Episode 274: Resolutions Schmesolutions

Summary

Where did this tradition of New Year’s resolutions come from and why do we continue with it when we know that we are most likely to fail? I explore some of those questions and even a few statistics and then I arrive at a resolution. 😏 Will you make a list this year? Or will you just keep on glowing and being your beautiful flawed self? I hope this new year brings you insight, inspiration and love.

I have a Patreon page! Please check it out. If you make a small pledge you’ll get to see photos and clips from my journals and hear a bit more about some of the stories. This is a fun way that I can share visuals with you.

Check it out HERE.  Or at patreon.com/dianathebard

If you want to hear more on any particular subject, or if you want to ask a question or simply connect, you can find me on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/dianathebard   or reach out on the website: bardofhudson.com — This episode is sponsored by · Anchor: The easiest way to make a podcast. https://anchor.fm/app

Transcription

Hello and Happy New Year. Yay, 2023! Let’s hope it’s going to be a whole new bag. Hey, a girl can dream, right? It’s just good to be getting rid of 2022 It was quite a mess still. And it’s always fun to turn a new leaf, right. So I’m glad to be here with you. 

I’m glad it’s the new calendar year. Let’s kick it off right. Let’s do something different. Or maybe bring back something that we had done, and that we’d forgotten about and that we loved. So when I wrote this episode, I was sitting writing in a cafe and giving that a try again after many years. I used to go almost every morning to this little cafe in Piermont, which is the town nearest to Palisades. And that was when I was living on Woods Road with my kids when they were young. They’d go off to school and I’d drive off to the cafe thinking I’m going to get some writing done right away, first thing today. I would go in and chat up the barista, whose name was Rafi, and then I’d settle in with an enormous muffin and a latte. 

Well, different times. No more absurdly enormous muffins for me. And no more lattes. I take my coffee black these days. And I only have one of them a day because my sleep is unpredictable as it is. There may come a day when I have to give up caffeine entirely but I love the ritual of it. But I guess if I’m taking it black anyway, there isn’t much ritual there isn’t the whole frothing the milk and all of that business. So I guess a tea bag plus hot water might be the same thing. Hmm, maybe that will be part of my ‘new year new me’ routine. So maybe some old ones return. I did give up coffee for a little while, so maybe I have to try that again. 

This whole cafe milieu, however, right now is a bit discombobulating actually. Oh, I love that word – ‘discombobulating.’ First of all, it starts with the prefix dis-, which is something that Shakespeare invented. It has to do with the ruler of Hell. Hades is also called Dis. So this was used to turn the word upside down to imply its opposite, its negative. So when you dis-obey, you do the opposite, but you also obey the Dark Lord, right. So to disobey is to obey your dark impulses, your nastier drives. So that’s cool. 

But discombobulating: I looked up, and it has so many wonderful synonyms that come from a lot of Shakespeare texts. Addle. Bemuse. Confound. Flummox. I love that one. Befog. I think Shakespeare must have also invented the prefix be- because befog and befuddle, those are Shakespearean words for sure. Bamboozle! So good. And then apparently there was the adverb ‘buffalo.’ I didn’t even know that that was used in that way. And some of the synonyms for to Buffalo someone is to cozen them, to hoodwink them, to hornswoggle them. So it has more of a cheating kind of aspect to it. So there. Learn something new. Very fun. 

So today’s episode, as you can already guess, is going to be a bit of a mixed bag, starting my new year’s off, as I imagine a lot of people start their day off with, “okay, what am I going to do this year that’s different or new and fun?” You know. 

First of all, little business, which is that I am going to go to a one-time-a-week schedule for this podcast for the new year. With all that’s going on around me, with my mom needing all kinds of help, and my other podcast and my job search… (I’m looking for tutoring work, by the way, if anybody knows of anything, or can pass along the word, please do that. Online or in person.) Anyway, I’m not getting any work done on my book. So I really want to squeeze some more time out of my week. So, I’m sorry, but I’m going to go to a one-time-a-week schedule, and that is going to be on Saturdays. So you have the whole weekend to enjoy the podcast, if you like to listen to it in your leisure time. 

