Weep and Learn: Cautionary Tales and Valuable Lessons

I look at the world and I notice it’s turning
While my guitar gently weeps
With every mistake we must surely be learning
Still my guitar gently weeps*

My guitar didn’t weep, but I did. My mistakes were legion.

When I started dating I was naïve and I was hopeful. I was trusting, gave men the benefit of the doubt, and thought the best. I did not grow up surrounded by healthy and well-functioning relationships to inform my choices. My older brother protected me through high school; no one dared hurt me for fear of his wrath. My early years left me unskilled in relationship basics and entirely unprepared to navigate the hearts and minds of men.

Ultimately, it all worked out for me, after many twists and turns on the journey. Here are some cautionary tales and lessons I had to learn along the way. These lessons are likely obvious to many. I share them in case you have blind spots, as I did, and would like to avoid ending relationships in a way that has you ducking into doorways to avoid coming face-to-face with your past on the street.

Some relationship endings were a dagger to the heart, taking months and years to grieve and recover. These aren’t those stories, with these I shed a few tears and moved on. These are experiences that demonstrate how you learn a quick and unequivocal lesson.

  1. You’re in your apartment talking to the new man you have met. There’s only been a couple dates, getting to know each other over dinner and coffee, and for the first time he’s stopping by. Your roommate, Pat, is on the phone, talking to her mother. Her mother hears the conversation in the background and asks about the man she can hear, what’s his name, why is he at the apartment. Pat tells her, it’s someone Carol is dating. Her mom tells her to put you on the phone, where she proceeds to inform you she knows this man, and his family, which includes a wife and three children, one a newborn, from their church. He is married in no uncertain terms. You get off the phone, confront him, and he does not deny it, but asserts that he didn’t lie because you never explicitly asked him if he was married. Apparently you’re the one at fault that in all the conversations getting to know each other these details didn’t happen to come up when he was telling you about himself. You are in the wrong for assuming someone with time to go on dates, stop by and hang out, doesn’t have other commitments like three children. A lie of omission is still a lie. You tell him to get out and never darken your door again, and perhaps spend his time and money on his family, and listen up when he’s in church.

Lesson Learned: Ask early on, directly and explicitly, if he is currently married or in a relationship, does he have children, what are their ages, has he been divorced, how many times, how long ago.

  1. You were close as freshman in college. You even stayed close the next year, when you changed schools, and he took a year off to work on the Alaskan pipeline, knowing he could cover the remaining three years of private school in cash with the earnings. Staying close means you hand-wrote letters and sent them in the mail to stay in touch. He’s back in Oregon, back to school, and you’ve just spent a few days and nights with a group of his friends at a big house on Mt. Hood. He is someone special, no doubt about it. After the time on Mt. Hood, you arrive back at your apartment in Portland, where he plans to stay overnight before driving back to school in Salem the next morning. You turn on the TV for some election night returns, become more and more bewildered/agitated by his political views and the spirited disagreement you’re having. Despite the late hour he decides to leave immediately and drive back to Salem. That is the last time you ever hear from him. A classic election-night breakup.

Lesson Learned: Discuss things that could prove difficult to compromise on – including politics and religion. Don’t wait for election night to understand his political views. Don’t put off meeting his family for months or years, only to find they’ll never accept you because of your different faith or lack of religion.

  1. During the relationship, his tastes exceed his income. You’re working and he’s a student. So you pick up the check most of the time. Against your better judgment, when he asks to borrow money you loan it. He is annoyed that you write “loan” in the memo portion of the check each time. He breaks up with you. You ask for the loan to be repaid. He gives an insolent smirk and tells you that you’ll never collect the debt. So you file a claim in Small Claims Court; this takes the smug look off his face and he agrees to repay you if you’ll agree not to take him to court. But you’re past taking him at his word; you go to court and are awarded a judgment. There’s still the issue of collection, so you go to the library, use the bread crumb trail of information he’s given you to track down his father, mail a copy of the judgment to his father’s office, and receive a note back saying both of you are foolish, but the debt will be repaid. And it is.

Lesson Learned: Never ever loan money or intermingle finances. An income imbalance is not toxic, but constant pressure to loan, gift, or spend money on someone you’re romantically involved with is. Don’t move in before you’ve known someone 12-18 months, and they’ve demonstrated things that are important to you, like financial responsibility and living within their means. Before co-mingling living expenses and financial commitments, understand your new love’s relationship with money, ability to live on what they earn, general level of debt, and expectations around who will pay the bills.

  1. You’ve had some very good times with someone who seems enthusiastically into you. You like him; it feels promising. Things are humming along with the easy back and forth of an established relationship. You are happily oblivious until, after a few calls, one with his bath water running, one with dinner currently cooking and the stovetop needing his constant attention, and one when he’s just walking out the door and can’t possibly be delayed, it finally sinks in. He doesn’t want to talk to you. This relationship is over. The only other time you hear from him is an apologetic call some weeks later informing you he has tested positive for a venereal disease and he’s not sure if there was overlap between you and the woman who gave it to him. Thankfully you dodged that bullet, but from this moment on he’s dead to you.

Lesson Learned: Don’t assume you’re on the same page regarding exclusivity and monogamy. Be clear about using protection and birth control. How will you avoid unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections? Before you move to intimacy, have these awkward but necessary conversations; don’t risk your health and never assume you’re in an exclusive relationship. Don’t even assume you are in a relationship.

  1. You meet someone and he has an exciting and edgy energy. You spend time talking and dancing and exchange numbers because you might like to see him again. When you get home that night, you have an intense nightmare where he brutally strangles you; you wake up terrified, gasping for breath. A couple days later he calls and invites you to go to the coast for the weekend. You tell him you’re not comfortable with that because you don’t know him well enough. (In your mind giving him control of the transportation and accommodation makes you vulnerable if things take an unpleasant turn.) He’s deeply offended by this, and says if you don’t trust him enough to go, this is over before it starts. And so it is.

