Category Archives: ESSAYS

DO YOU REMEMBER WHEN SMOKING WAS COOL?

 

I would definitely not light up after dinner  in my  favorite restaurant these days, but there was a time when..

Smoking was a rite of passage, a symbol of sophistication.  Movie stars smoked: James Dean, Elvis, Kathryn Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe,  Bob Hope, Elizabeth Taylor, Doris Day, to name a few.  Smoke rose along the edge of the TV screen from  Edward R. Murrow’s ashtray as he delivered the evening news.   Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson smoked.  Doctors, including  the Surgeon General, smoked.   Even Fred Flintstone smoked!  Cigarettes dominated the advertising market and heavily supported prime time TV, sponsoring  such popular family  programs as    “I Love Lucy,”  “I’ve Got a Secret,” and “The Adams Family.   All, among many others, brought to us by the cigarette industry.  In this vintage Philip Morris commercial, Lucy tells us “how to keep your man happy” by choosing the right cigarette.

Click here to view.

Most  men, including my father and uncles,  in the small Louisiana community where I grew up smoked.  Sundays after church would find them clustered on the steps or under a nearby tree, hastily lighting up or stoking pipes, although it was considered immoral by some,  and especially on church property.  However, it was more or less accepted as a good man’s reward for bringing the family to church.  There was no debate, however, on the subject of smoking for women.   It

A pack of cigarettes in 1957 cost about $1.75.

was “trashy” and everyone knew it. I never smoked until years after leaving home and then never, ever, in the presence of a family member.   The only woman I knew who was able to escape the ire of the community for  flaunting the “smoking ban” for women was my wonderfully eccentric Aunt Ivalee.  But then, she was from New Orleans…

 I began smoking in earnest in grad school.  And I loved it.   I loved it all.  The ambience,  the romance  of it,  that special camaraderie among smokers.  I loved blowing smoke rings.   I loved a cigarette with a cup of coffee after dinner.  I loved the  way it made me feel.  And it didn’t hurt that it helped me keep the weight off.  And after all, I  could always quit…whenever I was ready.

A pack of cigarettes today costs about $5.50

On July 12, 1957, the Surgeon General issued the first official, and greatly understated, warning about the harmful effects of smoking.   Seven years later, the American Cancer Society released a slightly stronger warning.  However neither acknowledged the compelling evidence of the link between lung cancer being suppressed by the tabacco industry.   A virtual war ensued over the next three decades between health care advocates and the powerful Tobacco Institute.   Eventually  health advocates won an uneasy peace, taxes were levied, warning labels required, and smoking rates declined, as more and smokers attempted to kick the habit.   But  what no one knew then,  was that the power of the nicotine addition is comparable to  that of heroin, and for most people,  more powerful than alcohol.

I eventually quit smoking in the 80s,  my resolve being fortified by the  growing public disfavor of smoking.  Secondary smoke had been implicated in lung cancer and  growing number of restaurants restricted smoking to designated areas.   Some airlines banned smoking on flights less than two hours and by 1990 all smoking on airlines was banned.

But breaking the nicotine habit turned out to be far more difficult than I had imagined.   A few days (or hours) after gathering my resolve, throwing all my cigarettes in the trash, out the window, giving them away, etc.,  would find me scrounging for cigarettes under sofa cushions,  jacket pockets, even trash cans.  Those humiliating experiences gave me a new understanding of  the power of addiction and compassion for those under its spell.

Today, with all the knowledge at hand about the harmful effects of cigarettes, smoking would seem to be a game-stopper.  However, about 15% of adults and sadly,  20% of teenagers, are smokers today.  I  would like to think that if my rebellious teenage self had known what I know now about smoking,  she  would have exercised the good  judgment not to light up.   But, sadly, good judgment  seems to be something we learn by making mistakes, assuming  we live through them.

Click here to view a history of the effects of smoking on health.

 

 

 

 

 

The Christmas Pageant

 

christmas-554720__180I tried to tell Miss Julianne it wouldn’t work. Jimmy don’t have the sense God gave a billygoat. But he begged and whined and went on until she let him try it out at the  rehearsal.

Jimmy are y’all SURE this will work?” she asked, her hands on her hips, looking up into the loft where Jimmy squatted, dangling a rope swing. Miss Julianne is the prettiest lady I ever saw. And just as sweet as she is pretty. She’s got naturally blonde hair which curls all by itself, images-9 she doesn’t even have to use a perm.   She was wearing blue jeans and her husband Ronnie’s old work shirt.  Anyone else would have looked like a hobo, but she looked beautiful.