I’m looking forward to getting into a really good routine with writing and writing my book. So I hope to report that that is happening in the new year. This cafe definitely won’t be part of that. This cafe in particular – it’s one that I came to in Nyack – is just really chaotic. There was a table of very loud women to my left, and they were just leaving, thankfully, when a pouting, loud child and his family replaced them, so you know, nevermind. 

What I have discovered in this past week is that Boxing Day is my favorite holiday. Boxing Day is the day right after Christmas. And this year, especially, but I think every year, the holidays are so fraught with drama and anxiety for me that the day after they are finished is always my favorite day. Ahhh, it’s a time to breathe, and just relax finally. But I looked it up, and Boxing Day started as a year-end bonus for servants in Queen Victoria’s time, because the servants in the households of the nobles had to work through Christmas, of course, so the nobles would send them home on Boxing Day with a large Christmas box, with presents in it and cash and leftover food. Oh, gee, thanks. 

It’s also known as St. Stephen’s day in Ireland. And this is where the alms box in the church – you know, the little box where they take donations for the poor, and there’s a little slot to put your money in – that was open once a year on this day, and that money was distributed to the poor. This happens in a lot of countries also, not just Ireland – many countries in Europe. These days, Boxing Day is celebrated in most of the British Commonwealth with lots of shopping. It’s kind of akin to Black Friday. So there’s all these Boxing Day sales and this and that and the other. I feel like we celebrate it in the US by doing the opposite thing, which is boxing up all of our Christmas presents that were given to us and going back and returning them and getting different things. I know families who do that and say aloud “Yay, I’m going back to return all my Christmas presents!” Boy, I don’t know, that’s just nutty. I’m going to use it as my favorite holiday for just chillaxing and doing the crossword puzzle, and sitting by a fire and petting the cats. That is going to be my routine going forward. 

In other news, I just had a fascinating new experience. Before I came to this cafe, I got fingerprinted for the first time in my life at the advanced age of 61. It’s something you need to do now to work in public schools, and I have been applying for substitute teaching jobs so it’s a requirement. I guess it wasn’t a requirement the last time I worked in schools in person. I just looked it up and they said that they only required fingerprinting for school teachers in 1994. So it probably didn’t affect my little Montessori school until after I left. These days they take your fingerprints electronically, of course, like everything else. They even have a special wipe, like a handy wipe kind of thing, that enhances your fingerprints for screen capture. 

The fellow who helped me told me some very interesting things about mine. First of all, he said, “Oh, you’re a lefty, huh?” And I was like, “No, why?” And he said, “Oh, because the pads of your fingers on the left hand are much more worn down than your right.” How weird. Why would that be? He had no idea. Perhaps I was left handed in another life? In fact, I had to get the fingers on my left hand redone multiple times, until finally there was an acceptable print. Although he said that they would accept as few as six fingerprints in total. I guess that Brendan Gleason’s character in The Banshees of Inisherin would have been red flagged in that case. (If you haven’t seen that movie, I do recommend it. But be warned it is very dark, but so beautifully shot.) 

Okay, back to my fingerprints. I also have the type of swirls that go up in a parabola pointing to the top of my finger rather than the usual elliptical swirls. Apparently, this is quite rare, and only occurs in 5% of people worldwide. So I said to the guy who was doing my fingerprints, I guess I shouldn’t commit any murders then because they could find me too easily. And he laughed. So it was a fun experience, actually. 

So, at the top of my list of new year’s resolutions is 1) Commit no murders! Hopefully that will be an easy one to keep. Okay, you should put a resolution at the top of your list that is easy. Do yourself a favor. 

But I was thinking about New Year’s resolutions and how ridiculous they are because nobody cares about them. Right? There was a report in 2014 about resolutions, and 35% of people said they were unrealistic. This was at the end of the year after they were asked to assess how they did on their New Year’s resolutions. 33% of people didn’t keep track of their progress at all. 23% of people totally forgot about them. And 10% said that they made too many resolutions. And all of these percentages actually add up to 101%. So somebody messed up somehow, anyway. And in a new poll on YouGovAmerica, 46% of Americans this year said that they will not be making any resolutions at all. Hopefully, that whole farce of kidding ourselves is going out the window soon. 

