Smile lines (a very short story)

Paula was older than everyone, but only chronologically. Sure she’d lived longer than everyone else in the department, but you couldn’t tell by her actions. The only evidence of her greater age was in the deep wrinkles around her eyes. They looked like smile lines, but the smiles had to be for show, or from another period of her life. Perhaps she smiled out of habit, because even when she was telling very personal, very private stories about herself, she smiled her brittle smile at whoever had the misfortune of being stuck at a task that required they stay in the room with her.

The other staff had taken to looking forward to any task that involved being away from the back room after she arrived for the day. Normally these tasks were completed by whoever felt like it, and whenever it was convenient. Now they took turns, working around her shift. Every day one lucky person got the blessed reprieve of not having to listen to her yammering.

She needed a therapist.
Or an exorcist.

She’d been counseled by her temp agency to not share personal details, but she ignored those censures, choosing to run over her coworker of the week (or month), or however long the assignment was (or however long they could stand her) whichever came first, like an 18 wheeler over a kitten. It was merciless and bloody, with no regard for the emotional and psychic carnage she left in her wake.

One employee, unlucky enough to be forced to work with her three days in a row, even considered homicide. This gentle soul, a vegetarian for six years, a person who marched in peace rallies, a weekly volunteer at the domestic crisis shelter, had gotten so overwhelmed with Paula’s incessant complaints and bizarre observations that she started fantasizing about how she would make her be silent. Strychnine in her water bottle was considered. Loosening the lug nuts on her tires was a possibility. Anything that involved a painful end that was preceded by terror and confusion – the same as she had endured but more focused, more compact. That would do nicely.

Asking Paula to be mindful of others didn’t work. Neither did complaining to her supervisors. Flat out telling her to shut up seemed cruel, but perhaps it was the only way to regain peace at work. Mindless blather and too-personal comments was cruel so why not fight fire with fire?

Turn away

I’ve seen several pictures of things that have really disturbed me recently, and rather than just turn away again, I’ve decided to meditate on exactly what I find repulsive about these pictures. This is part of my recent decision to be more mindful. It is not an easy practice, but it is necessary for being fully conscious and aware of my actions.

These images aren’t things that people normally would turn away from, such as violence or abuse for instance. Those are abhorrent as well, of course. What I’m writing about here are images of people who are in ICU, hooked up to machines and tubes. I never gave it a second thought as to why I was repulsed until I saw a video about a machine that can keep a heart alive outside of the body in preparation for transplant. That tipped the scales.

What disturbs me about it is not exactly the same as what disturbs me about the ICU pictures, but it is a good thing to start with. The donor was dead, as far as doctors could determine. The brain had ceased functioning. The heart had been removed, and rather than keep it on ice as was normally done in a transplant situation, it was hooked up to a machine that replicated the environment inside the chest. It was kept humid and warm, with blood circulating through it. This heart was beating just like a normal heart, but it was inside a plastic box. There was no person attached.

I also saw a video of two mothers who had a strange connection. Mother A had a young child who had suddenly died due to trauma. She had decided to donate his organs. Mother B’s child had received his heart. They met three years later and mother A used a stethoscope to hear the heart of her son beating inside the chest of Mother B’s daughter. It was supposed to be a touching video, but I was really disturbed. Something seemed deeply wrong about this.

I kept being triggered by these images. I decided to examine the original related triggers – images of people in ICU. I don’t seek these out – people share them sometimes on social media as part of a story.

One was about a new mother who had been in an accident and the nurse brought her child to her so she could breastfeed her child. While the person who posted it was pointing out the value of breastfeeding, it was very disturbing. The mother was not present in any form other than her body. She was not being helped to breastfeed. The nurse put the child to her breast and that was it.

I look at a sketching website every day, and today there was one of a man in ICU. The sketcher even commented about it, wondering if it was ethically correct to sketch such a thing. He did not mention if he’d thought about the ethics of sharing it online as well.

I read something recently that speaks to all of this in a useful way.

There is a Jewish belief that it is improper to have an open casket. To do so is to violate the privacy of the person. It is also putting focus and attention on the wrong thing, as the “person” is not there – their soul has left. When there is just a body and not a soul, it is not a person. It is a shell, a husk. An open casket is an insult to the person who had inhabited that body, because they have no say over how they are seen. They have no control over what happens to them. They are fully exposed for the world to see and cannot do anything about it.

I think this is at the center of it all. To show pictures of people who are not at their best (to say it lightly) is to violate their rights. It is an invasion of privacy. It is embarrassing. To focus on body parts rather than the whole is equally unethical.

