10 Terrible Words that Shouldn’t Exist in Any Language

Digital text-illustration: 10 Terrible WordsOne person who hates is a Weapon of Mass Destruction. One who cares and shares? Perhaps the only antidote.

As I recently said to my friend Maryam: poverty—both of concrete, material resources like food and shelter, and of intellectual and ephemeral resources (education, spiritual enrichment, the arts, community engagement, etc)—seems to me to be perpetrated and perpetuated more by selfishness than by an actual shortage of any of those resources. The rich and powerful always want more riches and power, and what they do have makes them able to afford and acquire more and to keep their feet firmly on the backs of the have-nots. Plenty is never enough. The resulting imbalance is as old as history, and rotten as ever. Only those who will speak up and resist entrenched inequities and injustices will have any hope of making change.Photo montage: Wolverine & Badger

The badger and the wolverine have a reputation for being among the most tenaciously savage brutes of all the mammals. Yeah, Honey Badger even has his own meme to show for it. But let’s be honest: no beast of earth, air, or sea has a capacity for vile, rapacious cruelty rivaling that of the human animal. Even creatures of the natural enmity of predator and prey compete, fight, kill, and are sated. They have little apparent ideation of hatred and war to match people’s. A wolverine or badger will fight to defend, or to kill for food, but unlike the human, doesn’t seem inclined to attack indiscriminately outside of its primal needs for safety, shelter, and food; when the skirmish is done as efficiently as possible and the need assuaged, the sharpest of tooth and reddest of claw among them doesn’t do an end-zone dance to celebrate its pleasure in winning but will usually depart the scene or go to rest for the next time of need. The remaining food and shelter and other resources stay in place for whatever creature comes next, hunter or hunted, cousin or not.

Can we humans not learn from such a thing? I’m pretty sure that if we destroy each other and ourselves in our constant self-righteous, self-congratulatory belief that we deserve everything we can get our hands on, Honey Badger won’t be the only creature that doesn’t care.

Empathy over Courage

Bravery is a rare commodity. Many people who think they’re being brave only dare to do so from within a like-minded group, however small in number, and when they are genuinely in the minority spend more energy on protesting that the majority from which they’re excluded is unfair and unjust than on doing anything useful to change it. It may be true—knowing human nature, often probably is true—that one’s opposition is no exemplar of justice and fair-mindedness. But we’re seldom willing or able, ourselves, to make a cleanly balanced assessment and especially, to act wisely and compassionately on it either. We’re generally convinced that anyone else having anything good means less goodness for ourselves, and that that is a terrible thing.

What impresses me more than bravery, real or imagined, is seeing anyone express real empathy for others through their own beliefs, lives, and actions. I tend to doubt that we’re capable of doing or even wanting very lofty things, but I also think that small doses of empathy will go ever so much further than any amount of derring-do and action-figure heroics in bettering the world and the human condition within it. Daring to let another person be richer or more privileged than me or to have the last word, even when I’m fairly sure I’m smarter, closer to correct, or more deserving requires quite a different sort of courage than running into danger in anyone’s defense or their stead.

But treating others with such respect seems to me far more likely than argument and defensiveness, self-protection and fear, to get anyone to trust and respect me in turn. So shines a good deed. The unselfish willingness to accept another person’s reality as valid even when it might cost me something significant is a kind of courage I dream of having, hope to learn.Graphite drawing: Reach Down to Raise Up

Equilibrium

photo montageOne of the things I enjoy most as an artist–as those of you who frequent this joint know–is playing with all of the commonalities I find in the visual world. I am very much an analogous thinker; what I see is tested, examined, recognized and theorized on the basis of what it reminds me of at first glance. I suppose it’s the virtual equivalent of judging a book by its cover, but what it allows me when I’m thinking in strictly visual terms is the opportunity to fiddle with the ideas of what I imagine to be the links between one subject and another and as patterns emerge from it, use that for creative fodder, learn something about these pet subjects of mine, build images based on them, and in turn, learn something about myself along the way if I make even a little effort.