I came up with three resolutions that were sort of anti-resolutions, and my first one “commit no murders,” yay, that’s an easy one to keep. (I do like that show Only Murders in the Building, by the way.) So it was sort of that spirit of tongue in cheek murders that I was thinking about. Number two, and pardon me, but I need to use this language is 2) Fuck cleaning up other people’s messes. And that means not the shmeer of gravy that’s left on the counter not by me. And also not cleaning up people’s messes in terms of their own love life or their personal life. I forgot about this practice, but I’m going to bring it back, which is the practice of saying to myself, “It’s not my business.” Yeah. And number three, also a little salty here. But sorry, is 3) Forgive someone for being a twat. They can’t help it. And they won’t change just because I’m mad at them. So see number two, it’s not my business. Those kinds of people I just need to let go anyway. 

So I wonder where this whole new year’s resolution thing came from anyhow? Is it a reaction to our excesses of December? Is it that we had too much drinking and eating and general gluttony and sloth, and that makes us all think we can turn that ship around with a measly handwritten list generated in the fog of a serious hangover? I mean, here’s what you say on the morning of New Year’s Day, right: “I’ll say anything you want, if you just make this headache go away!!” And then of course, you say, “hair of the dog! That’s the ticket! I can start sober January next week anyway. Right?” I mean, it’s all crap. It’s all bullshit. 

I was looking at all of those lists that people are talking about New Year’s resolutions of 2023 and I have narrowed mine down to five more meaningful ones. And my first one is 1) read a book every month. It’s good for my brain. Learn something new. See someone else do the craft of writing. Apparently, only 11% of people this year are going to do that. 

Number two is talk to myself as I would to a best friend. Be kind, be loving, be less critical. Take care of myself. 

Number three is start a new hobby. I listened to a wonderful podcast about mushrooms the other day, and the guy said there’s lots of mushroom clubs – 130 mushroom clubs all over the United States. So maybe I’ll join a mushroom club? I’m also going to try to pursue my master’s degree. Is that a hobby? I don’t know. Apparently only 7% of people put this as a resolution. 

Number four is stretch every day. My daughter said you are only as young as your spine. I was like, okay, yeah, that means my spine needs to be a little more limber. It is not. So stretch every day. 

And lastly, but not leastly at all, is stay in touch with the people that matter. I was doing that over the course of my trip through postcards, and emails and texts. And I realized that that group of people that matter got a bit smaller over that period when I was out of the country and gone. But that’s okay, because the people that really mattered hung in there. So I have a small group of friends. I have my wonderful children, and I have you my listeners. So I will be here. I’ll stay in touch. And my one weekly podcast episode will be chock full of wonderful things, I promise, and I’ll pick up with my story as well. So thank you for being here. Thank you. You are some of the people that matter to me most. I appreciate you always. I’m grateful for you being in my life. Thank you. Happy new year! I’ll see you next week

Episode 272: Christmases in the 1970s

Summary

Pulling episode 83 out of the vault and adding a few more fun moments to muse about the Christmases of my childhood and all the weird presents we got. There’s one that we especially loved to give, however, and that was our homemade Christmas calendar.

I have a Patreon page! Please check it out. If you make a small pledge you’ll get to see photos and clips from my journals and hear a bit more about some of the stories. This is a fun way that I can share visuals with you.

Check it out HERE.  Or at patreon.com/dianathebard

If you want to hear more on any particular subject, or if you want to ask a question or simply connect, you can find me on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/dianathebard   — This episode is sponsored by · Anchor: The easiest way to make a podcast. https://anchor.fm/app

Transcription

I’m going to backtrack and pick up a couple of the funny and fun memories from my childhood Christmases. As I think back on these, I also think about what kind of things I wanted for my kids when they had holidays and celebrated with family. 

