Sometimes I wonder where my life went. Most days seem to be a series of chores and enough days in a row adds up to a life.
Take my mission this morning, should I choose to accept it. Yes, today’s chore is to separate the wheat from the chaff, the worthy from the no-longer worthy, the just from the unjust! A task for a True Hero! An assignment for the bold and brave!
Well, not exactly. I am planning to sort the medical bills from my husband’s two week hospital stay and seven week home-bound antibiotic treatment. Also, there is a teetering pile of magazines to go through. Not exactly the fifth labor of Hercules but even Hercules probably wondered why he was spending his life cleaning the Augean stables instead of pursuing frolicking wood nymphs. (I’m not interested in wood nymphs myself but there is an entertaining novel waiting for me.)
Both sections of my assignment have pitfalls.
The medical bills are from individual doctors, two hospitals, three medical suppliers, and labs. No two medical bills are alike. Each provider uses a different form to itemize services, credits, and charges. There are also reports from three insurance companies. I must review each one for duplications and mistakes (like I can remember what procedures were administered to my husband and when — not only was I not with him every minutes but he himself was not a reliable witness and my always compromised self * was next to depleted at the time). So there are many generous opportunities for confusion.
Figuring out these bills will scramble my poor weakened brain cells until I won’t have the mental energy for anything else today.
Sorting magazines is easier but has its own pitfalls. We have several months’ worth of publications. Usually, I sort them by date and keep the newest, but the New Yorkers are hard to give up. Of course, we’ve read the cartoons and “Shouts and Murmurs” and “Talk of the Town.” But I’m bound to run across an article on Something Fascinating That I Must Learn About but haven’t yet read so maybe I should set that issue aside to read later? But if I haven’t read it after six months am I likely to read it anytime soon?
One must be coldly realistic to sort magazines.
So this paperwork is my assignment this morning. It’s up to me to ensure the bills are addressed in a timely fashion and we aren’t tripping over piles of magazines or mail. (Mail is usually sorted as it comes in — otherwise we’d get lost in our own house.)
Paperwork is a common plague. I like to imagine that universal health care comes without any paperwork to follow the patient home. Maybe that’s a fantasy, but isn’t it a nice one? We’d still have taxes to complain about so life wouldn’t be all roses.
My husband has his own assignments and I don’t want to trade with him, even if I could. He’s mowing the grass right now. He seems happy enough with his portion of the household burden. But he’s had a meaningful career. There is little status in the homemaking which fell to my lot by default, since I was too sick to do anything else beyond that. So I am still, in some ways, anticipating a Life and dissatisfied with this Sisyphean procession of chores.
So is this my Life? It seems like I just finished the taxes, which was also a joyless chore, the only satisfaction was the completion of the task. Why is life made up of so much paperwork, record keeping, telephone clarifications, trick questions, excess possessions? Who benefits from all this rigmarole? I only have a couple of good, clear hours a day. I don’t want to squander them.
Ah, well. Hand me that pitchfork. I’ve got stables to clean.
*Due to a stubborn illness — ME or chronic fatigue or CFIDS/fibromyalgia or SEID or whatever label is attached today — I suffer from post-exertional disability. Thinking hard exhausts me. Thinking hard leaves me only well enough to knit and watch cat-videos on YouTube. Or read a romance novel.
I feel like I’m turning into one of my knitted cotton dishrags, the original cheery color faded to a uniform blah after years of wiping up coffee stains and tumbling in the washer. I hang there, semi-dry, over the middle of the double sink. Bright sun beams through the kitchen window, making the faucet gleam and the white sink shine — but me? — even in the sunshine I’m just dull and grey.
Yup. That about describes it.
As those of you with first hand experience of CFIDS/fibromyalgia know all too well, many days we are granted only an hour or two of clarity before brain fog creeps in. The thinking brain conks out — overwhelmed by a bit of mental effort, or conversation, or noise, etc. That’s us: no stamina.
My brain is no longer screaming with anxiety now that my husband is clearly on the road to recovery after the sepsis that almost did him in. I’m done wrangling with the IRS forms and our taxes are paid (always taxing, taxes). And I’m even keeping up with the typical (for U.S. citizens, anyway) barrage of paperwork after my husband’s two week hospital stay, two surgeries and multiple consultations with specialists. The paperwork, of course, requires phone calls and being on hold and follow-up letters with corrected insurance information and correspondence and verification etc.
I am still just wrung out and not up to doing much. Done in. Not flat-on-my-back done-in — just can’t-remember-what-I’m-doing and not-worth-shit done-in. It could be worse. It could be one of my flat-on-my-back, nasty-pain-I-can’t-ignore, short-tempered, the-whole-world-is-mud days. This isn’t one of those days when even my hair hurts.
