pile of snail mail, laundry, etc., can be daunting. At my best I can’t keep up with day-to-day responsibilities. In spite of the lists and notes littering my desk, it takes some effort to remember what I was doing (or should have been doing) before I left and to pick up the pieces.
Then the ear ache I had assumed was just a variation on my usual myriad pains got worse — throw some weird dizziness in there with it,too — and I end up at an urgent care center. Sinus infection.
My plans for First Day (the day the world calls Sunday) had to be set aside. I missed an early morning meeting, I missed meeting for worship, and I missed visiting a prison in the evening. I missed seeing friends. It was a set-back to my self-esteem. I want to be reliable, but I’m not. (I didn’t miss the afternoon nap I’d planned. The morning nap was unplanned.)
Of course, this situation is not unique to those of us with chronic fatigue/fibromyalgia. Taking your place in the ranks of responsible adults can devour your every waking moment even without the handicap of illness. Anyone can feel overwhelmed. (This is no excuse for telling someone with an invisible illness: “I wish I had time to laze about and read all the books you do.”) There is pressure on us to keep the house clean and the lawn green, to dress with style and style our hair, to cook healthy meals and pay our bills on time and show up on time, and exercise and volunteer and Be Happy! Otherwise, we are failures.
The demands are never ending. You set your head on your pillow hoping for sleep and little worries nibble and nag at your ease — “Did I pay that bill?” “Where did I stick the W-2s?” “Is there enough milk for breakfast?” — and sniffle around for any crumb they might have missed. We live with too much paperwork and too much stuff.
Oh! Just picture those happy (imaginary) aboriginals, who lived from hand to mouth when fruit, fish and fowl were only an arm’s length away. So many contented hours of leisure, wallowing about in warm shallow waters, laughing quietly together.
That was (probably not) then and this (really) is now. Now we are wage slaves, scuffling about for lucre to buy the necessities. And the list of necessities is a long and ever-growing one. Basic food, clothing, and shelter is not only complicated to acquire, it isn’t exactly basic anymore.
My Nana raised her five surviving children in a Pennsylvania fieldstone farm house. There was a pump at the sink and a kitchen garden outside the back door. The upstairs had no heat or lights. Nowadays, we expect electricity, indoor plumbing with hot and cold water, central heat and AC, WiFi and a full array of helpful appliances.
We take such convenience for granted, but it comes with not just a price tag, but also a price. The price is your attention, your time, your life.
The biggest chunk of time required, the chunk that eats up a huge portion of our lives, is earning money to pay for necessities, conveniences, and luxuries, if you are among the privileged. If you have remunerative, meaningful, fulfilling work you might not resent this. But the after-work hours are not all yours either.
As my middle son said to me this morning about filing his income taxes: “I’m a millwright, not a damn secretary!” But he’s wrong and he knows it. He can work with his tools for pay, but he will pay if he doesn’t sort his mail, pay his bills, save the necessary receipts, and file his taxes before the deadline.
And he and his spouse share all these jobs, too:
And on and on . . .
One popular solution to all this busyness is Simplifying! It follows that the fewer possessions you own, the fewer you have to take care of. There are books you can acquire to help you simplify and organize and downsize your possessions. (But beware how many of these books you bring home or you defeat the purpose.) And sometimes downsizing itself can be too much like work.
Quilters have a handy word for those among their number who keep bringing home more and more fabric (it’s tempting — there are so many beautiful fabrics): SABLE, Stash Accumulation Beyond Life Expectancy. You can joke about SABLE but if all your fabric is on your credit card and you can’t pay off the balance, maybe it’s not funny. If you spend more time shopping for fabric than you do stitching quilts, you are a shopper/collector, not a quilter. If you are hiding fabric purchases from your significant other you need a 12-step group.
But fabric, like other possessions, can also bring joy into your life. While you are making a quilt, you might think to yourself: This needs some orange to bring it to life. And you have the perfect shade of orange fabric right there in your stash! You don’t want to downsize a stash if you use it. Simplifying, in this case, could diminish your life, not enhance it.
One person’s too-many-possessions could be another person’s delight! My friend Mary displays a collection of hand-blown glass spheres suspended in a row in her front window where they catch the light. They are beautiful! They are joyful! My own front window is unadorned. I prefer not to dust. If I could easily ignore the dust in my house, I would have beautiful things on every surface. Because I can’t comfortably ignore dust in my house for long, I compromise and have only a few things.
Sometimes I fantasize about living in a Tiny House.
But who am I kidding? My sewing and art supplies — let alone my piano — wouldn’t even fit in a tiny house. And my husband might like to bring along his books and my dog weighs 90 lbs. and wouldn’t fit either!
So it comes down to this: Change your attitude, change your life!
I can downsize by tossing off the pressure to be perfect. I can simplify my life by not fighting against reality. This will free up energy for things I enjoy. If I accept a little more dust on the mantle and a little more dog hair drifting under the furniture, I create a happier life. This means accepting myself as I am, not as I “should be.”