Lesson Learned: Do not ignore intuition or dreams. Something in the subconscious is telling you the situation is unsafe. In this case, I’ll never know, he might have been the nicest guy ever. I stick with trusting my intuition, even though it cost me a possible relationship. This experience reinforced something I was starting to understand – anyone who moves too fast, pressures you to push your pace and do something outside your comfort zone, who downplays your need to keep yourself safe – that person is raising a huge red flag. Women have unknowingly crossed paths with sociopaths, malignant narcissists and serial killers, trusted their lives and the lives of their children to men they barely knew, with tragic results. Never be manipulated into ignoring your instincts. Don’t be shamed. Don’t be threatened. Don’t ignore your instincts because you feel embarrassed. The news is full of narratives where people say I had a feeling something was off, but I ignored it. I should have paid attention. Don’t be that person.

 

These stories may give the impression I always put men at fault. Not so. I’m well aware men might be out there writing cautionary tales about relationships with someone like me.

I never want to give up my trusting nature and my belief in the goodness of people. But I learned to accept the reality of the world we live in. Men (and women) lie, cheat, manipulate, con, hurt, disappoint, prey upon, bully, keep secrets, stalk, exploit, present themselves falsely, and in worst-case-scenarios assault, rape and murder – then minimize, deny, deflect, gaslight, blame others, and cast themselves as the victim while they do it. And it’s not black-and-white – good people end up behaving badly in some situations.

Hope and wanting make you vulnerable to an extent; I never found a way around that other than life experience. In my 25-year** learning curve, I got better in my skills and my selection process. When I made missteps I tried not to dwell on self-recrimination. I tried to remain optimistic despite bitter setbacks. Some experiences left me sad, resentful, disillusioned, distrustful, angry, wary, yet some part of me remained committed to a life with love in it.

There are wonderful potential partners out there who are worth the trouble to find. What kept me from finding one sooner was spending months, sometimes years, with men who were never going to be that partner for me. I reacted to hurt unpredictably – sometimes endlessly accommodating and forgiving nonsense, and at other times instituting a harsh one strike and you’re out policy with men. Over time I found balance. The trick is to evolve and not keep repeating the same hard lesson over and over. Learn and grow. Carry on.

* “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” The White Album. 1968. Writer: George Harrison
Publisher: Concord Music Publishing LLC. My favorite version: Guitar Heaven: the Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time, performed by Santana and Yo Yo Ma, featuring India Arie.

 

 

**I started dating around age 15 and got married at age 40, so spent about 25 years in and out of relationships (including a short first marriage) before entering into marriage with my right partner. This year will be our 25-year anniversary, marking a milestone for me – I’ve now been with one man longer than I was with all the other men put together.

© 2021 Carol Merwin, All Rights Reserved

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How to Kill a Fly, and Other Difficult Questions

I complained to my husband Ralph that flies are hard to swat, and asked him why he can do it, and I can’t. It’s a blow to my independence to have to ask for help. I wanted to know if it is because he’s a more patient person than I am, and he patiently explained to me

 There’s a trick to it. Flies have to jump to fly. First they jump off the surface they’re on, then they can start to fly. The trick is to wait until the fly is busy rubbing its hands together, then go for it. That slight delay of having to put it’s hands down before it can launch off the surface and fly keeps it from flying away before you kill it.

My apologies to any Buddhists reading this. I don’t fuss with flies outside. I don’t have a bug zapper, I’m not an awful person. But I can’t abide flies inside. If I can’t get them to fly back out the door they flew in, then they die.

Research shows flies have legs, they don’t really have hands. But they do, for biological reasons, rub their legs to eliminate any dirt that might alter their sensors, which are used to determine what is food. Ralph is correct on that. (1)

Flies have precise vision, can see at a 360 degree angle (can see behind them), and process information from eye to brain faster than humans, all of which makes it hard to sneak up on them. To them, we are moving in slow motion. So even though they don’t fly fast, they are hard to swat. I am correct on that. (1)

Researchers Michael Dickinson and Gwyneth Card have determined the secret to a fly’s evasive maneuvering and have given us a strategic method for swatting them. (2)

Long before the fly leaps, its tiny brain calculates the location of the impending threat, comes up with an escape plan, and places its legs in an optimal position to hop out of the way in the opposite direction. All of this action takes place within about 100 milliseconds after the fly first spots the swatter.

Dickinson’s research also suggests an optimal method for actually swatting a fly. “It is best not to swat at the fly’s starting position, but rather to aim a bit forward of that to anticipate where the fly is going to jump when it first sees your swatter,” he says.

But do they need to jump to start flying? Dickinson did say they hop, but didn’t specify that as a precondition for flying. Further online research reports did not yield a specific answer to this question before I ran out of patience with clicking and reading.

“There’s a trick to it.” I feel like there’s a lot of life that’s like this. Despite my best efforts, my diligence, my willingness – there’s some small piece of information I just don’t know that keeps success out of reach. How to look effortlessly stylish, how to wake up happy, how to get shit done, how to train a reactive dog to not react, how to be cheerful and enthusiastic about a carb-free diet, how to clean house without getting sidetracked, how to not feel guilty for whiling away the hours daydreaming, how to keep plants alive. I would sure like to know the answer to these questions without reading through a bajillion hits on Google to find out.

