Atheism: the Faith of My Father

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 Prophet and 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.

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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.

Isn’t that part of what it is to be human?

 

 

 

Invisible Illness

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 _1295592399317remember 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.

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Calvary seats 5,000 worshipers

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.

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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.

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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!

 

 

* apologies to Henny Youngman

 

Premature Eruption

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.

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Sparrows nesting behind blue walls.

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.

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Jar of black swallowtails with perfect wings.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hair today, gone tomorrow?

So I used to have this GREAT hair cut!

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!

Caught up in Catch-Phrases

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!”
  • “Seriously?”
  • “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 mv5bmjaymtgzodk2of5bml5banbnxkftztywmjgxmjg5-_v1_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!

9259134bfeb5865131c3d4b10b82928cThis 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 guppysdevelohondatolimacolombia__8445c8_4multiplied 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 225x225bbdrive 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

No work declutter!

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.0da25afc4650a0f2fbc93bfaf8f0f623

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:

  • Dusting
  • Washing
  • Cooking
  • Repairing
  • Vacuuming
  • Polishing
  • Shopping
  • Mowing
  • Banking
  • Commuting
  • 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.”

And it’s less work. I can do it on my back!

What’s your solution? Or do you even need one?

 

 

 

 

 
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Significant Others

Do you believe in love at first sight? Love at first sight took about three weeks for me after I met the man I sometimes introduce as my first husband (so far he’s also my only husband). It took him a few months longer, but I don’t hold that against him anymore.

We have a friend — let’s call him Pat because that’s his name — who met a young woman — let’s call her Teresa — one evening and that same night told her she was the girl he was going to marry. She scoffed at him. He was right. For him, it was love at first sight and it’s stood the test of time.

So I know love at first sight is a real thing, even though it’s never happened to me. But instant friendship? That has happened to me. More than once.

You meet someone new. They have a certain spark in their eye and you start talking to each other and you laugh in the same places. And you know that this is a person you want in your life.

A good friend is someone you can laugh with, cry with, confide in, share a story or a life with — someone who makes your eyes light up. Maybe you haven’t seen your friend for years but, when you sit down with them again and start talking, it’s like the conversation never stopped.

Once my best friend and I got the sillies at a middle school band concert because one side of the band director’s staticky pants crawled up his leg during the concert and his socks didn’t match. We were laughing so hard we almost got kicked out! And we were the parents!

Then there was the time another best friend and I baked fortune cookies with Bible verses inside. It was a lot of work — the cookies had to be folded up while they were still hot and pliable, right out of the oven. We laughed while we burnt our fingers just so we could set these cookies out with tea and coffee for the rise-of-meeting fellowship. And what was so funny, you may well ask? You didn’t see the Bible verses we choose. There is a ton of weird advice in the Bible.

I remember a lovely afternoon over mugs of tea on a friend’s screen porch. She was explaining the meaning of a phrase used by Turkish storytellers. I thought I’d never forget it. I did forget it, but I remember the delight in the story and the company.

Before I got sick, I was more gregarious. I was always going somewhere to do something with somebody. But chronic fatigue/fibromyalgia has knocked the stuffing right out of me and visits with friends are fewer and further between than I would like. And it may take me a day to two to recover. It is hard to maintain friendships when I spend way too many hours limp and exhausted, not up to the effort of conversation. On those days, I have a legion of other friends patiently waiting for my attention: Books.

Books are the good friends whose company is offered in just the right measure at just the right time. They are never offended if I close the cover and close my eyes for a rest. They just wait patiently until I return. Here are a few who have graciously visited with me lately.

 

 

This book has a deceptively simple premise. The Mom of the title is lost in a crowd at a the train station and her children and husband search for her. For months. I was spellbound. This seemingly straightforward plot surreptitiously meanders into a narrative meditation 51fkgbcts7lon family and sacrifice. Like the Mom’s children, I was left wondering exactly what happened. The last pages offered not so much a resolution, as a graceful, grief-ful acceptance.

Because the story is set in South Korea, a geography and culture I know next-to-nothing about, the book took on fairy-tale qualities for me. The contrast between the illiterate, hard-scrabble mother and her educated, urban children grew larger and larger as I turned the pages. If the setting had been somewhere in the United States, my own assumptions — about the characters, the landscape, “reality” — would have overwhelmed what was actually written. I would have missed the beautiful questions set forth in the story.