When my grandmother first came back from Europe after having split with her husband she moved in with her older sister, Mary. Mary was a colorful character – after having apparently many wild flings and affairs, which I guess she was notorious for. (She was the wild one and the maverick in her group of family sisters.) She finally settled down for the rest of her life with this wonderful man named Lou, Uncle Lou to me. He was this great, jolly fellow, I think he was Hungarian. And he just had a warmth and a fun about him that we loved so much. We loved going over to their house for meals, they had a fascinating home that was built by Frank Lloyd Wright, I believe. And it was this wild house made of cedar and stone in Old Tappan, NJ, that was carved into the side of a mountain, not a mountain, a hill, maybe. But part of the house really was stuck into these rocks in the back. And it rose out of the landscape as part of the surrounding terrain. It was a fantastic house, it had radiant heating in the floor so you could go all around in your stocking feet and be totally toasty. And there was a huge, lovely fireplace, that we all congregated around when we had meals there. 

But uncle Lou was practical fellow also. And he decided at Christmas time, he wasn’t going to try to figure out what all these kids wanted, these great nieces and nephews. Instead he took us all on a field trip – My brother, myself and my two cousins, – and we all went to buy toys at Toys R Us. He let us pick out our own Christmas presents. How very smart of him! how wonderful. We looked forward to that event every year because we got to pick out exactly what we wanted, and didn’t have to trust that the adults would figure out our true heart’s desires. They never saw the same advertisements as we did and they didn’t pay attention to toys, so that was genius on Uncle Lou’s part! 

One Christmas, for instance, I remember, I had asked for this particular doll. It was one that walked if you held her hand and she could walk alongside of you. It turned out she had a big battery back in her back for those D batteries. She had long golden hair. And maybe she even talked I can’t remember. But this was something that I dearly, dearly wanted. On Christmas morning, I ran in to the tree and discovered that there she was. And she was not in a package and she was just standing under the tree. Unfortunately, my mom had put her right next to one of the Christmas lights which had burnt off a big chunk of hair. Oh, poor thing. So I think I ended up giving her a haircut and cutting her hair short after all, farewell to her lovely long golden locks. They were totally spoiled and obviously we couldn’t return her because she was ruined damaged goods. But I loved her anyway. She was a typical example of some of my Christmas presents from the early days of when mom returned to live with us. 

Another insane Christmas present we received (I think it was the following year), was a hand-built go-kart. Our split-level ranch had a garage that was never used for cars, and that December it was pronounced off-limits to the kids because my mom’s partner, Virginia, was working on a special project and couldn’t be disturbed. On Christmas morning that project had been wheeled out to the living room to be parked underneath the tree. It was a crazy jalopy of a car that sat very low to the ground and had one seat made from some reclaimed tractor seat. It had a motor that had once belonged to a lawnmower, so it had to be started with a pull cord and fed gasoline. We were very impressed! After the rest of the presents had been opened, we pushed the go-kart out the door to the driveway – good God it was heavy! The body had been built from 2x4s, perhaps they thought the weight wouldn’t matter since it was being propelled by gas power… But, as often happens with Christmas toys, DIY or not, the jalopy had a breakdown after a few runs. Virginia said she’d fix it later in the week, but I believe it never got fixed. My brother and I were determined to celebrate Ludlow Lane Nascar glory, however, so we pushed that 100 pound car to the top of the hill we lived on and just rode it down on pure gravity-power. Sadly the turning radius wasn’t too good either. I think we wrecked it. Maybe not on the first run but eventually. Ah, well… it was a nice idea.

Mom and Virginia had to improvise a lot in those early days because mom was the sole breadwinner and she was working as a part time teacher, and she just, she made about $5,000 a year at that point. Later when I was an obnoxious teenager I came to deeply resent Virginia for not pulling her weight. She was a perfectly able-bodied person who could have helped to support the family, but… well, as this is a Christmas episode I won’t go into that. But, one Christmas just after my mom came back to live with us it was looking like we were not going to have a Christmas tree at all, which made us think that presents were a longshot. It was getting to be very close to Christmas and there was no tree and there was no tree. It was perhaps the second Christmas after she first came back to live with us, so I would have been 12 and a half. But one night, I guess my mom in Virginia decided to take matters into their own hands and find a tree some other way. They went out in their car late at night – their little red Toyota – and they drove out on the parkway near us the Palisades Parkway. They pulled over next to a pine tree, and they climbed up it and sawed off the top, and brought it home. And then put it up as we were sleeping. And it was the wonkiest craziest Christmas tree because it was obviously not shaped like a Christmas tree. But it was a pine trees so it passed for a Christmas tree. But it had this long branch that stuck away out on the bottom, like an arm reaching for the door. But we loved it. And we were so happy, “oh my god, we have a Christmas tree!” And we decorated it, I think it was Christmas Eve that we woke up to find it. And that was so magical and wonderful.

