An Answer

I revised this older post first written seven years ago because the message in it is relevant right now–and probably forever.

INVICTUS

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

–William Ernest Henley (1849-1903)

When my husband and I saw the film Invictus seven years ago, at the end of the film, the full-house audience stayed seated until the screen turned black. I like to think everyone was thinking about the message of the story or their memories of the time when apartheid was in full force, not only in South Africa, but here. Or maybe they were thinking how inequality still exists here at home with those who don’t look like us. I hope formulating their intention to change things kept people in their seats.

The poem “Invictus” hung on my classroom wall all my years of teaching, not only as inspiration to the students who may have read it but also for myself. Facing daily adversities requires something a person can grab hold of for strength, and this poem was my reminder that no matter what was done to or around me, I alone governed how I reacted. While we cannot control what is done to us, we are in control of how we respond. This lesson is not easy to learn, taking me at least 55 years before I REALLY got it.

Viewing this film also took me back to the school year of 1979-1980 when one of my students was a foreign exchange student from South Africa. Les was a good-looking, swarthy, sturdily-built lad and much in demand on the football field. In class, he did his assignments and was socially appropriate. He seemed so nice, I wanted to know why he embraced apartheid. Finally, the time came when I could ask him, when my asking would not embarrass him. How could a class of whites who appeared to be well-educated as his father was, for example, continue this racist division I asked him. I wasn’t making comparisons between his country and ours, I assured him, but I wanted to understand. When you know a thing is wrong, why do you keep doing it?

“If we do not keep separate,” he told me,” they will overrun us. They are many and we are few. They will destroy us. We will not have the country we know. Everything we worked for will be gone. I don’t harbor them any ill will. Most people don’t. It’s just better this way.”

I thanked him for answering me honestly. I didn’t debate the issue out of respect for that honesty. Besides, my little arguments would change nothing. But I understood.

Fear, then. Fear keeps us choosing to do the wrong thing. Later, after much reading of enlightened authors and my own life experiences, I learned we do what we do for two reasons. Our choices always boil down to these two reasons: fear or love. Always.

So when I saw Invictus, I thought about Les and wondered how he’d fared in the last 37 years through all the changes in his homeland. I wondered if he became the master of his fate, the captain of his soul. I wondered if his life has taught him well, and he now bases his actions on love.

SAUERKRAUT MAKING

SAUERKRAUT MAKING
Cabbage.
Sliced.
Splayed.
Sprayed across the upper kitchen cabinets,
the blender, the toaster,
and the counter top.
Chunks ice-green, limp and sweaty, cling
to my knees, toes, arms, and hair.
Nest in my cleavage.
Flop on the floor.
Soak in salt water.
Crocked.
Sauerkraut-making day.
Later, the fragrance of fermentation
(as when my father says,
“Pull my finger”)
Permeates the garage.
I cut short my errands past the crock,
Become a mouth breather.
Six weeks passes like eternity.
My father grew up next to a family of 11
who lived in a one-room cabin,
ate sauerkraut all winter
from a Hogshead barrel.
Imagine.
Still, there’s a reason
My ancestors celebrated
The new year with pork roast,
Potatoes and sauerkraut.
I can taste the salty succulence now.
Worth all the slicing, dicing,
Brewing and stink.

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A Doll Like Her

In Nicholas Kristof’s column of October 6, 2016, he posted a photo of a Syrian girl, reading to forget the war.

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What’s happening in Syria is a horrible atrocity, indeed, which should concern us all, but there’s something else concerning in the photo as well. On the shelf behind her sits her doll, blonde-haired and blue-eyed, wearing a dress of lace and pink fluff and what seems to be wings behind that. The doll’s skin is what we’d term on forms of inquiry as “white.” Are angels only white, with blonde hair? Why doesn’t she have a doll, just as pretty and angelic, that looks more like her?

 

This “white-skinned” doll, so out of place in war-torn Syria, took me back to my childhood, to when I became aware of certain, subtle differences in how people treated me.