Jimmy put on that stupid grin of his that makes all the girls swoon, I don’t see why.

“Yes Ma’m” he said, sugar sweet. Don’t you worry a bit. Suellen  is just a little bit of a thing – we’ll just lower her down on this swing, me and  Buddy, when Brother Paul reads the part about the angels coming down and then haul her back up after we sing  Hark the Herod Angels.”

Herald, you idiot, ” I thought.

“You know I  wouldn’t never do nothing to hurt her.  It’ll be great, it’ll imagesbe the best part of the pageant.  You’ll see!”

“Well, Miss Julianne said.  “I still think it worked just fine last year, with us just dimming the lights and the angel climbing a ladder behind the manger. What do  y’all think?” She turned to the rest of us sitting in the pews waiting to practice our parts.

I could tell she was weakening. That’s the only thing about Miss Julianne. Sometimes she can be too nice.

No one said anything.  “Ya’ll, what do you think? “Still nothing.   No one wanted to get into it with Jimmy.

” Well, ” she finally said,  ” We got to make up our mind pretty soon so we can help the Ladies Aid with the decorating. We got a lot to do, we got to decorate the big tree outside, tie bows on all the pews, and clean up before we go. Remember, ice cream at the house for everyone when we get done. “

Wally  was scribbling in his little black notebook which he carries with him  everywhere  and writes down what happens and what he thinks and I don’t know what all. He has a whole shelf in his bedroom full of his crazy notebooks. His mama gets them for him  every Christmas over in Shreveport at Marshalls.  She gets them wholesale  since she owns Portia’s  Blossom Shop.

This year Wally’s a wise man instead of a shepherd like last year. I should of got  Mary, because why?  Because I wouldn’t forget my lines is why.  Last year Miss Julianne had to whisper almost every line to Georgia. At least I thought I should of  got  wise man like Wally. Instead, I had to be a shepherd again and wear a costume made out of a scratchy croaker sack with holes cut out  for the arms.

Miss Julianne doesn’t get to say who gets the parts. The Sunday School teachers all meet and decide the Sunday after Thanksgiving, in secret, so no one can get mad because they don’t like their part. But except for Miss Lavinia, who’s real old and pretty much deaf, they’re all men, so they always pick the prettiest girl, even if she’s dumber than a stump. Which Georgia was. I know that’s not nice to say, but it’s true.  She’s just pure D dumb.

So when  Georgia  graduated Junior High last year, which is the oldest you can be and still be in the pageant, I thought sure I had a chance, but this year Betsy got the part. At least Betsy isn’t dumb, but she’s not all that pretty either. I guess the best I can hope for is to make it to wise man next year. I don’t think the Sunday School teachers like me much. They say I ask too many questions, like the time I asked what a virgin is.  Mr Grady got real mad and said I shouldn’t talk like that in Church, and I had to get Wally to tell me.

“Jimmy’s up to something,” I whispered to Wally. ” I can tell by the
way Buddy is squirming around. He never could stand up to Jimmy. Lets him boss him around like he was his daddy or something instead of just his cousin.”

“Afraid of getting beat up, more like, if he won’t do what Jimmy tells him to.”

“But what if  they drop her and she gets hurt?  And who knows what else they’ll drop down out of the loft?  You know rats get up there. ”

He just shrugged. “Everyone knows Jimmy’s got a crush on Suellen. He’s just trying to impress her. But anyhow, it’s none of my never-mind,” he said making that pruney  little face of his.

“O Wally, you make me want to scream.” I hate how uppity he gets sometimes.  I decided if no one else was going to say anything, I ‘d have to. I walked over to where Miss Julianne was standing.

Miss Julianne? I said sweetly.

“Yes, Sugar, what is it?” she said, smiling and putting her arm around my shoulders.

“Miss Julianne, I just think .. “

Jimmy glared down at me from the loft where he squatted dangling the rope.

“I just think you’re right about last year, it was real pretty.  Why do we need to do anything different?”

Jimmy hopped down from the loft and began winding up the rope swing. “What do you know about it, four eyes?” I was the only girl with glasses and all the boys teased me about it. They were pink plastic and  ugly, and I hated wearing them,  but I couldn’t see past my nose without them.