(1) https://brightside.me/wonder-animals/why-flies-rub-their-hands-and-10-other-facts-that-prove-its-not-their-goal-to-irritate-us-801130/

(2) https://phys.org/news/2008-08-scientists-flies-hard-swat.html

© 2021 Carol Merwin, All Rights Reserved

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Take a Day

Sometimes it’s good to take a day off from getting things done, bettering yourself, examining your history for clues and causes of dysfunction, making a to-do list and then measuring self-worth by checking things off. Take a day off from self-improvement, home-improvement, and making the world a better place. Take a day off from feeling annoyed, outraged, saddened by the world we live in. Take a day off from keeping up with the news.(If you’re up to any of those things in the first place.)

Now and then it good to take a pause in seeking, pursuing, trying, achieving – and just be happy and grateful. Allow yourself a day of joy, delight, and wonder.

April 13th, 2021 was such a day. Rest and reset. Take a breath. Enjoy nature. Enjoy an outing. Enjoy life. Do it for no reason other than to relax and have fun and appreciate something beautiful.

Here are a few images of the Tulip Festival, in Woodburn, Oregon. Sure, the harsh winter was still evident from all the downed trees and branches along the road to get there, but flowers are blooming, birds are moving, trees are on the verge of bursting with new leaves. There’s a sweetness to life when I remember to slow down and appreciate it.

IMG_8976 IMG_8929 IMG_8982 IMG_8949 IMG_8958IMG_8910IMG_8914 (1)IMG_8959
© Carol Merwin, All Rights Reserved

All images are property of the author and may not be reproduced without permission.

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What Made Me Different as a Kid

There are only 3 stories I was ever told about my birth. The one pertinent here is that my mom noticed right away I had pointed ears and told everyone at the hospital I looked like Peter Pan, but what she meant to say was I looked like Tinker Bell. She was apologetic about that mix-up, but she loved telling that story. It is one of a very, very few sweet and sentimental things I can remember about my no-nonsense, practical, down-to-earth, no-time-for-sentimentality mom.

My little pointy ears set me apart from all the other towheads running around the suburbs of Portland. But after the initial noticing at my birth, they didn’t create any fuss.

Then in school, around 2nd grade, I was introduced to bullying one day when I wore my hair in a ponytail and a boy called out, You have pointy ears! It was such an unforeseen attack I was caught speechless. My face reddened, all the way to the tips of those pointy ears. That was a more civilized era, when kids had to bully you to your face without the anonymity of electronics, but you also had to take your insults with the other kids watching your reaction. Painful.

As convenient as a ponytail is for a blue-jean wearing tomboy busy running the neighborhood with her older brother and his friends, that teasing was the end of the ponytail. From then on I wore my hair parted down the middle, hanging straight down over my ears. Despite attempts to hide them, my ears still had a tendency to stick out, but I did my best to fly under the radar and not draw attention.

I never had a teacher who put this reminder on the classroom door.

Be kind, everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. –Ian MacLaren

So true. Especially if your dad was a Marine Sergeant in his years just prior to becoming a parent. My brother and I were unruly kids and didn’t follow orders well. We were not to laugh at the dinner table, but we did, resulting in a smack to the head. We were not to use profanity, but we did, resulting in sitting side-by-side on hard chairs, longingly wishing for escape, with a bar of soap in our mouth, for what felt like hours. Like Marine recruits in boot camp, the necessity of following commands was drilled into us. We were not allowed to stand up for ourselves, explain or justify our actions, plead for mercy, learn from, or laugh about our mistakes. But we fought to be the rambunctious kids we were. We continued to throw each other off the sofa playing King of the Mountain, to get into all kinds of scrapes, and even dare to talk back on occasion. Indeed, we fought a hard battle to stay true to ourselves; it took a fair amount of yelling and punishing to keep us quiet and obedient.

At what cost were we kept silent? I often wonder how adult relationships would have been for me if my childhood hadn’t taught me to be either invisible, or accommodating and obsequious. How much better would my love life have been if I hadn’t been taught to tolerate bullying? Most painful question of all, would my brother and I have been as self-destructive, as careless with our lives, would we have felt undeserving of love and happiness?

Some adults feel bullying is OK, in fact necessary, to toughen kids up for adulthood. In the absence of rite-of-passage rituals that require a demonstration of courage and endurance to open the door to adulthood, kids in our culture use various forms of bullying and hazing. When kids tease kids, and it doesn’t carry on into full-on bullying, you might make this argument. When adult coaches, parents, teachers, and religious leaders bully kids, I think this theory is a load of crap, a justification similar to a pedophile minimizing and justifying sex abuse by saying his advances are a safe and gentle introduction to healthy sexuality. The worst are religious leaders that preach, justify and normalize verbal abuse toward children, bullying and threatening from the pulpit, and giving parents permission to abuse.

If you’re tempted to believe that bullying helps kids, here is a “poem” I created, loosely inspired by Flarf poetry; it’s mostly strung-together words, with nothing pretty or lyrical about it.

A Poem About the Potential Results of Bullying

wounded by ugly experience and left with scars

overly sensitive, easy to victimize, fundamentally dis-empowered

hard to be friends with, distant, aloof, standoffish

in a state of perpetual avoidance and paralysis

wounded, damaged, traumatized

angry and bitter

distrustful, disturbed, depressed

anxious in crowds, unsafe in the world

striving to be perfect, hoping that provides protection

always on the outside looking in

vulnerable, sad, lonely

angry and enraged

If bullying toughens you up, then I should have been a super tough kid, and to some degree I was. But that toughness didn’t provide me with armor. I felt the pierce of the arrow. It hurt time and time again.

The worst part of being bullied was the bully it put on my shoulder well past childhood, the constant voice in my ear criticizing me. I became my own worst bully until I read this Louise Hay quote that gave me permission to ease up a bit.

Remember, you have been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.