The author has many other books to her credit and is popular in her native country. I look forward to reading more of her books and hope the translation reads as smoothly as this book did.

 

 

This is the full title of the P.G. Wodehouse collection as purchased through Amazon for my Kindle (only $1.99!). It’s a title worthy of P.G.Wodehouse himself!

The first pages of the first P.G. Wodehouse book I ever read were much like meeting that instant new friend. The sparkle in the eye! The underlying optimism! The cheerful exuberance whilst surrounded by human foibles! Let’s let the man speak for himself:

” . . in these days of rush and hurry, a novelist works at a disadvantage. He must leap into the middle of his tale with as little delay as he would employ in boarding a moving tram car. He must get off the mark with the smooth swiftness of a jack-rabbit surprised while lunching. Otherwise people throw him aside and go out to picture palaces.”

Truer words were never spoken! (Speakers at the James River Writers Workshops are forever telling us this.) The language is perhaps a bit antiquated, a bit English, but still fresh and lively at one hundred years old. Wodehouse just zips right along and the phrase “rollicking good fun” surely applies, even as I am stretched out on my bed, motionless except for my eyes scanning the printed page.

5e31e3f2042d8816a3131d3eb9884efcNothing truly tragic happens in a Wodehouse novel. There are no nasty surprises. There are always motorcars and sweeping lawns and long galleries and conniving aunts and well-heeled financiers and dotty Lords and fair young maidens and impoverished young men in love with them who somehow still have a valet and cigarette money. Even whenWodehouse introduces a “working stiff” the reader knows things will come out all right in the end. Wodehouse is not Charles Dickens.

Wodehouse’s England disappeared before he quit writing about it. Two World Wars hastened the changes. His novels remained stuck in an era long gone. Most of the plots, like historical romance, are set against a background of wealth. The characters are insulated from real human misery.

Wodehouse also wrote stories of teenage boys at school, playing cricket. Blow by blow accounts of cricket matches, however momentous in the lives of the boys, are not my cup of tea, no matter how fine the teacup. Now “feather-brained Bertie Wooster and his sagacious valet Jeeves” (as the collection’s biography refers to them) — these two can make me laugh. They are fine companions on a grey winter’s day.

 

 

Of course, I had to read a historical romance novel this week. Once a Duchess is from Elizabeth Boyce, a writer previously unknown to me who is a friend of a friend. I think I chose her first book for my introduction to her work.

The initial set-up was intriguing: we find a young woman and her single remaining 17385220servant living in a humble and chilly cottage. The disgraced ex-duchess, shunned by society after her divorce for adultery, is out of funds (hence the chill inside the cottage) and faces hard choices. She takes a job as a cook at the local inn and — of course — the Duke shows up in the dining room unexpectedly. The plot had the requisite number of twists, and a one or two on top of that that I never saw coming, that kept the Duke and his one true love apart until the last few pages.

Some blood was shed, some tears were wept, some unforgivable words were uttered. Apologies were made but not accepted. Ships were loaded with cargo, bound for South America. But true love conquers all.

This book was the quintessential historical romance experience. Never make the mistake of assuming that these books must be easy to write. They aren’t. And it’s always nice to discover a writer accomplished in my favorite genre. Boyce’s next book in the series is ready and waiting for me on my Kindle.

 

  • March by John Lewis with Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell

 

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And this graphic novel is waiting for me next. It’s non-fiction and doesn’t promise any happy endings, so it will not be the reassuring comfort of light conversation. It will take a bit more energy to read.

According to my husband and youngest son, and the reviews I’ve read, March will be well worth the energy it will take out of me to read it.

Some friends are like that. Sometimes I need time to recover. Those can be the best friends of all.

What are you and your friends reading?

 

 

 

 

Scorched and Trembling:Locked in the Fiery Pages of Historical Romance

My Nana’s favorite novel was Gone with the Wind. She read it at least once a year, from 1936, the  year of its publication, until almost in 1980. She once told my aunt that if she could have any life she wanted, she’d choose to live on a plantation in the ante-bellum South, like Scarlett O’Hara. My aunt said, “But that would mean you’d have slaves!” and my Nana just shrugged her shoulders.

Can you hear my aunt’s gasp of shock at her own mother’s callous attitude?

My Nana was not a student of history. She probably never read a nonfiction account of slavery or the biography of an enslaved person, or any  of the slave narratives collected through the Works Program Administration. If she had, she could not have so easily dismissed the evils of the slave-dependent society with a shrug.