And in those days, when my mom was living from paycheck to paycheck, we actually didn’t go Christmas shopping until the very last minute sometimes. So we would be those kids, those family, that family that was at the mall on Christmas Eve. And remember, the mall was kind of a new thing, then. We would go to the Nanuet mall, at the last minute on Christmas Eve when my mom had just gotten her paycheck, and we’d split up. My mom would go in one direction, and she’d buy some things for us. And we’d go with Virginia and you know, buy some other things for her and for other people. It was a little haphazard and crazy at the last minute, but it worked out.

Often we just made handmade gifts out of plants and bits of wood, or I sewed something or crocheted. One of the handmade gifts that we made annually as a family was actually a tradition that was started by my Uncle Jim, of all things. It was the christmas calendar. He began by making calendars for my grandmother with pictures of his kids on each page. And he would draw out, you know, a little rudimentary grid for each calendar month, and he put a photo of his kids or his wife or something beautiful, he was a really good photographer and he had a darkroom where he developed his own film and printed his photos. So he started that tradition, but somewhere along the line, it became a family project that as many people in the family as possible participated in. After a year or two it started getting more and more elaborate. Each artist would request a particular month they wanted to work on. My cousin  Laura and I are both born in June, so we would vie for the right to do June each year: “I’m going to do June this year, you did June last year.” My brother was born in February, so he always got to do February, and my cousin Phil born November, so he got to do November. And we would come together in an afternoon with photos that we had gathered from the year – photos that we were willing to sacrifice because we had to cut them up. And we would make these elaborate collage pictures for each month of the year. We’d start off all gung ho with the one month that we really, really wanted to do. And then we’d split up the rest of them, and if someone else was there doing it with us, my mom or other relatives, they would they would pitch in and do a page. And I remember we’d get to the end of the day and go “Ugh! We still have August! Who’s going to do August?” And it would get to be exhausting by the end, doing all this cutting and pasting and drawing up the grid for the month. But they are fantastic records of each year, and each year they got more and more elaborate and more exciting. After a while, friends of ours would be like, “did I make the calendar this year?” It became something that spread to not only family but also friends and we’d strive to include as many people as we could in the collages. “Look in that corner, there’s that funny guy we hung out with at the beach this summer…” 

Every year that my grandmother was alive the calendar was presented to her on Christmas morning. It would be the last thing that was opened, after everyone had opened all the rest of their presents. And once or twice we’d even tease and say “What calendar?” and she’d look very sad and say “What? What do you mean there’s no calendar?” And then we’d pull it out from the very back of the tree, of course, and present it in this elaborate way. My grandmother would sit in her chair in state like the Christmas Queen, opening the calendar and leafing through it surrounded by a whole family peering over her shoulders and exclaiming,  “Oh my gosh! That one came out so good! Oh, look at what you guys did there! Such fun!” Each year, they got more and more elaborate as we became older and more accomplished. 

This charming tradition continued, even into when my kids were small and they started to contribute to the Christmas calendar, but then my grandmother died when my son was about two and a half or three. After that there was a pause because if we don’t present the calendar to Nana then who gets the calendar? So one year it was my mom, and then another year, it was my aunt and back and forth. Finally enthusiasm for the project fizzled out when everybody was going in different directions for Christmas and coming together for an afternoon to work on a project seem to be too much organization for us. So we dropped it. 

My mom actually has the last calendar that was presented to her still hanging in her kitchen, even though I think it’s outdated now by at least 10 years. But it’s still hanging with December showing it and it has been there for years and years, if not a decade. It’s a reminder of some very good times. Afternoons spent in collective creativity. Now and again I get the impulse to try and organize another calendar, but then I lose steam. Someone else will have to light that fire. I will hold out for being the Christmas Queen myself one day and have a calendar presented to me. You never know. It could happen.

After all, this day is a day for starry-eyed optimism. We have passed the longest night and spring is on it’s way! Happy season of lights to all and I’ll see you next time.