And don’t forget, there is always the possibility of redemption, always the possibility of turning dross to gold. Have faith there will be a turning point in your life. Life becomes kinder, easier, and more joyful. Vulnerabilities make us lovable. Wounds can heal. A difficult beginning to life doesn’t define the rest of our life. There comes a day when an unkind remark made long ago by a parent or a kid has lost its power.

Learning to stay quiet and not draw attention helped me in some ways – I’ve been told I’m a good listener, I have a rich interior life, I’m sensitive and compassionate. Aging gave me a new perspective. Parents who loomed large and scary in their wrath turn out to be people who were doing the best they could, parents who were less harsh and more forgiving than their own parents had been. As an adult, there’s the possibility of forging an entirely new relationship with your parents, one you enjoy and appreciate, as I have done.

And let’s bring things full-circle. I had the pleasure of discovering pointy ears were just right for me when Star Trek was released in 1966, a few months before I turned 10. The character of Spock drew my attention as the show quickly engaged my imagination. I sat – on our avocado green sofa (which coordinated with our mustard yellow chairs), munching on a bowl of popcorn, glued to the big bulky TV we were so proud to own, at this stage in my life bearing the additional burden of wearing glasses with swooping, pointy wings and coke-bottle-thick lenses that could only highlight my pointy ears – watching each episode unfold. I had no friends to watch with, I had nowhere else to be. An episode like The Trouble With Tribbles was the best part of my day. My favorite character? Spock, with his sublime pointy ears! From then on, my pointy ears became a mark of pride; my analytical, rational, logical mind emerged as my Superpower. Spock profoundly changed my life as a kid, and I wonder how many other teased and bullied kids find solace in his appearance and his wisdom.

“History is replete with turning points. You must have faith that the universe will unfold as it should.”–SPOCK

Footnotes:

This idea kids bully as a rite of passage came forward when I worked with Kim John Payne on a program of restorative justice called Social Inclusion at a school my daughter attended. He didn’t propose that bullying is good because it toughens kids up, more that it is inevitable kids will tease and bully as a rite of passage in the absence of something more formalized. And if it is inevitable, then parents and schools need a restorative justice approach that looks to repair the wrong and bring the bully back into the fold, rather than hold a zero-tolerance policy that judges and excludes the bully. His work is geared to creating an environment where kids learn from and accept differences in each other, and adults take a learning orientation to changing behavior.

One of many articles on coaches bullying: https://web.magnushealth.com/insights/coach-bullying

© 2021 Carol Merwin, All rights Reserved

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Story Ideas

The Covid pandemic has meant more time spent at home, so I’ve been taking some writing classes. Sometimes I ask myself why bother, there are so many extraordinary writers, what do I have to offer. But a writing teacher told me there are stories only you can tell. In thinking about it, he was right, there are stories that will be lost to time if I don’t tell them. I have experiences – to process/heal/make sense of/make peace with/find the gift in/laugh at/enjoy remembering and telling. I like to think I might tell a story that will help someone on his or her journey in one way or another, or maybe just help them understand my generation (Baby Boomer) and answer the question, how did we get here?

Here’s a short list of story ideas, not in chronological order…

Help comes in unexpected places. I worked for a man who escaped Nazi Germany to Shanghai, then escaped Shanghai ahead of the communist revolution to come to America. For reasons that were never clear to me, he took a special interest in helping me to graduate from college. One lesson he taught me – if you take too long to get your mind around change, if you hesitate due to disbelief, doubt, or indecision, the delay taking action can cost you everything. He and one other family member survived; the rest of his entire extended family died in WWII concentration camps.

I had three therapists (and also obtained 2 psychology/counseling degrees myself). I have a lot of opinions on whether people can change, and the when, why, and how of change.

My cognitive-behavioral therapist was a Vietnam veteran who called my childhood my personal Vietnam War. As with many Vietnam veterans, my drug use was situational and I stopped using when the war was over for me.

I was talked into riding in Cycle Oregon the year of the Oregon Trail and that was a lot of mountains to ride up and over. Respect for pioneers who did it in covered wagons. It was a hellish vacation (I’m just not that athletic). I cried in the port-a-potty over squandering my few precious vacation days to the experience. I was so exhausted by the riding that I had homicidal fantasies as I laid awake all one night, the tents crowded together, and some man having arranged his tent so that his snoring was closer to my ear than if we’d been in bed together. Like my guitar lessons, my training for an endurance event gave me a deep appreciation for the mastery of people who have devoted a lifetime to their art or their sport.

I have a dog and we are both like cats; we compete for the best spot to nap in the sun.

I worked at Music Millennium in the 1970’s and my co-worker Darlene gave me her sister’s ID so I could go out and listen to live music in bars with the men we worked with. There were some interesting drug-fueled parties, and memorable experiences, and one of the men that worked there found his way into my heart by playing the song Carol, performed by the Rolling Stones (written by Chuck Berry), while we worked. He and I were still together when I moved to Eugene to attend U of O, and he rode Greyhound down for a Halloween party, and was photographed walking down the street in his guitar costume, made out of bicycle boxes that fit over his entire body, just legs sticking out the bottom as the guitar walked down the street. He was on the front page of the local paper the next day. It’s sad to me that no one my daughter’s age can relate to buying music on vinyl, or having a brick-and-mortar store be an important part of music culture in the city. Note: technically I worked at The Upper, which was a hippie boutique selling clothes and jewelry that the owner’s wife started in the upstairs of the original Music Millennium store on 32nd and East Burnside. Only men worked downstairs with the music and only women worked upstairs, they were technically two separate businesses.

I, and two of my friends, have lost a brother to the fallout from drug addiction, in 3 very different ways, over a period of years. The loss was not so much a question of if, but a question of when.