What Nana longed for was the effortless comfort and ease of fictional plantation life as portrayed in a sappy novel. Gone with the Wind is revisionist history, a contribution to bolster the myth of The Lost Cause. The book is (as Wikipedia states) “written from the perspective and values of the slaveholder and tends to present slaves as docile and happy.”

My poor Nana’s reading experience would have been totally derailed if Margaret Mitchell had sent Scarlett O’Hara to some place like Nigger Toe, Virginia.  There enslaved persons audacious enough to make an unsuccessful run for freedom had their big toes chopped off. Just a few drops of splattered blood on Scarlett’s dainty gown would have had Nana throwing her book across the room!

Gone with the Wind  is Scarlett O’Hara’s book, infused with the viewpoint one might expect from a woman of her time and place and class.  Margaret Mitchell drew upon family history for inspiration for historical background to the compelling plot . She herself was a descendant of slaveholders, Confederate veterans, and post-war entrepreneurs. When she writes, she can’t help but reveal the bias and blindness of her own caste. (This is true for every writer, of course.) That wasn’t so glaring to a typical white reader in 1936, but it doesn’t wear well.

If Nana had summoned up just a smidgen of empathy to the unnamed and unnumbered persons in the deep background of the book — the “servants” whose unpaid labor made possible the gracious life described in the opening pages — she might have felt differently about the book.

My mother and my aunt had no respect their own mother’s choice of reading material. Not just GWTW, her books in general. Their mother was a source of shame to them. Letters from my mother and my aunt always included book titles and the names of favorite authors. My Nana’s letter were about what birds she’d seen and how the neighbors praised her zinnias.

I came to share my mother’s and aunt’s opinion of light fiction, romance novels in particular. I read voraciously and I read serious novels and non-fiction, not trash like romance novels. People who read romance novels just didn’t measure up. A degree in English only hardened my attitude.

I remember arguing with a professor that The Hobbit could not be literature. He seemed amused as I fumbled around, trying to defend my assertion. Real literature does not have dwarves and dragons in it. (And yet, at the time, college students extolled Stranger in a Strange Land as profound! Go figure.)

After I married, we had subscriptions to “The New Yorker” and “The Saturday Review”. We read the short stories and the novels by the authors who wrote those short stories. My aunt and I exchanged letters with commentary on the works of John Updike. My husband and I stacked books double until the bookshelves bowed: fiction, history, biography, art, philosophy, etc. And if anyone pulled any one of those books off a shelf and read the title, it could only add to our fine opinion of ourselves and our superior choice of reading matter.

il_570xn-851240582_2khmLike my mother and aunt, I judged other people by what they read. You could be ever so nice, but if there were no books or magazines in your house you obviously weren’t my intellectual equal. This hard shell of disdain suffered its first crack when I visited the home of  my daughter’s advanced piano teacher who was also a social worker. Except for her piano, every surface in her front room was stacked with Harlequin Romances. She could read the look on my face.

“With my job,” she told me, “I need to come home to happy endings.”

It was just a couple of years after that I got sick — really, really sick. So sick I couldn’t read anymore. I could read separate words but the last word in a paragraph no longer connected to any of the preceding words or phrases. I lost comprehension. The brain fog of chronic fatigue syndrome and the disabling pain of fibromyalgia knocked me flat.

My mind was clearest first thing in the morning, so I’d use that window to draw up a list of the essential chores of the day. That list — which I kept going back to over and over in the course of the day in a futile attempt to remember what I was doing — that list was the only literature I read. Since I seldom got through the list of mundane chores (load the dishwasher, wash white things, cook supper) it fell into the category of fiction.

After some time, maybe a year, maybe eighteen months, my down times weren’t quite as down and there were longer periods of mental clarity. Not mental sharpness. But I could read again.

I may have begun reading cozy mystery first. Agatha Christie certainly. These were easy to follow, amusing, not intellectually challenging. I wasn’t up to that. Thinking hard hurt (it still does). If I had enough wits about me to think hard, there was always a checkbook to balance, a grocery list to draw up, a family concern to address.

Like a lot of other things, I don’t remember when I started reading romance novels. We hadn’t had a television for a decade so, flat on my back, I wasn’t watching TV. There were long stretches of every day when I was awake but not well enough to do anything. If I was going to live through this illness without going insane I needed distraction without overstimulation.