 

At school, from the very beginning day, the teachers oohed and ahhed over my classmates who were blonde and it seemed to me those girls were teachers’ pets and got special privileges. I got to be an angel, even with my brown hair and brown eyes, in Christmas pageants, but it was my petite, blonde-haired, blue-eyed classmate who was chosen to play the head angel, say actual lines, and sing all by herself to much public acclaim and a photo in the local newspaper.

 

When I began to color, after being introduced to crayons and coloring books in the first grade, I mimicked the world around me. All the princesses I saw in the coloring books and in the Disney movies, were blond and blue-eyed, except for Snow White. I colored all the blonde princesses in the book my younger sister and I shared, and I made her color all the princesses who had dark-colored hair. Of course, she soon balked at that, because she knew the blonde-haired princesses were deemed more worthy, too.

 

She got the drop on me later, though, when I was in the sixth grade, and she in the third. The Christmas play was a variation of the Nutcracker, and she was a sugar plum fairy, dressed in a pink, crepe-paper tu-tu. Me? I was forced to play a dirty, brown tree stump, made of chicken wire covered with poster paper that I had to make myself, with tiny eye-holes that were hot and impossible to see out of because the stumps bounced up and down when we were dancing.

 

Who got the dates in high school? Blonde classmates. Who got the parts in Hollywood? Blonde starlets. Who modeled in magazines? Blondes. No one had to tell us blondes had more fun because it had been apparent since the un-blonde of us were children.

 

To be sure, there were exceptions to my generality, like Annette Funicello or Elizabeth Taylor. The preference was still there, however, no matter how many exceptions could be pointed out.

 

I’d like to think that kind of bias has disappeared from our subconscious thinking, especially since our hair can be any color we want, but I don’t know for sure. You may think the appearance of a doll on a Syrian girl’s shelf is nothing to be concerned about, but just like Williams’ red wheelbarrow, so much depends on it. It’s the image that leads to the larger and hurtful notion that one race, one skin or hair color, one religion is somehow better in every way than any other race, skin, or belief system. Maybe you’d say that at least she has a doll when other Syrian girls don’t . Maybe an American relief society gave it to her. Maybe one of her relatives is from the USA. You could be right.

 

All I know is this: A girl ought to have a doll that looks like her. Her angels should look like her, too, and be found just as beautiful and desirable as she is. Especially as sweet, sad, starving, and thoughtful as that girl is, living in a war-torn country with hatred right outside pounding on her window.

 

 

 

YOU BLOODY WELL CAN DO IT!

I just finished reading my grandmother asked me to tell you she’s sorry, by Fredrik Backman. Although I loved it all, this was my favorite part:

 

“The others at school say girls can’t be Spider-Man…”

Alf takes two dragging steps down the stairs. Stops. Looks at her.

“Don’t you think a lot of bastards said that to your grandmother?”

Elsa peers at him.

“Did she dress up as Spider-Man?”

“No.”

“What are you talking about then?”

“She dressed up as a doctor.”

Did they tell her she couldn’t be a doctor? Because she was a girl?”

Alf shifts something in the toolbox and then stuffs in the Santa suit.

“Most likely they told her a whole lot of damned things she wasn’t allowed to do, for a range of different reasons. But she damned well did them all the same. A few years after she was born they were still telling girls they couldn’t vote in the bleeding elections, but now the girls do it all the same. That’s damned well how you stand up to bastards who tell you what you can and can’t do. You bloody do those things all the bloody same.”

It’s a lovely mantra, isn’t it? “You bloody do those things all the bloody same.”

My sisters and I grew up on a farm, where if things needed doing my father couldn’t do alone, we were recruited to help, because there were no boys sitting at our dinner table. We did all the things around the farm that boys would normally have done, some of the jobs better than others, granted, but we did them, nonetheless. There were plenty of things we didn’t want to do, but whatever we wanted to do, we did. Some of them my father tried to discourage, saying girls can’t do that, but, hey, he started it, so that flag didn’t fly anymore, and there was no stopping it once it got started.

“You bloody do those things all the bloody same.” *

Our lives as adults weren’t easy because we believed this at a time other adults didn’t. Like husbands, bosses, and colleagues, both male and female. “Women can’t be (insert whatever position it was—electricians, ministers, soccer players, principals, etc.).”