Episode 271: Christmas Caroling Parties (Ep 79) Revisited

Summary

Here’s one from the vaults – Episode 79, re-worked and expanded to celebrate one of the most wonderful traditions from the Christmases of my childhood. I hope you are all making heart-warming memories with your own families and loved-ones during this season of lights.

I have a Patreon page! Please check it out. If you make a small pledge you’ll get to see photos and clips from my journals and hear a bit more about some of the stories. This is a fun way that I can share visuals with you.

Check it out HERE.  Or at patreon.com/dianathebard

If you want to hear more on any particular subject, or if you want to ask a question or simply connect, you can find me on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/dianathebard    — This episode is sponsored by · Anchor: The easiest way to make a podcast. https://anchor.fm/app

Transcription

Hello, welcome back. And as I’m recording this, Christmas is only about a week away. I can’t believe it, I can’t believe how quickly, and yet really not quickly, this year has gone by. So much has happened and changed. I was so fortunate to be able to have that amazing long adventure!

So I thought maybe I would back up a little bit and talk about some of the Christmas traditions and Christmas experiences that I had as a young kid. Sneden’s Landing at Christmas was a beautiful, magical place. It’s called Sneden’s Landing because the ferry used to land there when crossing over from Tarrytown. The lower part of it is the actual landing where the ferry landed, and that’s why it was called that. But the whole neighborhood that grew up around it, coming up the hill and stopping at route 9 W ended up becoming called Sneden’s Landing, even though that wasn’t quite true. The upper part of the neighborhood centers on this adorable little white church, the Palisades Presbyterian Church. It was a gathering place and a hub of activity for us as kids in various ways. I went to confirmation classes there as a young child and ended up being confirmed as Presbyterian after having been baptized as a Greek Orthodox. (This was just part of my crazy journey with religion.) And we went to church there, especially on holidays, but we went sometimes for other things as well, baptisms and whatnot. 

But on holidays, there was of course, the Christmas Pageant. And I don’t know if we took part in that as kids, I guess we did. I don’t really remember. But I do remember my own kids taking part in it. And it was very, very funny to see all of the kids dressed up in these sweet little rustic costumes to be shepherds and kings. The angel wings had been saved for decades and decades. They were made out of wire hangers and cotton that was stretched over them and painted gold, and they were smushed into a box the rest of the year, and when they’d be pulled out to do the pageant we’d have to reshape them and whatnot. When my kids were very little I would help with the pageant, and I’d be one of the moms backstage who would outfit all the kids, and then they’d come out in their cute little groups. My daughter was the donkey one year singing “I am donkey, Shaggy, and brown..” I remember Noah, my stepbrother was Isaiah one year and he gave this dramatic exciting performance of Isaiah. And everyone left the church remarking about what an incredible actor he was going to be. I guess selling stock for a hedgefund demands a high level of acting too. 

But we had our traditions in in the neighborhood as a community. And when I was a kid, that neighborhood was really cohesive in that way. People did things together. And one of these wonderful things that they did together was a Christmas caroling party. Every year there was an annual party that was hosted by this family called the Normans, who lived in one of the most spectacular houses in Sneden’s. It was a huge three story Victorian mansion that overlooked the Hudson, and was surrounded by beautiful parklands, with incredible trees. There was a swimming pool that was surrounded by a colonnade and such. But they were not pretentious in that way. They were not exclusionary. Their house was open to people and people would come for all sorts of occasions and community meetings. I played with their kids, and always felt welcome there. Their pool was available, they would let people swim all the time. 

But in the winter they would host a Christmas party for the entire neighborhood. Everyone was invited. Absolutely everyone. And it was a huge party. And there were tons of little kids running around having candy and screaming and completely unruly, because they were over sugared and whatnot. And the house was decorated so beautifully. And the adults were all dressed up in their finery, and looked amazing. There was hot buttered rum and cookies of all sorts. Everybody baked and everybody cooked and brought things. And people were socializing all around the house for the first hour and a half or so.