“Now, Jimmy, stop talking like that and let her have her say, too!” Miss Julianne said, the way she can always make us mind without yelling.

Everyone stared at me. I felt like I had forgot to put on my clothes or something. “Well, I mumbled, “I just think it’s dangerous is all.”

Jimmy curled up his lip at me. “You’re just mad cause you have to be a shepherd. You ought to be glad you don’t have to be a sheep no more.”

I wouldn’t admit it, but he was right about the shepherd thing.

“Please, please, please, Miss Julianne,” Jimmy crooned, getting down on his knees and making his hands like he was praying.

“Now, Jimmy,” Miss Julianne said, laughing. Am I gonna have to paddle you again?

He gave her a big hug.

I was sunk.

country churchThe night of the pageant it was cold and sleeting. I had prayed for snow, but just like when I prayed my dog Pepper would get well, it didn’t happen. Mama says the Bible tells us “Ask and ye shall receive,” but so far that’s not working for me. I must be doing something wrong. One day I’ll ask Miss Julianne about it.

The church was full up. People like the Banks who never go to church except on Christmas were there with their whole raggedy family taking up the front pew where my Grampaw always sits. This happens to him every year. He just walked over real slow to where they were sitting and stood there, thumping his cane on the floor.

Pretty soon, Miz Banks looked up and said, “Why hello, Mr. Henry? Would you like to sit here? Betty Sue and Darrell, y’all go sit in the back. Just you set down right here, Mr. Henry. So nice to have you with us.”

Grampaw acted like he never heard a thing she said.  Just walked over to  the window where he always sat and waited for them to make room for him.   He sat down,  wedged his cane between him and Mr. Banks, looked at the Banks bunch like they had cooties (which they probably did) and  stared out the window. I think he sits here so he can see Gramma’s grave, but he’d never say that.

Mama and Daddy couldn’t get to their usual place, so they sat in back by the heater, which was actually better since it was cold in the church.  I ran downstairs to the Sunday School room where everyone was putting on their costumes, carrying a dishtowel and one of Grampaw’s old canes. Mama said she’d make me a costume, so I didn’t have to wear the croaker sack and she can sew anything, but  I didn’t want to make a big deal of it.

Suellen was prancing around the room in her angel costume, everyone going on about suellenhow pretty she looked. She had on a  white dress with lace ruffles on the bottom lace on the sleeves with white satin slippers to match and was carrying a stupid wand, like she was a fairy godmother instead of an angel, going around tapping everyone on the head and cooing, “Bless you, bless you.” I thought I would throw up. I pushed my way  over to the corner where Miss Julianne and Mr. Ronnie was images-5helping the little kids into their sheep costumes. The sheep part is the worst because you have to crawl around in a boiling hot costume.  They always give that to the little kids.    They think it’s fun, they don’t know everyone’s laughing at them.

“Hi,” Wally, said, adjusting his turban and brushing his robe.” Want

some help with your costume?”

“I don’t need help, thank you very much,” I grumbled, tying a dishcloth around my head.

“That’s looks real nice” he giggled.

“Shut up,” I said, sticking my arms through the croaker sack. “Shit, his damn thing  scatches!  I said under my breath.

“Cricket!” Wally said, putting his hand over his mouth and giggling. “In the Lord’s House! You’ll go to hell.”

‘Well, if I do, I guess I’ll see you there, Mr. Smarty Pants.”

Mr Ronnie whistled and yelled, “Y’all be quiet, Miss Julienne needs to say something. ”

“I’m so proud of y’all! Miss Julianne said, smiling.  “And I know you’re going to do great.“ Now lets go over the program  just one more time so we’ll be sure.  Everyone get your song sheets. ” Mr. Ronnie was passing out blue mimeograph copies that smelled like vinegar and the purple ink images-4rubbed off on your hands.

“The first one is Silent Night. Now remember everyone sings this one. Then everyone goes behind the curtain except Mary and Joseph.  Betsy, did you bring your doll?”

“Yes’m.  I brought my nicest one, with the China head that I got  last year for Christmas.”

“Oh, Betsy!  You brought you very BEST doll,” Miss Julianne said. Isn’t that NICE, y’all?”

“Next the the wise men sing  We Three Kings of Orient Are and then the shepherds  sing  While Shepherds Watched Their Sheep By Night”  And  I need ALL the wise men and ALL the shepherds singing, not just Wally and Cricket.