When we were appointed by others in charge to a position our male colleagues thought was their due, because of tradition, longevity, or simply being male, things got ugly. “I’ve been here longer, I should be department head.” (Never mind the commitment, ability level or training.) Harassment and bullying of all kinds ensued.

On the home front that resentment exploded into bad behavior and violence on more than one occasion.

My single-parent-due-to-divorce sister, who built cabinets to finance her college education, was later told by the manager of a cabinet shop that instead of working she needed to be home with her children. She asked him how he expected she would be able to take care of them if she didn’t have a job. He had no answer but he still didn’t hire her. He missed out on skilled labor.

My other sister manages a cemetery and has had to deal with “women can’t do that” mentality from employees—now former employees, because, yes, she could do that.

In the public domain—well, you only need to look at comments about any female politician to know what happens publically.

My sisters and I weren’t the only women who suffered from being and doing what we wanted, who ignored naysayers and just did it anyway. The poet Sister Helena Brand used to say, “Do what you need to do. You can always repent later.” She was a member of the biggest partriarchy of them all.

My friend Judy wrote a book about her early experiences about doing what she wanted to do, being who she wanted to be. How on a staff of fellow PhD’s, she was often left out of bonding experiences, until she found out about them, and then inserted her presence. The first time was ugly, and then after that, not so much. If there was a mess, she was assigned to be in charge of cleaning it up, and when she actually did that, they were angry she’d succeeded. She kept on, though, and garnered the respect she should have had at the beginning.

I hope her daughters decide to print that book, because our young daughters and granddaughters need to know that anything is possible, no matter how anyone tries to limit you or block your path. Because they will.

The same holds true for young men. There is no one thing you have to do or be. One younger man I admire is a graphic artist, picture book author, and a stay-at-home dad, and he is teaching the community at large—nationally and now internationally–that men can parent creatively and successfully if that is what they want to do.

Here’s the thing: If you don’t do the things you want to do, then you aren’t really living your life.

Ageism is another problem that keeps us from being who we want to be. I remember feeling invisible as I approached 50. The comedienne Amy Schumer produced a hilarious and all-too-true sketch about women’s last f***able moment. If a person of a certain age applies for a job, they often don’t get it. How stupid on the part of the employer is that? Older people have tons of experience, both jobwise and human connection-wise. No worries that you’ll be gone because of your kids being sick.

Men I know who were counting on retirement, some as close as a year away, were suddenly let go. This happened to my female friends as well. You either are now costing your employer too much, or you are going to, so off you go.

I love that my daughter, who is now over the half-century mark, decided four years ago to pursue the career she always wanted, and now is a BSN-RN. In nursing, her age is a plus, not only because of her clinical experience, but because of her life experience. As my classmate Susie says, “I say when you have lived one life, “bloody well” live another and another—try them all out until you’ve lived them all! Do as many as you please!” She started out as a train engineer, and now she has a position at Crown Media. My friend Carol still works in real estate but she’s had many lives before that one.

There will always be naysayers, and the loudest one is often in your own head. None of them have your best interests at heart or even understand what’s in your heart, so ignore them.

My point is this: If someone tells you, “Girls can’t do that! Boys can’t do that!” you let them know you can. Then stay the course and then bloody well do it!

*(You don’t have to say “bloody” because you might not want to swear. But if do, then have at it!)

 

 

REFLECTIONS

 

Old Orange

When my husband placed the orange plant in the low ceramic bowl on the deck bench at the start of spring, I assumed it was a stop-gap measure, a rescue plant, something to sit there until he’d planted something beautiful to take its place. This succulent had no flowers, and had been the last surviving remnant of a prior summer’s succulent display. The lifeless leaves drooping off the bottom section of the center stems led me to believe it wasn’t long for this world. I resigned myself to looking at its dried-out, long and stringy appearance until either it died or its replacement arrived. Morning coffee in hand, I stared at it daily through the living room French doors. Ho-hum, if I have to.