 And then at some point, there was an announcement, “my friends, it’s time for Christmas caroling.” And then there was a big hubbub as everybody organized themselves into whatever role they were going to play in that part of the evening. Some of the people were going to be singing. And the kids loved to do that, because they loved walking around from house to house. But then there was this mass exodus as well, because half of the neighborhood ran home to their houses so they would be there to receive the carolers. It was absolutely charming. 

The carolers would hang back a little bit, while everyone else shuffled off to their homes. And it was a great, you know, device for ending a party is wonderful. But they would shuffle off to their homes, and we’d give them a little bit of time, and we’d all bundle up for Christmas caroling. And then we’d take off. The group was sometimes as big as 60 or 70 people. There would be sheet music that was handed out that was then collected so that it could be around for the next year, somebody was in charge of collecting it all. And those who didn’t know the carols didn’t know would read along with each other and sing to the best of their ability. but it really didn’t matter. Often I remember standing next to some people that had unexpectedly fantastic, voices, like a basso profondo that knocked your socks off, or some full-throated soprano who could really hit those high notes. They were just wonderful to hear. I delighted in learning the carols. Each year I’d learn more and more of them. And we would sing outside of people’s houses and always ended with We Wish You a Merry Christmas. We wish you a merry Christmas. And I remember people’s faces being downcast when that song began, because they were like, oh, no, no, don’t finish, don’t leave. But we would have to be on to the next house and on to the next house. And we walked all over the neighborhood singing it was a it was a long, long event, I think the party must have started probably at four or something like that, because you know, it was already dark, right. 

At the end of the evening we walked down this one long, flat road called Woods road that went off into the woods, obviously Woods road. And almost at the end of it was this little cottage that belonged to my piano teacher who I think I’ve told you about before named Mr. Powell. And he was a fantastic pianist. (He also directed the choir for the church services in a nearby town called Tappan. Many of his students were conscripted to sing with that choir so it was quite a full and rich sounding group.) When the carolers arrived at Mr. Powell’s house, he would insist that we all shuffle into his living room, and we packed in there. The room was full to the rafters of humans. And he would play and he play and play various Christmas carols and he you know, we would sing along and it would be marvelous because it was just all contained in the small room. So the acoustics were fantastic. And the blends in the four part harmony just sounding so fantastic. And he would insist the next one Oh, but you can’t leave until we do Away in the Manger. Oh, “But how about We Three Kings?” and we’d have to sing all the verses, you know, and then his wife would come out with more treats. How about some cookies and we’d already had so many cookies at the other party. But of course one more cookie. And finally we would sing Silent Night and that would be the last song of the evening. It was his favorite. Then we would break away and everyone would drift off in groups towards their own house with flashlights and rosy cheeks and wishing everybody a merry Christmas. 

It was a beautiful, beautiful tradition and that kind of generosity in terms of hosting is rare now. It continued for a while at the Normans house and then, when they were unable to host it anymore. The wife, the mom, she died of cancer. And you know, there was a time there when they didn’t want to do it. And another home took over for them later on. I was an adult by that point, and that tradition continued for a while. It was such a warm memory for so many that they tried to keep it up, but it eventually died out after a while, because the neighborhood changed. That happens, you know, but it was charming, and one of the most delightful memories of my childhood. 

Thank you for joining me in this memory. And I hope that in the next week or so you are building beautiful holiday memories together with your loved ones as well. Blessings and I’ll see you next time.

Episode 263: A Test of Empathy

Summary

In which I compare inmates, Hamlet and next-door neighbors. 😳 It made sense in my head. 

Find out more about Shakespeare Behind Bars HERE.

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Transcription

Hello, good morning, my friends. Oh, it’s a beautiful, sunny, sunny fall morning. But it’s very nippy, and the wind is blowing. And I’m going to go off today and see Funny Girl on Broadway with my mom. So that should be a fun experience. That is a show that I don’t know, at all so I’m looking forward to it. Oftentimes, you know, the musicals that I go to, I can sing along, and I love that experience. (I don’t actually sing along. I’m not one of those horrible people.) But it gives me great joy to feel connected in that way. But this will be a whole new experience. I’m looking forward to it. It’s supposed to be very good. 