“No, you don’t, I thought. Wayne sounds like a dying horse, and Marvin’s tone deaf.”

“Then the congregation will stand and we’ll  all sing the final song Hark the Herald Angels Sing,  while Jimmy and Buddy let Suellen down from the loft.  Just one verse now, of all the songs.  Miss Martha will signal to you when to start and when to stop.”

Miss Martha  smiled and waved her pudgy finger in the air.  Miss Julianne put her hand over her heart. “Now Buddy and Jimmy, ya’ll be real, REAL careful with Suellen. Let’s pray before we go.”

“Good idea, I thought.”

We made a circle, joined our sweaty hands and chanted the Youth Fellowship prayer, “Lord, teach us to so number our days that we might apply unto wisdom.”

“And bless us as we carry thy message though this Christmas Pageant,” Miss Julianne  added. Amen. “

“Amen,” we chorused.

We tromped up the stairs in a line and walked behind the curtain. The church was full and kids was sitting on pallets on the floor, mamas standing holding babies. The church was so pretty;  there was flowers, candles, and big red bows everywhere and it smelled like pine and candle wax.  Buddy and Suellen climbed up the stairs into the loft,  Jimmy behind them. I thought I heard him say to Suellen, “I’ll show you a thing or two, you little tease.”  She hissed something at him, but I couldn’t hear what she said.

“I knew it.!  Why doesn’t anyone believe a thing I say?” I hissed to Wally.

He gave me one of his looks over his glasses. “What’s the matter with you?  Are you still mad about the shepherd thing?”

Before I could answer,  the curtain opened and Miss Martha plopped down on the piano bench. She’s so fat, we always think she’s going to break it  and we all got out our song sheets.  She held up her finger and started playing Silent Night while we all sang. Everyone in the

Chris Phillips, Flickr, Oxford, UK
Chris Phillips, Flickr, Oxford, UK

audience oohed and ahhed over the little kids.  When the wise men came out, Wally was the only one singing, the other two just hanging their heads and sorta mumbling. Wally didn’t seem to notice. When he’s on a stage, Wally’s  in hog heaven.  Next it was our turn, and not only was I the only singing shepherd,  Marvin and Wayne didn’t even know the words.

“This is the LAST time, the VERY LAST time I do this, I thought to myself. It’s hot and I itch all over; besides it’s embarrassing. I’m too old for this.”

And then it was time for the big finish. I felt a lump in my stomach. I knew something was going to go wrong, real wrong, but there wasn’t nothing I could do to stop it. Mr. Ronnie shined the spotlight up onto the loft where Suellen stood in her angel get-up.  In spite of her stupid wand, she looked look real nice, standing there in her white dress, holding out her arms, her clothes-hanger halo sparkling.

Miss Martha started up Hark the Herald Angels Sing and everyone in the church stood up to sing with us. While we sang, Suellen started to come down from the ceiling on the rope swing – almost like she was floating. Everyone in the church looked up at her like they could hardly believe it. The whole church was quiet.  Miss Julianne was standing off by the curtain, her hand over her heart. I think she was praying. I thought for a minute I may have been wrong. It really was pretty.  But then some of  the boys started giggling. That’s when I knew.

I looked up just in time to see Suellen fall out of the loft into the manger, landing with a big crash right on top of the Baby Jesus doll. Everyone started yelling and going on and Miss Julianne and Mr. Ronnie went running over to see if Suellen was OK. She was, all except for being fighting mad, scratched up and the sleeve of her angel dress tore plumb off from where she caught it on the manger.   She was sitting up, picking hay from the manger out of her halo and yelling at Jimmy  that she’d get him back for this and he was laughing his head off.   And Betsy was fit to be tied.  “Git off my Doll, “she yelled.

Sure enough the doll’s face was cracked where Suellen fell on top of her and her wand was stuck into the doll’s stomach. The boys was all snickering, Betsy was crying and Miss Julianne was walking around making sure no one was hurt. The people in the church was real quiet.  But then there was another big thunk and  Miss Bernice had fainted dead away in the third pew.  She’s real  bad to take fainting spells if she gets over-excited except Mama thinks she’s just putting on for attention.  Miss Lavinia was fanning Miss Bernice with her handkerchief and Vonda Fay was waving smelling salts over her face,  She uses them in her beauty shop for ladies who fall out from the permanent wave fumes.