It’s very easy to become a collector. We all have our idiosyncratic passions and interests, to the degree that when we’re not actively gathering objects and concrete stuff that reflects them we are still busy building our internal storage of ideas and images related to them, and we end up with personalities shaped by, and like, them. People associate us with our sets of tastes and ways of thinking. Me, I am addicted to patterns and repetition and all of those other characteristics that seem to me to express the wholeness of the world. I like the unique iterations that make each part of the larger network have its own personality or meaning yet remain subservient in one way or another to the more visible and outspoken qualities that are held in common.

I strongly suspect that this simply showcases my longing for a wider world wherein the beauty of each individual is respected and nurtured yet the things we know we have in common are celebrated above all else because we treasure our place in a bigger picture. That’s a work of art that we shouldn’t have to take art classes to appreciate.

Love Enough for Everyone

Yes, it is Valentine’s Day. I can’t help–whether I buy into the modern version of the  commercially enhanced holiday or not–being reminded of my many loves. And, external motivations aside, I am glad and grateful and even gleeful when I think of how much love is in my life. I have wealth and happiness beyond what anyone might think to wish for, let alone deserve, and I revel in it on Valentine’s Day and every other moment when I stop to think about my many loves.digital collageI have you to thank for it, for my life in worlds of immense happiness! I am fortunate beyond reason in being surrounded by the love of so many, and in turn, to be able to love you all right back. So I send my profound thanks and my joyful love to all of you, especially on this day of all days. To my parents and my sisters! To my sisters’ spouses and offspring. To our grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. To in-laws and to those who have been adopted into our family as additional and also much-loved sisters and brothers and extended family.

I send thankful love, too, to the many friends who have populated my life with such warm affection and care and company from all the parts of my life outside of my parents’ home: my playmates and classmates, my neighbors and teachers and mentors, my roommates and housemates. To the colleagues and students who made my years of teaching so much better by your presence, and the years beyond it by your memory and continued vitality, I send love. To my gracious and hilarious and tender-hearted and wise readers and commenters here at the blog. To those far-flung friends all around the world whom I can visit only indirectly but can carry in my innermost heart easily all the time. Most of you who are among these many loves of mine may never know what an imprint you left and continue to make on my heart and mind, but you do; oh, how beautifully you do.

My good fortune in a much-loved life is crowned with spending my days and nights in the delightfully daffy and deeply caring companionship of the partner spouse who is as integral to this life of love as the air I breathe and the pulse that knocks my heart and mind into these momentary recognitions of such goodness. I love you, my sweetheart! digital collageAnd I send love to all of you others who have shared and continue to shine the sunlight of your kind and cheering ways on my happy life. Happy Valentine’s Day, every one, and may you be as loved as I am! The holiday ought not be the only time you say so, but it’s certainly an excellent excuse and reminder to tell the ones who love you and whom you love that they are dear to you, too. And yes, I might as well add my own thanks to yours, since those who warm us with their love teach us, and make us able in turn, to go out and love others. That is how love works best.

You have a Lovely Forehead

photoI was Auntie Ingeborg’s favorite great-niece. Of course, that’s potentially a less impressive achievement if you happen to know that each of my three sisters were her favorite great-niece, our father was her favorite nephew, his brother was her favorite nephew, and so on, ad infinitum. Potentially less impressive, I say, but not at all so in reality if you happened to know Auntie Ingeborg. Because she had a peculiar talent that is very rare indeed among humans: the capacity to make every individual she knew into her absolute favorite. It was completely sincere, unforced, and unquestionably real, and we never doubted it, any of us Favorites.