Historical romance fit the bill. Also some sci-fi and fantasy (yes, even with dragons). I read the young adult fiction that the kids brought home, too. I gave up literary pretence in favor of a compelling plot and a happy ending. I was too upset with my own life to read anything with rape scenes, the tension of a stalker, a nightmare come to life, or any realistic portrayal of cruelty or suffering. I read for escape.

Slowly, I grew not-as-sick and am now able to read serious authors, too. But when I feel a imagesplunge coming on, I load up my Kindle with the likes of Mary Balogh and Eloisa James, Georgette Heyer and Marion Chesney. The best romance has echoes of the wit of Jane Austin, the playing of different characters against each other.

I may have to spend several days in a row reading until I am glassy-eyed. In spite of all those happy endings, I get depressed. When I find myself impatient with a romance novel, skimming to see how the plot works out, I know I’m starting to come out of my slump.

And how are these historical romances I read different from Gone with the Wind?

The sweeping changes in the southern United States were not mere background for Scarlett’s drama but a central component of the novel. The novels I read usually only pay lip service to historical events. They are all set in England. The main female character may find herself left without partners at a ball in Brussels as the officers rush off to Waterloo in their dancing slippers. Or perhaps, as in a book I recently finished reading, the Duke lost his first wife to the guillotine. In the newest crop of books, there seem to be many soldiers with PTSD.

There are thick historical romances with color cut from the encyclopedia and pasted on the pages. I find these heavy going. I don’t think I’ve ever finished one. If I want a lot of facts I can look them up myself, thank you. I like plots that keep moving.

The basic plot of a romance novel is some variation on this:

  • Man and Woman meet and hate each other on sight
  • Each fights his/her growing attraction to the other
  • Multiple misunderstandings keep them apart
  • They declare their love for each other
  • Something — a kidnapping, a knock on the head, a righteous parent — pulls them apart
  • They unite
  • They marry

In recent years, authors include graphic sex scenes. I usually skim over these, though the phrases used to describe the act intrigue me. How does a writer come up with this stuff? I don’t think Margaret Mitchell would approve. I’m not sure I do!

At one time (maybe still?) GWTW was considered literature. Jane Austin is literature, but Georgette Heyer is not. Eloisa James is the daughter of poet Robert Bly and a tenured professor of English Literature at Fordham University. Does that make her books serious literature? Do they teach these texts in women’s studies classes?

The decades between GWTW and my preferred novels have not eradicated the problem my aunt pointed out to my Nana. The main characters in my books are outrageously wealthy and their riches and privilege are accumulated through exploitation, cruelty, and callousness. There’s no way around it.

Authors themselves are getting bothered by this. Today’s author’s would never — like Heyer did in one of her novels — base her English aristocrat’s wealth on holdings in the colonies worked by slaves. Authors today sometimes try to minimize these failings in the characters: the Duke runs an enlightened orphanage for street urchins who think of him as the father they never had; the Earl is a generous and attentive landlord and builds a school for the village and refuses to enclose his lands; Lord So-and-so speaks passionately against the corn laws. Sometimes the female half of the love-interest rescues abused horses or dogs. As for the legion of servants required to maintain the persons, clothes, and palaces of this fictional aristocracy, under the benevolent hero’s care, they are well-treated, well-fed, loyal and content. If they are necessary on the main stage to move the plot along they are colorful characters. Sound familiar?

I can breeze by a little of this 21st century political correctness, but a little goes a long way. You simply can’t make “the wealthiest Duke in England” — which would have been stupendously wealthy in real life– a “man of the people.” Any author who tries ruins her book by calling attention to the underpinnings of the fantasy.

I’m not a social worker with real tragedy and uncertain outcomes shoved in my face every working day. I’m just one reader out of millions with my own not-so-good time to get through and I want an entertaining plot with a few laughs, likable main characters, and a happy ending.

Just like my Nana.

 

 

 

 

Where have all the matrons gone?

Looking at me you would not know that I am skinny. I have always been skinny and still am — at least in my head.

I was underweight the first half of my life. Even after socking on the pounds — 35-50 of them– during pregnancy, I’d shrink right back down to my skinny self. (Though after that fourth time, my waist never returned.) But then, in my mid-30s, I got knocked down by “yuppie flu” and gained thirty pounds in less than a year. My appetite thermostat reset, leaving me always hungry and too sick to move.