Mr. Ronnie came running up onto the stage. “Which one of you knuckleheads done this?” he yelled, looking straight at Jimmy.   Mr. Ronnie is a real nice man as long as you don’t do nothing to make Miss Julianne unhappy. I seen him grab Wilbur Spivey by the neck and throw him out the door of Vickers Newsstand just for cussing where Miss Julianne could hear. I  remember thinking I wouldn’t want to be Jimmy right now.

Brother Paul was trying to get everyone to be quiet. “Quiet, Brothers and Sisters,” he kept saying. “Be still.   This is the Lord’s house. There is no harm done. Let’s all be seated and have a word of prayer.”

Miss Lavinia and Vonda Faye got Miss Bernice back up on her feet and helped her out on the porch to get some air.  Miss Julianne closed the curtains on the stage. We all looked at her. She looked so sad. I thought sure she was going to fuss at us which I can’t stand. But she  looked back at us for what seemed a long time. Finally   she sorta smiled.  And then she began to laugh. At first we thought she was crying. But when we saw she was laughing, one by one we all started laughing.  She opened the curtains and walked out onto the stage.

“Y’all, she said, still laughing. “I don’t know when I’ve seen such aimages-12
Christmas pageant to beat this one.“ The whole church began to laugh, even Brother Paul. Even Grampaw, who hardly ever laughs. Everyone except for Mr. Ronnie  who was standing in the back of the church with his arms folded over his chest.   After all the laughing died down,  Brother Paul walked up behind the pulpit.

“Brothers and Sisters, “ he said, real serious-like.  “Some of us here tonight have not understood what Christmas is all about and  could have ruined it  for the rest of us with their foolish prank.  Luckily no real harm was done and I am quite sure that those responsible will be held accountable.  Jimmy’s face was redder than Santa’s cap.  But no one can ruin the Christmas story; it’s too powerful.  It’s about turning sadness into joy.  It’s about the love and forgiveness this community have for each other.  Nothing can take the joy of Christmas from us.  And we’ve had plenty of that tonight. Let us pray,” he said. “Let us give thanks to the Lord for a joyful Christmas.”

Silent Healing

 

In this Sunday, Aug. 14, 2016 photo, Louisiana Army National Guard dump truck, loaded with rescued flood victims, makes it way back to dry land in Walker, La., after heavy rains inundating the region,(AP Photo/Max Becherer)
In this Sunday, Aug. 14, 2016 photo, Louisiana Army National Guard dump truck, loaded with rescued flood victims, makes it way back to dry land in Walker, La., after heavy rains inundating the region,(AP Photo/Max Becherer)

In the haggard silence, there can be no words

A  merciless anguish falls on the sodden bodies

But comforting too, the  bodies close

Pressed, crushed together

They are a single throbbing wound

That can only heal as one.


Of all the heartbreaking photos of the flooding disaster in Louisiana, last weekend (and there were so many),  this one cries to me the loudest.  The faces register shock, disbelief, loss, pain.   And yet there are no tears.   Old and young stand together, defiant,   facing ahead  in  a solid show of will.   Their common  suffering has become the bond that will unite them to survive

.

WHAT THE LITTLE DOG KNEW

Looking towards the lightIn a wheelchair beside the nurses’ station, a tiny old woman sits, eyes closed, lips parted, hands folded in her lap. Her head droops to one side. Ragged wisps of white hair stray across her forehead. Her nightgown is rumpled, one slipper has dropped to the floor exposing a pale bare foot.  She could be asleep, perhaps even comatose.  Visitors pass, a nurse rushes by and jostles her wheelchair but offers no apology.  No one notices.  It’s  as if she’s invisible.

As nursing homes go, it’s a good one.  It’s so  clean it’s almost unsettling,, the furnishings  expensive and inoffensive,  the staff’s crisp white uniforms fairly rustle as they pass.    Vivaldi plays  softly in the background. They try hard.  But it is still a nursing home.  Where no one wants to be.

A  small dog being led by a visitor trots by, then  suddenly pulls at his IMG_1147lead, resisting  his owner’s attempts to move forward.  The visitor tugs at the lead, averting her eyes from the woman in the wheelchair.   But the little dog is determined.  He sits  down by the woman’s wheelchair as if he has reached his destination.    After a few seconds, the woman opens her eyes and raises her head.  A smile spreads slowly across her weathered face at the sight of the little dog.  Her watery eyes twinkle. A soft voice breaks the silence.  It has a characteristic honeyed lilt, a pattern of speech once cultivated in finishing schools for proper southern ladies.