 

Then something amazing happened. With every spring rain, every sunny day and every bit of fertilizer, this plant, whose fronds swooped and swayed like Donald Trump’s hair, grew, filling the pot that had at first been 2/3 empty. As other pots full of geraniums, marigolds, and four-o’clocks arrived, Old Orange transformed into a lush beauty right before my eyes, his stems greening, then turning to amber, as they rose from the pot. I began to look forward to seeing him every morning, his golden assertion a vivid contrast to the blue-potted beauties surrounding him.

 

Nothing is a coincidence. We’re meant to see what we do, so I always look for the gift in my observations. The lesson I gleaned is this: In your gardens and in life, pay attention to the oddballs, and keep them close to you. If you do, they’ll grow on you.

 

Shucking and Sloughing

 

Our front walkway flowerbed was a mess, a mass of dessicated, droopy dead daffodil blades, numerous weeds of the huge and habitual variety, and spider webs full of insect parts. Clean-up day arrived, and I was armed and ready. I pulled and yanked, trimmed and tossed. I dug, finding a plethora of sowbugs and their basketball-shaped mommies. (We’ve overdosed on sowbugs this season. Enough already!)

 

Halfway through my tidying, I found the cutest thing. At first I thought it was a sloughed-off snakeskin and I was loathe to touch it. I noticed, though, it was short, so because of myopia and cataracts, I picked it up and held it close to my eyes to get a better look. Aha!

 

In my hand lay the shed skin of a newt, the outer wrapping of his little platypus bill-shaped head, his wee arms waving in the wind, and his stump of a tail. I wondered how it happened—did he brush up against a tough stem and wriggle? Did it take hours to happen or did he just keep walking right on out of his skin? How did he know it was time for a change?

 

I consulted the internet then and there, right handy on the phone in my pocket, (which I keep there when I’m outside because I see cool things and it has a camera). On YouTube, I watched a newt shedding his skin and saw he used the items in his aquarium to rub up against. More Googled information told me that shedding is a process controlled by hormones from the pituitary and thyroid glands. Newts rub the skin down from their head, where shedding starts at the mouth, to their waist, then reach around, grab the roll in their mouth and pull it off their hind legs and tail. Or they use a series of wriggles and once the hind limbs are extracted they push the skin farther back until the tail, which is pressed down, removes the rest of it by friction. I was lucky to find the skin from our resident newt because apparently it’s common practice for a newt to eat his shed skin. A shed skin is a true, thin shadow of its former self.

 

At the end of the bed, I removed the bottom portion of the downspout and the flat catcher that diverts the water down the sidewalk so I could pull the weeds and dead stuff away. I lifted a large flat stone, and there was Mr. Newt, resplendent in his new skin. He might have been miffed at my disturbing the peace of his dark and damp domicile. He froze for a moment, staring me down. I said hello, and then he gave up the stink eye and wiggled away (as fast as a newt can) to await my departure. I don’t know if there’s a Mrs. Newt because I only ever see one. I suspect, however, there must be, because we’ve enjoyed a resident newt since the first moment we moved here. I hope he’s been eating sowbugs.

 

I read that newts grow each time they shuck their old skin. Humans do that, too, don’t they? Sloughing off what doesn’t work for us anymore helps us to grow as well.

 

Tenacity

 

My snowball bush teaches me the other side of the coin. It’s a tough call to know when to hang on. Every spring the bush blooms, and the wind persists until the blooms are blown away…all but one snowball. Maybe it arrives late so it goes late, but for some reason, one snowball remains a month later than all the others. Maybe it likes hanging out with the blooms of other later-blooming species. Each morning it’s still there, way at the top of the bush, I smile and give it a silent “Atta girl!”

 

Gardening teaches us important life lessons if we remain aware. This month, I was reminded of three things. Sometimes you wait, sometimes you slough off, and sometimes you hang on.

UPON OPENING THE FRONT DOOR

UPON OPENING THE FRONT DOOR

 

“The flowers appear on the earth

The time for singing has come!”—Song of Songs 2:12

 

May has been the month of departures and new arrivals up our front sidewalk. This flurry of activity similar to the hustle-bustle of an airport gateway has given us a reason to open the front door every morning. Instead of ringing our doorbell, the flowers wait to surprise us. They don’t say good-bye, either, but leave quietly, fading into the soil, homeward bound.