I no longer look or feel like myself. I have never been outwardly skinny again, and I have never gotten used to the body I now live in. My own expectations have been disappointed.

My mother had different expectations for me.

Mama was skinny and  stacked. When she hung the wash outside on the lines, she always hung her double-D white cotton bras on the inside lines between sheets or towels. In our small town, Mama had to special order her super-size bras at the dry goods store down on Main Street.

I also wore a bra. It was what teenagers did back then. But I didn’t need it. I disappointed Mama’s expectations for me.

f6353318f0b8a65d80c9e426ad0be696Her expectations were not unrealistic, given the genetics. She and her surviving sister were both quite well endowed. (After my aunt’s mastectomy, she confided that she wished they’d cut the second one off, too: the weight was a strain on her back.) Both my grandmothers, my father’s sister and mother’s aunts were all busty women. So what were the chances that I’d take after a skinny, flat-chested great grandmother?

Good enough, apparently.

My mother was disappointed for me. Boobs were an advantage, in her book. And she loved me and wanted me to have every possible advantage.

My two flat-chested great-grandmothers died in their 90’s, still skinny. My mother and her sister were skinny, too, and I got to share their high metabolism as a kind of compensation prize for being flat-chested. I could eat more cake and cookies than any of my friends and never gain a pound. And I was comfortable inside my washboard self.jpg

Once, in the early days of my first pregnancy, I was pounding away at my ancient typewriter and noticed some obstruction when I hit the carriage return: my swollen boob was in the way. It was inconvenient.

So this flat-chested woman got to “enjoy” being well-endowed during pregnancy and lactation. Of course, I knew that big boobs attract unwanted attention but I hadn’t owned that before. Later, when E.M. told me, sorrowfully, how no man ever looked her in the face when he talked to her, I understood her pain in a new way.

My breasts, insignificant as they were, worked when I needed them but I preferred them small. I liked the way my clothes hung on me and I liked moving around easily.

Now, I’m not skinny (outwardly) and I no longer have a high metabolism. Clothes don’t fit right.

And who are my models for this new self?

Women like my paternal grandmother no longer exist. She was stout, with trim ankles and feet in low heels. She wore pearls and furs and hats. Her dresses were belted at the waist.She was a fine figure of a woman. She was a matron.

liedy-c-creager-with-freckles-at-1600-markley-st
Great grandmother 

Unlike my grandmother, I have no pretensions to a standing in society, which was part of being a matron. It took some money to achieve that look, but the general demeanor was available to any  self-respecting woman of a particular age.

My grandmother was the primary matron in my life. But even when I was a child, matrons were an old-fashioned concept. Wealthy society matrons like Margaret Dumont were often foils for the antics of the Three Stooges or the avaricious desires of Groucho Marx  and those were old movies when my brother and I saw them at the Castamba Theatre for 25 cents a ticket. When I was in high school, grown women started buying into the glorification of the youth culture. My own mother dressed like a teen-ager. People often mistook us for sisters.

Now, almost all the models in all the magazines and catalogues are super-skinny, photo-shopped skinny on top of that, no matter what their age. My grandmother could enjoy her bonbons and bridge mix. These models look like they count the calories in lettuce leaves!  What happens to women in a culture saturated with unrealistic feminine ideals?

Consider Dolly Parton, a talented and estimable woman, with a rich voice and a loyal, generous heart. Even she is not able to be who she is. She found it professionally FERN BRITTON MEETS...DOLLY PARTONnecessary to surgically augment her breasts and have more “work” done as she aged. The way she looks now is a distraction from her beautiful voice.

What does it say about our culture when a woman like her needs to put herself under the knife to remain relevant in show business? When Carrie Fisher/Princess Leia appeared on screen as General Organa, she had to endure cracks about her weight — and she’d lost weight for the film!

I’d like to think matrons still have a place in a church ladies culture. But, as a Quaker from an unprogrammed meeting, I’m not part of that community, so I don’t really know if it exists. Hillary Clinton’s pant suits and precise blonde haircuts might suffice for some women (and most other female politicians). The gravitas necessary to a proper matron is there, but it’s an image primarily (I believe) adopted to be inoffensive.

Where is the contemporary version of the matron, one sans girdle and garter belt? A look I can emulate, without extreme dieting, manicures, or a face life? Dressing with character is an art and not everyone has the eye for it. I have some non-skinny artist friends who dress with style and aplomb, people who put fabulous looks together from thrift stores and consignment shops. But us ordinary people, who don’t have that talent, also don’t have the funds to hire a dresser to do it for us.