In my early 20s I was leaving Montreal to fly to Casablanca. Most passengers would board in New York City, and there were just a few people on the plane for the Montreal to NYC leg of the Royal Air Maroc flight. After I boarded, the pilot came back to the cabin, sat down in the seat next to me, asked if I was traveling alone (yes) and was someone meeting me at the airport (yes). He informed me Northern Africa had a robust white slave trade, and blondes were especially coveted. He only returned to his pilot duties after I assured him I would not travel in Morocco unescorted.

When I was getting to know the man that’s now my husband, the first time I went to his house, he had a motorcycle disassembled in his living room. He had 5 more in his garage. I think 3 were working and the other two were in various stages of disassembly. Men, left to their own devices, live very differently than women. A disassembled motorcycle, no furniture to sit on  – all part of his charm.

In the mid-1980’s I lived downtown on SW 9th and Salmon, where Gypsy Slim, the first homeless, mentally ill person who pushed a shopping cart that I ever knew, would wake me up around 3:00 am with his booming voice shouting profanity from his sleeping space in the parking garage right outside the apartment window. I lived across the street from a liquor store. The Rajneesh bought the Copper Penny nightclub on the corner of SW 8th and Salmon, and the bakery kitty corner on 9th and Salmon, and pretty soon Rajneeshees were thick on the streets outside my apartment day and night (easily identified by their clothing in various hues of red and purple). Having taken a class called The Utopian Dream at Willamette University in 1975, where we traveled around to various Oregon communes (hippies were starting communes all over Oregon), sat in on community meetings held in geodesic dome structures, learned the challenges of reinventing community, religious or otherwise, I was not tempted by the vision.

Part of the reason I’m obsessed with interior design, the reason I constantly rearrange things, and I live in dread of becoming a hoarder, is because my parents rarely changed or got rid of anything in their house. When my mom got sick and it was time to move mom and dad into a retirement living facility, then clean out and sell the house, my bedroom had the same paint on the wall (lavender), same striped carpet (lavender with dark purple), same posters on the wall (early 70s vintage) it had the day I moved out as a teen-ager. Only change was that boxes and piles of unused stuff had been added. The entire house felt like a time capsule. The same Formica dining table with the stainless steel rim and skinny legs we ate at as a family was still in the same spot. Everything in the house would now sell as vintage or retro. The only upgrade and nod to modern design was a better television (although it still lived in a big, bulky cabinet).

That completes my story-telling to-do list for now. Every story I finish seems to spark an idea for a few more.

© 2021 Carol Merwin, All Rights Reserved

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Food Memory

Inspired by reading Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table, a collection of essays from the New York Times, I cast about for a food memory and recipe of my own to share. I have very little to work with, but here’s a memory from summers as a kid.

Before we were old enough to be busy full-time with berry picking, babysitting, paper route, mowing lawns, returning beer bottles to the store, hustling for money any way we could, and after we were old enough to prepare our own lunches and snacks, summer was a time my brother and I ran wild, entirely unsupervised. We only came home for food. Our favorite lunch was a sugar sandwich – and here’s the recipe – white bread, a thick layer of butter so as to stick as much sugar as possible, white sugar the sandwich filling – washed down with Kool-Aid. This is a meal best eaten on the backyard patio because there is inevitably sugar spillage due to overestimating how much will stick to the butter, and grape Kool-Aid spills never go over well with mom.

Moms of that era didn’t compete for who had the most high-quality food and healthiest, most nutritious diet for their kids. A good dinner was meatloaf or spaghetti or some concoction with browned ground beef as the base and a can of Campbell’s soup as the sauce. Hamburger Helper was an exciting food innovation still a few years off. Because we ran around outside from morning ‘till dark (as late as 9:00 to10:00 pm during summer months in Portland), sugar sandwiches were the perfect fuel.

When I was an adult, my mom confided to me she knows she was a lackadaisical parent and should have kept better track of us when we were kids. Due to this lack of supervision, one day a bunch of us kids set a small fire, which got away from us as fires do, growing big enough to require the fire department, all the commotion caused because we were curious and wanted to see what the ants would do. Setting that anthill on fire was wrong on many levels; I understand that now.

Back to food. As kids, a big treat was a take-out burger and fries from McDonalds. I never recall sitting down for a meal in a restaurant as a family, although we did go out for ice cream at Farrell’s for special occasions like graduations. Due to limited dine-in experiences as a kid, restaurant behavior and protocol were unknown, information I didn’t consciously realize was lacking until I went with a man on a date to a fancy restaurant when I was a freshman in college. Sitting there in the Sizzler, eyes darting around to see what other people were doing, appetite ruined by nervousness, it suddenly dawned on me the only time I’d ever been in a restaurant was a couple of times when my grandmother took me to lunch at the Safari Club in Estacada. I had no idea how to act or what was expected at the Sizzler, and was agitated and uncomfortable the entire time. I would have been more at ease eating a basic burger while nonjudgmental eyes peered down on me from animal heads mounted on the wall.

I didn’t realize how much food and parenting intersect until I wrote some of these food memories. I’d like to state here: When I became a parent I was more attentive and watchful than my mom had been, though I tried not to veer into helicopter or bulldozer parenting. I was also more forgiving of dumb-ass* exploits that happened despite my watchful eye. Remembering the mischief we got up to, often eluding harsh punishment only because no one paid enough attention for us to get caught, I tried to make unfortunate decisions into learning experiences for my daughter.

And because of that uncomfortable date at the Sizzler, permanently imprinted in the part of my brain that stores trauma, I also set a conscious intention to take my daughter to all kinds of restaurants from a very early age, and to expose her to world travel and upscale hotels and resorts, not often, but enough here and there that she’d feel comfortable and at home wherever life took her as an adult.