“Well, hello there!  And aren’t you a pretty little thing?” A bony finger reaches down and strokes the little dog’s ear. He stands, reciprocates with a swift lick of her finger, then sits again,  tongue hanging  sidewise, looking up at her expectantly. They regard each other silently.  She reaches down and gently strokes his back.

She turns to the visitor, “Do you take good care of him?”

“Yes, I do, ” the visitor says.

“Well, make sure you do, now, ” she admonishes. “He needs a lot of care.”

“Don’t worry,” the visitor assures her, “I take good care of him, I promise.” A few minutes pass as the woman talks softly to the little dog.

Finally, she looks up at the visitor, as if to dismiss her. Thank you.” she says, smiling, returning her hands to her lap.  “Can he come back sometime?”

“You’re welcome, “ says the visitor. “And of course! I’ll bring him to see you again.”

The woman smiles as the visitor and the little dog walk away down the hall.

We tend to avoid  people who seem needy,  especially the elderly.  Perhaps we are afraid we can’t help, that we  will become  entangled in their problems, that it will take too much of our time.  But as the little dog knew, people are not always what they seem.  And our gifts do not have to be big ones.  The little dog gave the only thing he had to give, his attention and his love, and it was enough.   In the words of  Mother Teresa, “We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.”

 

 

UNSOCIAL MEDIA

 

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Early in my writing career, I became infatuated with writers’ social media.  It was huge!  It was exhilarating. There were blogs, magazines and chat rooms, forums, workshops and videos.    My email inbox soon overflowed with book reviews, conference and workshop announcements, writing contests and calls for manuscripts. Lists of “must-haves” “can’t misses,” “to-do” and definitely NOT “to-do”s’ arrived in droves from agents and publishers.

Every serious writer has a “platform”, I discovered.  So I built a website, set up an author Facebook page, a Twitter feed, joined Pinterest, Instagram, Tumbler and LinkedIn.  But this was only the barest beginning, I soon discovered. My blog and Facebook page had to be current and trendy, my  “tags” had to be carefully selected to  “drive traffic”to my sites from the top search engines.  My social media sites must be regularly monitored, “likes” reciprocated, posts updated, tweets returned, comments enthusiastically answered; all this to ensure visibility for agents and publishers.  My Facebook news feed was endless. Tweets constantly scrolled past my web browser.  My “Platform” had morphed into a demanding monster. Social media had become unsocial.

It was impossible to sort through this avalanche of information, much of which was redundant and/or contradictory.  One source insisted outlining is necessary,  another advised  simply to start writing.  There were advocates of starting a novel at the end, the beginning, or the middle.  Some said that a writer that doesn’t achieve a respectable word count  per day is not serious; others emphasized the importance of  reflection.   There were  videos and workshops on “scaffolding,” “POV”,  “Pillars,” “Devices.”   The jargon alone was intimidating. Everyone professed to be an authority.  How could I know who to trust?  And assuming I actually managed to write a novel in the midst of this confusion,  could I get it published?   Is my theme “hot” and trendy enough? Does it address the right target audience? Should I e-publish? Blog my book? Tweet it? Get an agent? If so, how do I choose one. Can I afford it?

I was lost in a byzantine social media maze. What began as fun and exciting had become a chore. In the odd moments I found to write, I found myself posturing; trying to appease the writing and marketing gurus now residing full-time in my head. I began to question everything about my story, it’s structure, the POV, the characters, setting and time period.  I suspected I should drastically revise the manuscript or trash it and start over. Or.. Maybe I wasn’t a writer after all.

I had lost my voice.

The suddenly one morning, I work up unable to speak.  Although I wanted to continue to  compulsively push ahead,  now I  had no choice but to stop and listen.  The timing, along with the absence of other symptoms led me to suspect a connection between my physical and writing voices. Perhaps they both needed time to heal.

WalkinwoodsrevSo I “unplugged.”   I took naps and long walks  with Jake, my Boston Terrier. I journaled, listened to music, and visited friends. And I read books. Biographies, historical fiction, literary classics, modern novels, mystery, fantasy, non-fiction, books by great writers and poor writers. The Kindle store loves me. And gradually my voice returned, physically and figuratively.