To be realistic, I just don’t have what it takes to pull it off. With low-to-no energy and extended bouts of inertia, I’m not up to it. It takes effort to create that look and energy to generate the aura that holds it all together.

Me? I guess I’ll just stay comfortable and insignificant in elastic waist jeans and denim jumpers. My signature fashion statement? Hand-knitted wool socks.

Margaret Dumont never had it so good.

But she sure looked super!

 

 

 

 

 

Ignore at Your Peril

It’s the start of a new year — the season for self-assessment and goal-setting. The season for lists proclaiming The Best of 2016: the best movies, the best books, the best headlines, the best Facebook Memes, the best tacos, etc.

Now that I am an experienced blogger — twenty posts in four months!  (I am trying to be funny here) — I have an obligation to share what I’ve learned in an end-of-year list!

So here it is — the best advice on blogging that I didn’t quite follow!

#1    All writers must blog.

  • Unpublished writers blog to build a platform to impress potential literary agents.
  • Published authors blog to promote their books.

To be honest, Point #1 is not something I just learned last year. Point #1 is something that speakers at James River Writers Writers Workshops have been pounding into my head for uncounted sessions. Point #1 is advice I resisted because it seemed to me that if every writer is writing a blog there couldn’t possibly be enough readers to go around. I thought I didn’t know anybody who read blogs.

Actually, I myself read blogs.

My sister writes the lovely Stag Beetle Power for homeschoolers in Portland, Oregon. I live on the other side of the continent but she posts occasional photos of my nephew and lots of photos of gorgeous scenery and close-ups of wildflowers and critters. And it’s packed with news of interesting local exhibits and workshops and great parks.

I have a high school friend who has traveled Tibet by pony and Europe by bike and walked the Camino de Santiago. She blogs to share her travels with her many friends. There is a lively young family I know, with adorable curly-headed children, who appear in a blog about their life, overseas and stateside, and I look at that. Their photos make even Cleveland look good. They post mouth-watering images of the exotic foods they cook, too.

chocolates-once
A watercolor that was intended to show the chocolates.

 

And writing blogs? There are some great ones. I’ve been reading those for years. my  Miss Snark, Literary Agent is my favorite. (Alas! She no longer writes this blog. The archives, however, are an entertaining education.) And Evil Editor! Bless his heart! He’s always ready explain “why you don’t get published.”

And, predictably, there are lots of blogs about blogging — LOTS! (And much of the advice is contradictory, beginning with the basic premise above that authors must blog because their readers will look for them even though many writers, like myself, are unpublished and nobody is looking for us.)

And, like most everyone else, anytime I want to know how to do something — roast chicken, knit cables, make a snow globe — I Google it. And often I end up finding the information I need in someone’s blog. So I was reading blogs even though I thought they weren’t blogs. Maybe everyone with a computer is also following one or two blogs and thinks they aren’t.

Maybe there are enough readers to go around.

#2    Writers are wise to develop a public personality before they need one.

Obviously, I learned this too late to apply it to my blog.

Besides, I don’t have the energy to develop a personality.  A personality requires upkeep and there’s a whole list of stuff I’m already not keeping up with!

Presenting a deliberate, alternative personality? I couldn’t do that with a script! Brain fog and bouts of exhaustion make me choosy about how I deplete my stamina.

It might be fun for a party, on a night I was up to it. Blue eye-liner and false eye-lashes and a wig. Maybe a hat with a sweeping ostrich plume and dangley earrings. I wouldn’t even have to say anything! I could just look mysterious. Maybe I wouldn’t even have to sit up straight. I could sort of drape myself across a piece of upholstered furniture.

That would be an easy public personality. Too bad it won’t work in a blog.

five-chairs2
Sometimes my watercolors also lack focus 

#3  Consistent subject matter is essential for a successful blog.

Okay. Just give me a D-. “Things I am Thinking About Today” is just NOT a consistent theme.

But, it’s early days yet. If I keep writing, maybe I’ll sight a Compelling Theme, like a drowning swimmer, bobbing up in this sea of words. And maybe I can throw out a life-buoy and pull it to shore and get a acquainted it. (Don’t hold your breath!)

In the meantime, this undeveloped personality will aim for consistency in the frequency of posts. It’s a modest goal. I might even pull it off.

But will anyone read it?