 

* Dumb-ass is a term carried over from my childhood. My dad’s preferred all-purpose parenting advice, applied to most of our behavior, was don’t be a dumb-ass.

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© 2021 Carol Merwin, All Rights Reserved

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The ongoing decline and ultimate downfall of civilization as we know it

From Ross Gay, author of The Book of Delights, 51.Annoyed No More:

At the Afghan restaurant today I identified in myself a burbling in my reservoir of annoyance when I realized that people were going around the buffet in the wrong direction, which was, the annoyance felt, a kind of wretched incivility, a sign of our imminent plummet into lawlessness and misery.

He’s not wrong. First small conventions of courtesy fall, then comes reckless abandonment of rules meant to keep us safe, then we have utter pandemonium leading to the dismantling of all social norms and the destruction of society as we know it.

Today a driver ignored the one-way arrows in the parking lot and went in the out because she saw a convenient parking spot she wanted to grab, and didn’t want to take the time to loop around and come into it from the proper direction. Recently a neighbor did not pick up poop deposited on our lawn by their dog. Yesterday, out walking along the Alameda Ridge in the fine spring weather, I went down a staircase – one too narrow to socially distance – and abruptly encountered 3 people coming up, one with no mask and no apology, and apparently no embarrassment for ignoring social norms as we experience a huge uptick in Covid-19 infections from super-contagious variants. That is just wrong.IMG_8810

Need more signs of the decline of our civilization? What about a pill, prescribed in the dose of half a tablet, that won’t cut in two equal portions but instead disintegrates into a fine powder, requiring a person to wet a finger to lift the powder off the pill cutter, then lick it off the finger like a cocaine addict? An annoying process to get the full dose. What was the doctor thinking to prescribe medicine this way?

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What have we come to? I am left to wonder. Unfortunately, I think it is too late to reprogram my brain to be happily oblivious to rampant rule breaking. Ross Gay manages to turn his annoyances into a delight, but I’m not that highly evolved, not yet.

Peeps flavored Pepsi and bar-scented candles are not strictly rule breaking (other than the rules of common sense), just more evidence of a precipitous decline (thoughtfully pointed out by Saturday Night Live Weekend Update). Thank you to them for the important service of keeping us up to date on these milestones in our demise.

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One Way Adoptive Parenting is Easier Than Biological Parenting

One way adoptive parenting is easier than biological parenting is illustrated by a poem I love, that I read many, many times as a parent. It comes from The Prophet by Kahil Gibran.

And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, Speak to us of Children.

And he said:

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughter of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you they belong not to you.

 

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

 

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;

For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

I have never parented a child I gave birth to, so technically I don’t have any frame of reference to compare, but I think it’s been easier to live by the wisdom in this poem as an adoptive mom. I always expected my daughter to be her own person. I didn’t constantly look for myself, or my husband, in her; I had no expectation of finding us in her little being. She was her own self, and it was a pleasure to get to know her. A joy to watch the unfolding and blossoming, into the young woman she is today.

She has so many qualities neither her dad nor I have – a natural friendliness and easygoing, outgoing nature. A different sense of humor. A more courageous, less cautious approach to life. Less analytical and mathematical, more intuitive. More likely to be out and doing than home studying and reading. She reads for pleasure, not information. We both love to dance, but she dances on the stage, something I can’t imagine for myself.

It was easy for me to understand – my role as mom is supporting her in evolving toward her highest and best. I did not strive to form her into a mini-me. When she’d tell me mom, I’m not like you I had no reason to doubt or argue; I didn’t take it personally.

Adoptive parenting has its own challenges. Yet, as I’ve watched some friends struggle with their children that came to them through birth, I know in this regard, it’s been easier as an adoptive mom.

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The Most Toxic Words In My World

I have needed a living room rug for 3-4 years and today I decided is the day to buy one. After a couple hours of online shopping I’m hit with a depressing downward spiral of negative self-talk that shocks and dismays me. The process brought to mind these thoughts.

Why Bother

Nothing Can Be Done About That

I Don’t Have the (fill in the blank) To Have That   (Money, time, talent, expertise, focus, will force, tools, etc.)

I grew up hearing that constant refrain. I have fought the defeatism of those remarks (either spoken out loud or in my head) my entire life. When I was a kid, my parent’s projects would derail before they even started due to arguments about how to do it or how to pay for it. Or projects would get started (i.e. demo completed), then go off plan. Arguing would ensue, followed by a hostile standoff, resulting in a project still incomplete years later.

A project to redo the bathroom floor (in the house I grew up in) was started when I was a teenager, and finally got completed when a contractor was hired to get my parent’s house ready to sell decades later. It was so dispiriting to see my parents live with that abandoned project all those years. I forget specifics, but the DIY flooring wasn’t installed properly, it curled up around the edges and didn’t stick, so a bath mat got thrown over the top of the unfinished floor. The wooden base molding that went around the floor was leaned up against the wall instead of getting nailed back in place. And there it stayed for 50 years. My parents had opportunities to complete this project, but got stuck and gave up. I find myself trapped in the same box sometimes. A box made of my own limited thinking, false perceptions, lack of imagination and negativity.

All I wanted to do today was buy a rug. Lots of people have rugs; it’s not complicated. So why did I fail, and why am I feeling so disappointed in myself? Sure, the negative childhood history lives in me, but who doesn’t have their childhood drama, and why am I letting it stop me?

I adore interior design shows. They are so inspirational – stories of reinvention and redemption – hideous rooms transformed. Anything is possible! But maybe I’ve watched too many, and suffer by comparison. Compare and despair thinking does me no good.