So I shouldn’t complain.
But sometimes it’s harder to approach able-to-do-something than it is to be flat-out-not-able-to-do-anything. On my worst days, I can give up and just lay around with a romance novel and wait until it’s time to go to bed and hope for sleep (insomnia is a component of chronic fatigue syndrome) without medicinal encouragement and with the expectation of waking up in the morning in better condition.
Which reminds me: This morning I did wake up in better condition than I was in yesterday.
First, I woke up cheerful. And then my early morning piano practice went more smoothly than my fumbles of the day before.
So I guess I’ll just be grateful I’m doing as well as I am today and quit complaining
My usual stay-at-home garb is paint spattered, ink stained denim. But, a few weeks ago, when I had somewhere to go, I donned a brown skirt and white ribbed sweater and red knee socks festooned with frolicking sock monkeys. I topped off my outfit with red polka-dotted glasses.
I went to a demonstration. No one at this demonstration [For clean water. Why do we need to stand up in favor of clean water? Isn’t this, like, a no brainer?) noticed my sock monkey socks or my polka dotted glasses. Or if they did, they didn’t say anything to me.
But I was amused. And, Lord knows, we can all use a bit of light-hearted nonsense once in a while. Or, in my case, regular doses throughout the day.
Take that demonstration. Listening to heart-broken people describe their homes and bodies poisoned by coal ash pools leaking into the well water — that’s enough to make me cry. And it did.
Corruption is no laugher matter — and there’s so much of it! Is there really more than ever? It seems like it these days. To paraphrase comedian Jonathan Winters’ observation on little green men: “It’s everywhere! It’s everywhere!”
We are drowning in bad news. Venality chokes us, and waves of corruption pound us and toss us up onto cold, gritty sand, disheartened and desolate.* Where can we find the get-up-and-go-and-keep-going to oppose all this vileness? We need energy to stay sharp, to march and demonstrate, to write effective letters, to make phone calls, to organize and publicize, etc. — but are we too demoralized from a daily barrage of awful news to stand up? Flattened by despair, how are we to pick ourselves up get going again?
There’s plenty of advice out there about nurturing mental health: good food and good fellowship; fresh air and exercise; a dog or a cat or a loving spouse; sleep, meditation and music (maybe in reverse order?); gratitude and a sense of community. But following this good advice requires initiative I just may not have when I’m depressed by events in the wider world. And as a person with CFIDS/Fibromyalgia, my tank is never full anyway so I’m easy to knock down.
Levity lightens the gloom! For me, a little bit of silly is not a distraction from the serious side of life, but a figurative Chinese gong reverberating through my body to call me to attention. Ask not for whom the cuckoo bird cuckoos! It cuckoos for thee and for me — to make us look up from the muck at our feet and gaze upon the blue sky. (Here I refer to a real cuckoo clock hanging on my own dining room wall and real muckety-muck bullshit.)
There is also a solar powered crystal rainbow maker in my south facing kitchen window. On a sunny day, I can look up from the headlines on the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and find brilliant snippets of color circling the room, a mess of little nudges to remind me to laugh and loosen up.
Somewhere in this house two plastic parakeets are clipped to light fixtures or curtain rods or a chandelier. They move around. The sight of one of these silly lime-green things can be another little reminder not to take life too seriously. Our book shelves support some heavy non-fiction but there’s a joke book on the back of the toilet and happily-ever-after romance novels on my Kindle. I always read the cartoons in the New Yorker before the features and the comics in the Richmond Times-Dispatch before looking at the editorial page. (Some of the letters-to-the-editor are funny if you forget that the writer probably didn’t think so).
Our yard sports a few ridiculous touches, too.
A dose of levity can bring me around. I am serious because a joyful life is worth fighting for and I need to laugh because it’s the only way to stay serious and keep fighting for a joyful life.
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!
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!
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.”
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 on 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.
Nothing 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 servant 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
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.
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.
Like 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 plunge 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
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.
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.
Her 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.
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.
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 necessary 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.
I was mincing fresh rosemary at the kitchen table when my daughter said, “I met a woman who reminded me of you.”
Daughter told us she’d been in Jo-Ann Fabric buying pillow forms for the cushion covers she’d tie-dyed as gifts.* Those of you who shop at that store will remember how the registers are at the end of a u-shaped corrider formed by shelves stocked with candy, magazines, and other enticing items. On this particular day, just a few days before Christmas, the line was long. Daughter suspects a store policy of under-manning registers to keep customers in line longer, right next to the enticing items, and thus more likely to make impulse purchases. Which is what she did: she stood in line long enough to notice attractive wrapping paper displayed right next to her and decided to buy a roll.