The lady’s son was no longer present. His heart was just a piece of muscle, doing a job. The heart in the box for transplant was moving as if it was alive, but as it was not attached to a person, it was simply the illusion of life. There was no soul in it. It was the same as looking at a machine.

Being mindful and considerate of others’ feelings also applies to not sharing pictures of people who have passed out from being drunk or are intoxicated to the point that they are unaware of their actions.

Remember the story of Noah and his sons?

Genesis 9:18-27
18 Noah’s sons who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. 19 These three were Noah’s sons, and from them the whole earth was populated. 20 Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. 21 He drank some of the wine, became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent. 22 Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside. 23 Then Shem and Japheth took a cloak and placed it over both their shoulders, and walking backward, they covered their father’s nakedness. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father naked. 24 When Noah awoke from his drinking and learned what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said: Canaan will be cursed. He will be the lowest of slaves to his brothers. 26 He also said: Praise the LORD, the God of Shem; Canaan will be his slave. 27 God will extend Japheth; he will dwell in the tents of Shem; Canaan will be his slave.

The son who saw him in his drunken state, unable to control himself, was cursed, along with his children. The two sons who covered him and made sure not to see him exposed were blessed.

This is the core teaching. To look at someone who is dead, or like dead (in ICU, or passed out due to intoxication) is an insult to their very being as a person. It is disrespectful. It is a violation of their privacy. It is the same as stripping someone naked. One might even go so far as to say it is equivalent to rape, as the person is treated as a thing and not as a person.

Like water off a duck’s back

I know a lady who is teaching her daughter to be a battered wife.

She doesn’t think that this is what she’s doing, of course. She says she’s teaching her to let things roll off her “like water off a duck’s back”. She wants her to not get riled up by things that happen to her. This is a good idea, but how she is going about it is disturbing.

Her way of teaching this lesson is to tap her daughter repeatedly in the face. The taps aren’t quite slaps but they are close. It is at least ten at a time. The daughter will say “quit it” or try to pull away and the mother will keep doing it. The daughter is about eight. The mom can easily tap her again when she pulls away, so the abuse continues.

I knew something was disturbing about this when I saw it but I couldn’t give words to it. Now I’ve figured it out. What she’s doing is teaching her daughter that she should just accept it when anybody abuses her.

How perfect it will be for a man with low self-esteem to find this girl who has been shaped for him. She will not complain or stand up for herself because her own mother, the person who she supposed to learn from, who is supposed to teach her healthy ways of taking care of herself, has taught her that she is supposed to be abused, and that this is just part of life. Her mother, her authority figure, is teaching her that people will try to harm her and that her only acceptable response is to let it happen.

Poem – This is not a Christmas present

not a present

This is not a Christmas present.
This is hatefulness.
This is the exact opposite
of a present at all,
much less one celebrating
the birth of Jesus.
This is pure aggressiveness.
There is nothing passive about it.
The label is superfluous.
It is quite obvious
what he thinks
about his sister
from how he has packaged
his “gift”.

If this were given to me,
I might set it on fire right in front of him.
I might take it outside first.
I might put it under a steamroller.
I might shoot it with my revolver.
I might tie lead weights to it
and throw it into Percy Priest Lake.

Under no circumstances would I open it.
It doesn’t matter what is inside.
Gold bars?
Enough money
to pay off my mortgage?
The key
to my dream art studio?
A contract
for a personal chef and gardener?

No gift is worth this.
Sure, it wouldn’t take long
to cut through these cable ties.
Maybe an hour.
Maybe a few pairs of scissors
would get destroyed
in the process.
That isn’t the point.

My friend,
I’m telling you
this truth:
don’t take any “gift”
that is given
with this much hostility.
It isn’t worth it.
Walk away from it,
and that person.

That is the best present
you can give
yourself.

The outside room

I found this unusual “room” at a nearby hospital. I’ve gone there for years because I have a doctor who has his office there. Once a year I go in, always in November. I’ve come to look forward to going at that time because of the “ghosts of leaves” that decorate the sidewalks. It is the wonderful and amazing combination of falling leaves and autumn rain that makes this temporary magic.

10

9

12

11

I usually do very little exploring in that building because I have to get back to work quickly. This time I had quite a bit of time to spare so I went to look around. I’m glad I’ve started asking for more time off when I schedule doctor’s visits so I’m not rushed. That certainly helps my overall health.