Auntie had a perpetual delighted smile and an endless twinkle in her eyes and rosy cheeks just made for children to pat affectionately, a lap that was always at the ready for clambering kids to pile on and around for stories, and a genuinely exotic store of entertainments few aunties of any sort can aspire to offer. But by popular standards of style and glamor, you’d never have given her a second glance. She found a perfectly prim schoolmarm look in simple crepe dresses and orthopedic shoes that suited her right down to the ground, and once she established that as her comfort look I don’t recollect her ever deviating from that significantly in the remaining decades of her life. She certainly wasn’t a magazine cover model, with her rather crooked teeth, and with her heart-shaped face accented just a touch too far by her under-bite. But that radiant smile, those softly blushed cheeks, and those merry blue eyes showed off the ethereal beauty of her heart to perfection, so I never once thought of her as ordinary at all. And she most certainly wasn’t ordinary.

Auntie had skills, talents, powers and exotic resources that no one could have guessed on first meeting her. First off, she lived in an apartment, quite the exotic concept to little kids raised in American suburbia. It was already a well-worn building of that vintage that had all sorts of wonderful creaks in its hardwood floors and hallways, a cage-style elevator that was just about the most mystical contraption I’d ever seen and carried us slower than a kid carries his books to school on Exam Day. And it had a Murphy bed. One of those fantastical metal monsters that stood on end, hidden in a closet, by day and pivoted out to unfold down at night.

But also during the daytime, as we learned, it stood guard in front of Auntie’s toy chest, an old and very slightly musty trunk filled with even older and rather odd and very delightful toys, including one of the earliest versions of a small robot I can recall, a little metal man that, when the key on his side was wound, began to walk stiff-legged across Auntie’s carpet in a cheerfully menacing zombie sort of way as the sharp little metal spikes that protruded through the soles of his metal feet would push out to raise up each one alternately from the rug. It was the sort of toy that would never be allowed by modern parents and other legal experts, because the foot-spikes were incredibly sharp and the metal was hard-edged and undoubtedly the paint on it was full of lead, and we loved to play with it almost endlessly.photoThere were other bits of magic and mystery stashed in the toy box, to be sure, not least of them that we quickly learned to dig into the box thoroughly on arrival, and as quickly as we could wrestle the bed far enough on its pivot to release the box to us, to find the box of Barnum’s Animal crackers that Auntie happened to have hidden along with the toys in there. Those who grew up eating them tend to agree that they are fairly insipid of flavor and texture, but the fact that they came in a charmingly decorated little box that looked like one of Barnum’s mythic circus train cars, full of exotic beasts, and it had a string handle on it for carrying around with us as we played with the toys and we got to dole out the little biscuits at our own leisure from the little wax paper lining inside the box–why, this was the stuff of dreams!

In truth, the toy box, though it was the object of our beeline in the door on arrival, was not the most crucial of entertainments at Auntie’s–that status was Auntie’s alone. For, as a lifelong grade school teacher, she knew how to amuse and occupy the caroming minds of wriggly kids about as well as anyone on earth ever did. She quizzed us about our wide-ranging and rarely accurate knowledge on any number of topics, showing more genuine interest and enthusiasm than any such conversation with miniature humans deserves, she played her old upright piano and sang silly songs and very old hymns, and best of the best, she would let us all pile up around her as she told fascinating folk tales, the finest of which were accompanied by her making pencil marks on her paper tablet to illustrate the path the story’s protagonists took from one episode to the next, the drawing of which ended quite miraculously in a picture of something–perhaps a giant vegetable with a person who lived in it looking out its window, or our favorite, a cat whose tail curled in a wild spiral that ended both the tail and the tale.photoShe was no specimen of the more refined social graces that might be expected by a more patrician crowd than her circle of family and friends. Physical or athletic grace was clearly not her great gift any more than it’s mine–when we moved the Christmas tree into the middle of the room to join hands and circle it singing old Norwegian Christmas songs, as was our sometime tradition, Auntie managed not once but in two different years to bump into and topple the decorated tree. I’m not even absolutely certain that the second time could be credited entirely to her, because it’s not as though there wasn’t the previous experience to tell my father, for example, that we could consider just doing that little ritual on one of the days when Auntie was celebrating at another relative’s house. But given that no one was harmed in the event and that we all had an excellent laugh not only on both ‘tipsy’ occasions (no, Auntie was not–only the tree was) but for all the years since as well, he can hardly be faulted if he did suspect a repeat in the offing. Auntie, as it was, laughed harder than any of us.