We all have heartbreak in our lives. Your heartbreak may not look exactly like mine but if you shared yours I would know what it felt like. I’ve felt it, too. One heartbreak of mine is that my daughter got sick at about the same age I did. Some of her symptoms differ from mine, and her doctors haven’t told her she has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or SEIDS. Her doctors have a number of titles for her set of symptoms. But the end result is the same: deep and utter fatigue, unrelieved by rest. It’s a life changing condition, as, sadly, some of you know from personal experience. I wouldn’t wish it on an enemy. It breaks my heart to see my daughter struggle with the limitations imposed by this disease, whatever the doctors decide to call it.
And she was struggling that day in JoAnn Fabric. She was dead on her feet as she waited in that long check-out line with the two pillow forms she’d gone in for and the long roll of attractive gift-wrap clutched in her arms.
Then the woman in line in front of her turned around, looked at the gift wrap, and said, “Oh! I thought that was a cane! I thought you had a cane decorated for the holidays.”
My daughter said, “No, it’s not a holiday cane, but that’s a good idea.”
“I use a cane sometimes. I’d buy a decorated one,” the shopper said. “And I bet lots of other people would, too.” And the woman was off and running with one suggestion after another for decorating canes for the holidays.
Daughter, in the meantime, is zoned out, so tired she wonders if she won’t fall right over.
But the woman goes on with even more ideas for holiday canes, culminating in a suggestion she acted out, right there in the check-out line, as if she were striking an imaginary someone with her imaginary holiday cane. “And you could use a holiday cane to wish someone Happy (thwack) Holidays (thwack) to (thwack) you (thwack)!”
Finally, my daughter reached the check-out counter where the clerk completed the transaction and asked “Would you like a receipt?” My daughter said yes and the clerk waved her arms at the register, intoning, “Come to me! Come to me!” as the paper spooled out of the machine.
There in my kitchen, we all laughed. (There were four of us. The main cooking was being handled by my son and daughter-in-law.)
In defense of the clerk, my daughter said she might have been punch drunk after too many days of too many customers too close to Christmas. Daughter had no explanation for the fellow customer wielding the imaginary cane.
“And she reminded you of me?” I asked.
“Yes. You are always talking to people.”
And everybody laughed again.
It’s moments like this that make me miss my mother. She always appreciated my jokes, which was understandable because they are cut from the same cloth hers were. For example, when a couple of turkey buzzards were stalking around in the side yard, I called up the steps to Mama, “Hey! You aren’t dead yet are you?” And she riffed off of it. (This was before her diagnosis of terminal cancer. Too bad, in a way. That would have made for even better material than just being 80+ years old. We shared a kind of dark sense of humor.)
When we were kids, my brother made our joke-fest a trio. These days, my brother and I don’t exchange gifts. But sometime in the fall, I came across the perfect present for him: A Three Stooges figurine.
My brother loved the Three Stooges. He could make all the noises that went with their eye-pokes and hair pulling. He had memorized his favorite Stooges routines. Who could forget Moe splitting dollar bills with Larry and Curly? Moe sat in the middle and dealt to both sides. “One for you, and one for me, and one for you, and one for me, and one for you, and one for me . . ” When we were kids, I couldn’t forget this routine because my brother tried to use it every time he dealt cards.
And for reasons lost in the mists of time, the Three Wise Monkeys were a family joke, too. See no evil, hear no evil, say no evil. This figurine I found was the Three Stooges version of the Three Wise Monkeys. So it should be a perfect gift for my brother.
I wrapped the box ten times, in ten different wrapping papers. I wrote out a tag saying something like “Ben and I hope you will like this wonderful goat milk soap as much as we do. It is so smooth and creamy. It is hand-crafted by a local artisan who milks her own free range goats and plucks her own organically grown herbs.” This tag was to deflate his expectations. I didn’t want him to get his hopes up.
Of course, he opened the gift the day it arrived. He left me voice mail complaining about unwrapping ten packages for only one gift. And I’m not sure he liked it, but he did say he’d put it on top of his TV, so that’s a good sign, right?
Oh well, I probably won’t send him a gift next year. Where would I ever find another gift as perfect for him as this one?
Maybe I’ll spot something while I’m waiting in that winding check-out line at Jo-Ann Fabric. Maybe — in that first set of shelves funneling customers toward the registers — maybe the perfect gift for my brother will be in plain sight — right between the Santa Pez dispensers and the selection of festive holiday canes.
*A perfect heart in a lovely, pure red sits in the center of each design on the cushions. My daughter is really good at tie-dye!