I looked down from the window in the hallway on the sixth floor where the office is. I saw trees – and not in a place I would expect. They were surrounded by the rest of the building. It was a tiny enclosed courtyard. I had to go find it.

I went downstairs to the entrance lobby and looked around. The courtyard I was looking for was behind a little café that sold coffee and melted sandwiches. There were plenty of windows around it. It was perfectly visible from the entrance that I’d come in for years. Somehow I’d never set my eyes to look that way, or at that distance. Just goes to show there are plenty of treasures that are around if you have your eyes open. I’d only been looking for one thing (my doctor’s office) and missed this. The café looked interesting too. It might be a nice place to come on a non-doctor’s-visit kind of day and enjoy lunch.

I’ve long thought I should go here on my day off and write, or maybe even sketch the people who are waiting for their lab results in the lobby. There are a lot of padded benches here and a lot of light. I’m not sure why I haven’t done this yet. There is free parking and this isn’t far from my home. Perhaps I’m concerned someone will challenge me because I’m not here for an official reason. They might think it is odd that I’m just hanging out. This is another thing I’m working on – trying to not worry so much about breaking rules that aren’t rules. Sometimes I make more limits than I should.

I went towards the door that let out onto the patio. I pulled on the door – it opened. Good. Then my concern was that the door might not allow re-entry. I checked it and it seemed like it would be fine. I then looked to see how far away the café was – it was close enough I could bang on the windows to get their attention.

And then I went out. And I saw this.

5

A tiny little park enclosed in a building. With benches.

4

It is open to the sky.

2

There are birdhouses and birdfeeders here. I saw two bags of birdfeed against a wall. Someone tends this little place.

1

3

Is it outside, or inside, or both? Is it a room?

When I came back out I asked at the café if that door was always open. The lady said she thought it was, and commented that almost nobody went out there. She thought they should put a table out there and I discouraged that idea. More clutter. It would make it more artificial out there. It would upset the balance of man-made and natural. I think it is good the way it is. The little lights are a bit disturbing, but they might be really nice at night.

Then I got their hours and took pictures of the menu, as a further enticement to make a date with myself to go out here.

 

Here are more “ghosts of leaves” from an earlier visit.

g3g4g2g1

 

Here are some from Thursday, 10-20-16, in Old Hickory.

g1g2g3g4

Menopause hacks

These are things that helped me get through to menopause. Think of it as transforming from a caterpillar to a butterfly – the old rules don’t work anymore. Everything is changing, and it gives you a chance to re-invent yourself into a new and better you. Meanwhile, the process can be quite difficult with the hot flashes and night sweats.

Half-blanket. Have the heavier covering on your legs, and a lighter covering on your torso.

Lower the thermostat in your house when you sleep.

Make art. You are transitioning from being physically creative – you can no longer have babies. But the need to be creative is still there. Making art on a regular basis (ideally, daily) is very helpful. Don’t have an agenda – crayons and fingerpainting works very well. Plus, art helps you process the new feelings and emotions that you are experiencing. It is essentially a new language.

Soy milk. I drink organic vanilla soy milk, (the store brand from Publix is great) every evening. I prefer mine room temperature. Don’t think it is going to taste like milk. It doesn’t. You’ll get used to it about the time you notice you’re feeling better. It is all a choice.

Black Cohosh. Consult with your doctor first. This can be harmful if you have high blood pressure or heart problems. For me, I ended up taking 40 mg doses of it, three times a day.

Avoid caffeine, meat, sugar, processed and/or fried foods. Cook fresh foods from scratch. Get organic as much as possible. Spicy foods make things worse. Drink lots of water. Daily exercise – 20 minutes of walking. Water aerobics is a godsend.

Yoga. Take some classes first to learn how to do it right, then you can do it every day at your house.

Learn to set boundaries. Now is a time to learn to tell people No. See my “resources” section for book lists – under “survival”.

Daily journaling. This does not have to be public in blog form, but it can if that helps you stick to it. I write every day in a paper journal, and most every day in the blog. Sometimes what I write in the paper journal ends up in the blog, sometimes it is private.

Poem – voices in your head

Those voices in your head
that say “You’re no good,
– you aren’t doing enough,
– why even try?”

Don’t let them in.
They are door-to-door salesman
standing on your front step
banging on the door
ringing the doorbell.

They aren’t your friends.
Those people,
or those thoughts.

Don’t let them in.
Notice them, through the window,
through the peephole
and say “Go away!
I’m not buying what you are selling!”