I love social media. It’s given me writing buddies, mentors and a wealth of information.   The internet is an invaluable resource.  Writing seminars, workshops and online magazines are delivered directly to my laptop. There are online proofreading and editing programs,  templates for story writing and outlines for character development. Google or Siri can answer almost any question I can think up. These are powerful tools, unheard of as recently as a decade ago. But any powerful tool can also wreak havoc. I’m only a click away from the maze I just escaped.  So I identified a few sites I have grown to trust and respect and “unsubscribed,” “unfollowed” and “un-liked”  the rest.   And so far I have resisted the temptation of clicking on every flashy new  site.  So far. ….

And I’m back to  my story.  After all, I’m the only one that can write it.

Facing death: Life on Life’s Terms

 

 

autumn-832334__180Another friend died this week. We all die. But we don’t want to face it until we have to. We don’t like to think about the “D” word.

 

What does it mean to “face death, anyway?” I made a will in my 40s, I have a burial plot, a living trust, a living will, long-term care insurance, sufficient funds to take care of myself. I have downsized to a small single story, low maintenance house near friends, family and excellent health care. I’ve talked to the kids about my end-of-life wishes I’ve even made a half-hearted stab at planning my funeral. That should do it, right?

Not exactly.

In Psychological Reflections, C.S. Jung says, “ The second half of life does not signify ascent, unfolding, increase, exuberance, but death since the end is now its goal. The negation of life’s fulfillment is synonymous with the refusal to accept its ending. Both mean not wanting to live, and not wanting to live is identical with not wanting to die. Both make one curve. “ (1)

Hard to hear. Especially in a society where youth is venerated and age discounted. Where we are inundated with products and services to “reverse the aging process,” both physically and mentally. Where “ascent and increase” are assumed to be lifelong.
And yet we die. We all die.
The great world religions offer hope and guidance for the passage. But increasingly in our materialistic culture, we have opted for our own belief systems that lead to a dead end. Literally. The payoff is that I get to live my life pretty much as I want without worrying too much about the consequences. And if that is what I believe, don’t I need to believe in constant increase,  unfolding, and ascent? Should’t I grab out of life all I can before it’s too late? Shouldn’t I make sure I’m first in line? Shouldn’t I camouflage any sign of aging ?
Except that we don’t continually ascend.  We don’t get stronger, more sexy, more “productive.“ We age. In spite of the best exercise programs, health spas, regenerating creams and mental gymnastics; we age, slowly and irreversibly. “Active retirement homes,” the current euphemism for nursing homes, are filled  with forgotten  parents, uncles, aunts, even children, while their relatives are busy acquiring and increasing, unknowingly and inevitably charting their own paths to the same fate.
I think this compulsion to hang on to our younger selves is what Jung meant when he said “not wanting to live is identical with not wanting to die. ” Because we “don’t want to die” we try to live as we have in the past, even though we know this behavior is futile, mostly unattractive, sometimes dangerous. We know there is a better way. As the number of people over 65 continues to rise dramatically, so does the attention to aging by the media, press, and social media. There is no shortage of information on aging.  And the messages almost universally follow the theme that life can be rewarding after 65. But not without work. And not without confronting the reality. Not without admitting to our inner selves that we are indeed on the downside of the curve. And speaking for myself, not without a strong faith.
There is a difference between maintaining health and self-delusion. I might want to consider a seniors class at the “Y” instead of skydiving or rock climbing. I need more rest these days, but that’s no excuse for avoiding exercise. Keeping my mind active is not just a hedge against mental deterioration; it makes me a more interesting, vibrant person. Becoming discouraged does not justify defeatism or anger. Asking for help does not make me a failure.
I don’t know how to do this. And I know it’s not easy. But every day is a day when I learn something new about the process. A day when one friend dies, and another celebrates 10 years cancer-free. When one friend is diagnosed with Alzheimers and another completes a degree program, long deferred. When one friend loses her sight and another discovers her dormant artistic talent. Each of us has a different path. Today I am blessed with good health, but I have no idea what lies ahead. Death is inevitable, but I have choices that will maximize my ability to engage and contribute as long as I squarely face life on life’s terms. And if I can accept that simple but challenging fact, I can choose to live every day to the fullest with hope for the future.

1. Rohr, Richard (2010-12-27). Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent (Kindle Location 1268). St. Anthony Messenger Press. Kindle Edition.