Desiccated leaves and stalks are all that’s left aboveground of the red and yellow tulips opening wide as they die, displaying stamens. The daffodils have turned into elongated heads at the end of their stalks. Their leaves, losing chlorophyll, yellow and droop over the short fence as they feed the bulbs.

One Friday night the irises were still pointy buds the shape of miniature mummies, tightly wrapped in parchment sarcophoguses. The next Saturday morning when we opened the front door, there they were, royal purple, pale lavender, and yellow blossoms fluttering in the breeze, triangular centers blazing their arrival. Their delicate fragrance scented the morning breeze.

Just as the iris flowers withered, the pink and maroon peonies transformed from shy, corseted buds into puffy petticoats of scent, buffeted by the breeze.

Day before yesterday, at the opening of the door, I spied two lily flowers, with sisters on down each stem ready to join us soon, splashing their scarlet finery. The rest of the lilies in the flowerbed will arrive at any moment.

Behind them are the lavender, now setting on their flowers, and the penstemon, gearing up for five-stamen production.

Today the jasmine climbing the trellis by the front door broke into tiny trumpet-shaped blooms, releasing its signature perfume.

These flowers feel like family members who hug when they say hello, or the old-time Welcome Wagon, bearing a cheeriness that ushers us from where we’ve been to where we’re going, from the short days of rain-filled spring into the charms of sunny (and sometimes still rain-filled) summer, harbingers of Nature’s beauty yet to come. All we have to do is open the front door.

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Civil Disputes

IMG_6746Today is January 2, 2016. This photo tells a story. The temperature on our front porch is 27.9 degrees. See the frozen rugosa roses in the background? The naked, shivering tree limbs dreaming of leaves, squeezing out buds? The chairs, loving servants, blown over to the doorway, reminding us they are ready for service anytime we are. Note the muddy swipes all over the bottom of the glass in both doors. The paw painting goes as high as Winston, our neighbor’s cat, can reach. Miss Emma waits on the rug for his surprise attack. Then they will both jump up on two legs, swat on their respective sides of the glass, yelling and hollering at each other. When they tire of this doorway, they move on to the window next to the door, then the dining room widows, where Miss Emma mounts her condo and Winston hangs from the outside window screens. Holes in the screens now reach as high as Winston’s paws. They breathe hard in retreat and then they move to the dining room door where Winston hangs on the doorway screen and remounts his assault. Miss Emma gives as good as she gets on her side of the glass. Sometimes this performance plays out three or four times a day, morning, bedtime when lights are out, and in the wee hours of morning. Sometimes Winston comes and is disappointed because Miss Emma has taken to her bed and doesn’t know he’s encroaching on her territory. She needs her beauty sleep to gather her energy for another battle. Recently, because of the frozen deck and landscape, I presume, we haven’t seen Winston as often. We miss his sweet face. We sneak him treats when Miss Emma is abed. That may be the reason for their difference of opinion. Today I may wash the windows outside; give them a clean slate for the next battle–the best kind, where no one gets hurt but everyone gets heard.

Grownups

Grown-ups are reading my journal!  I think I know why.  They want to see if my sixth grade was anything like their sixth grade.  I’ll bet it was.  Well, maybe not EVERYTHING.  Their mother might not have dated their teacher, and they didn’t have Melvin Porter trying to kiss them all the time.  Ick!  But probably they had to think about how people treat other people, how we get accused of stuff we didn’t do, or how we wish we would have not done something because of how it turned out. They might have solved mysteries and they might have had a dog. Maybe they even had a teacher with a big behind.  Hahahaha!

I hope if they like Sally Jo Survives Sixth Grade: A Journal, that they tell readers in grades 4-6 all about it.  And I hope they answer the journal question after every chapter and share what they wrote with the kids they know.

Whatever the grown-ups do, I hope they keep reading and writing about the changes we all go through in life.

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