I try to remember… the makeovers you see online and on TV look fast and easy because they have expertise, confidence, and a can do temperament.* Professional designers are better at shopping online and imagining what will work than I am. My imagination fails me when I look at a photo of a little square box of carpet on the computer and try to visualize the rug on my floor with my furniture. Replicating a room from an online/magazine/catalog photo – buying exactly what I see – is the obvious way to get a rug, but I can’t bring myself to do that. I’m ridiculously committed to individuality.

Back to that can do attitude. I have found it challenging to unlearn the opposite. My question is, how do I reprogram my brain from nothing can be done about that and build the neural pathways that tell me I can do this?

Are we born either optimistic or self-doubting, and are we stuck that way for life? Was I born pessimistic and lacking confidence? How is my daughter the opposite? My daughter shines at interior design. As a kid, she rearranged and reinvented her bedroom on a regular basis. I’d be downstairs, hear a few thumps and bumps, go up to find all the furniture rearranged. She was tiny but mighty; I don’t know to this day how she did it. When she decided she’d outgrown a certain look, I’d go upstairs to find everything from her purge tossed outside her bedroom door. She was done with it and not looking back. I’d be the one to rescue a few sentimental items I couldn’t bear to part with from her childhood. Maybe she’ll thank me for those rescues someday, but I doubt it. She lives in the moment, in the now. I’m so impressed her creativity isn’t blocked by self-doubt and indecision. When she shops she knows exactly what she wants. I respect her confidence and decisiveness (in all areas of her life). Those are some of the many lessons she is here teaching me.

In my case, my self-doubting often turns into procrastination, which often leads to the toxic trifecta of discouragement, hopelessness and helplessness. In terms of reprogramming the brain, action rewires the neural pathways – I have to get off the fence and take action. Like the quote says:

“You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide, overthinking it. You have to go down the chute.” –Tina Fey

The worst use of creativity is thinking up excuses, imagining who is to blame, and imagining all the ways it can go wrong.** Don’t become paranoid and overcautious in living life – it takes no more effort to imagine the best possible outcome than the worst.

The best use of creativity is imagining the possibilities, figuring out what I am capable of doing on my own, or imagining who I could ask (or hire) for help. It is great to collaborate. It is great to experiment – each choice creates a new possibility. Each small step gives new information to consider in the process. More than anything, I have to get out of my own (self-doubting) way and get into action.

Here is one thing I tell myself to shift my mindset. Replace I can’t do it with I’m on a spiritual journey, and each step helps me learn and grow. Choosing a new rug might seem irrelevant to the spiritual journey, but a spiritual lesson lives in the heart of every struggle.

Remember negativity bias. As humans we’re wired to respond more to negative experiences than positive ones; negative events impact our brain more. It is evolutionary to fear and reject the unknown. It takes conscious effort to surrender to the unknown, to lean into it. I’m scarred by the one project my parents struggled with, and don’t remember the many they successfully completed.

It is poison for me to look at a beautiful room and think, I could never have that, so why bother. It buries any possibility for joy under a load of depression, and brings forward shame around even wanting it or feeling deserving. No wonder I spiral downward when I have trouble choosing a rug. It is taking on energy from so much more.

What works to shift the negative thinking?

  1. Anchor happiness and overcome negativity bias – keep a little album of before and after pictures to remember successes. Looking around the house at past successful projects works too.
  2. Channel the energy of desire. Let the vision of what I want to create, pull me toward it. Focus entirely on what I DO want. I want a beautiful, uplifting, comfortable and cozy nest infused with creativity, color, individuality, spirit and warmth. All that, plus order and cleanliness. This clarity of intention helps me show up with the love, warmth, enthusiasm and commitment required to transform vision to reality.
  3. Keep showing up and moving forward. Trust something will develop once things are in action. I want a rug, but to break the negative thinking I freshen the room through rearranging art and furniture. Quit overthinking it and making it more complicated than it needs to be. Break it down to action I’m willing to take right now. Take a small step. Buy some fresh flowers or a plant to liven the space. It is not magic; if I want something I need to be willing to work for it. Not every choice has to be a huge leap. One small decision, followed by action, can get the upward spiral going.
  4. Awareness. Choice. Change. That’s my mantra. I’m grateful when I recognize the old pattern. Awareness is crucial; it allows a different outcome. Awareness is followed by a conscious choice to do something different to shift the energy. This is another way of saying, quit doing what doesn’t work. Obvious to most people.
  5. Ask for help whenever possible. There is online help, professional help, family and friends. Barter if you don’t have the money. Seek and find the person in your world with the tools and skills to execute the project you are stuck on. Discard “go it alone” thinking. My aunt took this to an extreme level when she married a building contractor and persuaded him to rebuild her childhood home to overcome a lifetime of being told, “nothing can be done about that”. If you have the inclination, pray for insight, inspiration, and clarity.
  6. Set a deadline – I used to get more done in six days leading up to a get-together at my house than I would get done in six months without an event planned. Even if it was cleaning out the bedroom closet – which no one coming for dinner was going to see – I’d really get into action with having people over. Covid-19 has been awful, no events to create those deadlines. But I deserve for things to be comfortable and beautiful for me.
  7. Steal from other people. Instead of compare and despair, watch and learn. Everything is inspired by something, and it is OK to use someone else’s idea – they make videos and write articles to inspire with their ideas.
  8. Can I live with the worst outcome? Sometimes I play out the worst-case scenario to its conclusion – as in, what’s the worst that can happen if I rearrange the furniture and don’t like it – would putting it back be a tragic failure? What’s the worst that can happen if I paint it the wrong color – then I’m going to paint it again. A mistake can hurt, it can be tough to get through, but there’s not much that will actually kill us. If the rug turns out to be ugly, I can send it back. Chronic decision paralysis can be worse than any of the possible outcomes because fence-sitting stands in the way of living life.
  9. Love myself through all my missteps. Give myself credit for trying, and accept that all of life brings learning and evolution. Give myself permission to take a break from criticizing and judging myself. Forgive myself for the times I think and act just like mom did (yikes!), despite my best efforts to be the exact opposite. *** That’s more important to my evolution than any rug I will ever own.