Auntie’s driving history, too, had certain mythic qualities to it, ending when she was at least in her eighties and still chauffeuring needy Old People (some of them undoubtedly much younger than herself) to the doctor’s office or the grocery store or church, or to where she taught English as a Second Language to immigrants for a very long time. The beginning of her automotive life was illustrated for us by the awe-inspiring story of the day that my father, then a high school student, came home after classes and found Auntie reclining on the family couch in a somewhat dazed state, from whence she plaintively asked if her nephew would mind going out to retrieve her car, which she had left at the neighbors’. He was puzzled as to why she hadn’t, evidently, brought it along with her all the way to his parents’ house, until on arriving at said neighbors’, he could see that her slightly skewed understanding of the operations of centrifugal-vs-centripetal force in driving had resulted in her cutting the corner of the street, jumping the neighbors’ front rockery, and landing the car in the midst of the garden border under their front window. It is unclear how, precisely, he was able to successfully remove the automobile from its highly artistic position in the neighbors’ front yard, but apparently this did occur, as did eventual restoration of the yard’s normal, more vegetal, aspect. Auntie’s driving was somewhat tamer after that, though occasional indications of her earlier style did leave us all wondering over the years how it was that she never seemed to get in any further accidents, or even get a police citation, out of all her miles on the road, an outcome for which we were all profoundly thankful.

It may be presumed that among other things, the lovely lady we knew alternatively as her self titling of Jog-along Julie did indeed keep on moving through life at a steady pace but because she had so many commitments to her teaching at school, community and church locales and to her watchful companionship of nearby friends, she didn’t need to drive very far when she did drive.

She was, after all, far too busy taking care of and cheering up a multitude of others, writing letters prolifically to family far and near, and reading–to herself and to others as well. Any birthday or holiday was almost guaranteed to be celebrated with the gift of books, and she can certainly claim much credit for how much her nieces and nephews of all ages learned to love a good story not only at her knee but in the pages of the books she doled out to us. Every story, even the books of silly rhymes and jokes she shared with us, may have had some subtext of educational purpose, given Auntie’s lifelong commitment to teaching, but we knew in addition that the central theme was simply how much she loved us.

She constantly made sure to say something supportive and complimentary to everyone, even on days when and to people with whom it was quite a stretch. When we sisters reluctantly sent her the dreaded school portrait photos that we always thought were hideous representations of who we were rather than what we hoped and wished we looked like to others, she would tell us how marvelously sweet and attractive we were, without fail. When one sister sent the photo that she hated most to reveal to the light of day (because she despised how far she had her hair pulled back on the occasion, thinking it made her face exceedingly exposed) Auntie wrote to her with great kindness that she had ‘a lovely forehead.’ Nothing could, for us, more simply and clearly have illustrated how gifted Auntie was in finding beauty in us even where we felt most flawed.

Though she seemed so fixed in time by her perpetual uniform of the schoolmarm look, by her continuity in writing letters, sending books, telling stories to the youngest members of any party, and driving, albeit more slowly, the Old Folk she knew to their appointed rounds, Auntie finally did actually grow old and die. But of course, even her funeral was occasion for us to hear her piping voice cheerfully chirping out how amazing and fantastic we all were. The relatives who gathered to plan her memorial service were suitably impressed to compare notes and discover yet more of her Favorites among their number. And the whole day of togetherness not only confirmed that her love was what we all had in common, but was filled with laughter at the same old stories of Auntie’s antics, and the warmth of her boundless thoughtfulness and selfless kindness toward all and sundry in the family and in the whole wide world.photo