“You have been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.” –Louise Hay

As I write this conclusion a few days later, I still don’t have a new rug, but I’ve rearranged 3 rooms, cleaned and freshened things up, done a couple of simple DIY projects, and treated myself with compassion in the process. I allowed myself to feel bad about not having a rug, but only for a minute. When Covid lifts, I’ll be able to get out and about and shop the way I need to, in person, seeing the rug, touching and feeling it. Until then, in the spirit of living in a constant state of gratitude, I embrace the room I have and refuse to let destructive thinking get in the way of enjoying my home and my life.

“I do not really have ‘problems’; I only think I do by the way I interpret my circumstances. A ‘problem’ is an illusion. It is a limiting perception without gratitude.” –Dr. Darren R. Weissman, The Nature of Infinite Love & Gratitude

 

* On those shows, an hour of thrift store shopping, a couple hours at the big box, hardware and home-improvement store, and you have ingredients for an incredible room makeover. A day of painting and a couple hours of arranging and viola! You don’t see the days of planning, designing, and shopping leading up to the project. We rarely see the team of people hauling things in and out. Some programs show the crew, and it is helpful to know you don’t redo a room in 2 days without a team of people working like crazy, often long into the night. These are professional woodworkers, cleaners, organizers, designers, painters and color experts. Also, some of those shows are flat-out staged fiction – it didn’t happen anything like that.

** One exception, you can earn a great income if you have a gift for imagining all the ways things can go wrong – as an attorney, an IT systems tester, an architect, and various other careers. I made my tendency to foresee disasters around every corner work for me professionally. Relentless pessimism won’t make you popular in the workplace, but people will respect your ability to save everyone from embarrassing mistakes and catastrophic failures. Use what you’ve got; find the silver lining.

*** I’d like to note mom had many qualities that I greatly admired and am pleased to see in myself.

© Carol Merwin, All Rights Reserved

All images are property of the author and may not be reproduced without permission.

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Poetry Class

I am always yammering on about getting out of my comfort zone and going for a stretch.

For an introvert, during Covid restrictions, this means poetry.

Something I’ve never done and never thought I’d do. After registering for the class I asked myself repeatedly, “What was I thinking!”

It was surprisingly gratifying and illuminating. Words can lie, but it seems poetry cannot.

Here are my efforts:

Bantu (two line, call-and-response) poem. Can be written by two people, but in this poem I wrote both lines, inspired by a vase in my office.

Vase has a thin brittle edge with one small chip

Life is fragile and breaks without warning

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Ode (poem celebrating something you love).

Ode to Tula

Small enough to pick up and hold

Always gets up in my lap to talk to “grandpa”

Relentlessly begging for treats, behavior learned from going hungry

 

Agile

Back to treats, she knows the drawer they are in and she sits and patiently waits

Imploring with her big eyes and tiny whine

She has not found a way to open the drawer herself, but she would like to

 

Why make life easy,

When you can have something complicated,

With a troubled past you’ll never know or understand

And can only infer from her difficult and needy behavior

 

She makes me remember compassion

She makes me remember when you meet someone on the street you don’t know what they’ve been through, how they’ve struggled, their pain

 

So much love in her small body

So much warmth under a blanket having a nap together

So much gratitude for a warm home and a water dish and a predictable dinnertime

So well-behaved in the car because she used to live in one

 

Big ears give her a comical expression

Short reddish-tan fur warm and soft to the touch

Makes her the third red-head in the family

Tail that whaps back and forth with excitement

 

Reactive in ways I wish she wasn’t

Impossible to manage at times despite her small size

I can’t know the memory she is reacting to

 

She reminds me of me

She deserves love and tenderness and I give it

I’m glad I wanted her despite complications and complexity

I’m glad I rescued her

I’m glad she rescued me

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Free verse form (anything goes) on what is absent, missing, broken, used up, longed for.

Loss Of A Year

We won’t get the time back

To travel to Italy

Or celebrate Dad’s 91stbirthday, or Natalie’s graduation

 

We won’t get our innocence back

Our belief we want the same things,

Believe the same truth,

Share the same values

 

We won’t get back our ability to look away

In the face of inexplicable brutality

 

We won’t get back families that are broken by death

Deaths we didn’t see coming and never dreamed would number so many

 

What we have found is the joy of small things

The pleasure of tiny moments that make a year

 

Do we grieve and grieve and grieve

Or do we move forward from here

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Collaborative poem. These are verses I contributed to a collaborative poem Advice to Humankind. Everyone in the class contributed individual lines, based on our current day existence, and the contributions were assembled into one larger poem by the teacher. A unique experience. The whole was indeed more than the sum of its parts, but I’m sharing only my writing out of respect for the other contributors – they choose where and when to share their work.

If you find yourself vacillating between stress eating,

boredom eating,

(or drinking)

go outside more, and for longer.

Let the sun warm your face.

Sit or walk, see something green and growing,

alive.

Enjoy the outdoors, even the rain.

Or sit by a window if you can’t go out.

 

Recognize you won’t use all your extra time to clean the house

sort the drawers

learn new skills, or exercise in online classes.

You might fall short

on bettering yourself, with all the stress

and worry.

All poetry was written in the Portland Community College writing class Little Moments: Poetry of the Everyday taught by Angie Ebba, February 20, 2021.

 

© 2021 Carol Merwin, All Rights Reserved

All images are property of the author and may not be reproduced without permission.

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