I actually have a song stuck in my head today, I got this ear worm and I don’t even know what the song is. It’s like some crazy screaming pop song that Savannah played for me, previewing it by saying, “It’s terrible, but I love it. And you’re gonna love it too.” And she knows that about me. I do have a repertoire of erstwhile hits that should long ago have been abandoned, but which seem to resurface just when I was hoping for a quiet morning or another hour of sleep, and then this frickin song just won’t leave me alone. Of course, I can’t think of any of my other usual suspects right now because I have this stupid unknown 2022 pop hit buzzing in my brain! Whatever… What are the songs that you hate to love? Put some of them in the comments, I’d love to share your misery. 

Oh, speaking of sharing, let’s share airspace. This show, this person here, Diana Green, is coming live to you. If you live anywhere close to Nyack, I’m going to be doing a live version of The Bard of Hudson, where I’m going to tell some of the stories that I’ve told here on the podcast. And I’m also going to tell some more of the stories from my travel adventures recently. And I’m going to mix in a few folktales as well, because I’m really getting interested in storytelling and the tradition of storytelling that I was exposed to in Herefordshire, if you heard those episodes. If you didn’t, go back to the episode called The Old Storyteller. It’s a really wonderful chance to listen to this guy who was a professional storyteller tell the story for me and for my friend who were listening, and we happened to record him. It was great. I’ve been collecting these books of stories and folktales from the British Isles, and from the world collection of folktales, and I’ve been reading them lately. It’s so fascinating. It’s a rich and wonderful tradition. So I’m going to share some of that too. So The Bard of Hudson Live, is going to be on Saturday, December 3, at 3:30 at the Nyack Library in Nyack, New York. Come check it out. I will put a link in the show notes as well. And if this one is not in your neighborhood, or too far away, let’s schedule one near you. Let me know or put me in touch with your local library or community center, and I’ll see if I can schedule one, I would love to do more of these. I would love to sit in person with people and talk with them and share laughter and stories. I want to contribute to the movement to bring back storytelling as a bigger worldwide event. We all need to find ways to slow down and spend some time listening and laughing, you know, with friends and such. And if you’ve come here to listen, then we are friends, and I want to see you in person someday, one way or another. 

Lately, I’ve also been trying to figure out some kind of freelance work that I can do. Not that I have blank time to fill where I’m otherwise lounging around and eating bonbons. But with the end of my Vagabond voyages, I seem to have lost my sense of purpose. I have this wonderful work, which I love to do, and for which I’m very grateful. But I also miss teaching. I had an online coaching session last week with a student of mine, Jasper, from what seems now like my long ago Shakespeare days, and it was so fun. I get so jazzed up about unpacking the mysteries of Shakespeare play. And he absolutely caught that spark and was full of enthusiasm. Actually, if you haven’t done so yet, if you want to hear me get really fired up about Shakespeare, you can listen to my other podcast which I also do on a weekly basis. It’s called Fuck Shakespeare. And don’t let the name fool you. It just means the naughty parts about Shakespeare. And I love doing it. I do it with my dear dear friend, Erin, and we just sit and talk about the plays. We prepare them, so that we can talk in a scholarly way about them also. And it is very informative, and very scholarly this show, but it’s also very irreverent, because we point out all the dick jokes and all of the naughty bits. And it’s very, very fun. So you can tune into that you can find it in on all the platforms as well, Fuck Shakespeare – fckShakespeare. And we have a website. You can listen to it from that, too. 

Anyway, back to Jasper. He’s playing Macbeth in an upcoming production in the spring, and he thought it would be great to really delve into the play before rehearsals begin. Twist my arm! I helped him before casting with his audition monologue too. He has played a number of very funny parts for the Children’s Shakespeare Theatre in the past, and he wanted to change tack for his senior show and try this lead part because he knew it would challenge him in all new ways. When he expressed his interest in auditioning for the Scottish King, however, he was basically told not to bother because he was a comic actor. Well, when I heard this, I persuaded him to let me coach him because that is unacceptable. I made it my mission to prove that naysayer wrong. First of all, it’s ridiculous to typecast people because, as Shakespeare shows us time and again, humans are much more complex than that. No one is always funny. Just as no one is all evil or pure lover, or any kind of narrow limiting description. Romeo, after all, proves to be quite a killer when all is said and done. And how expansive and fascinating it would be to let someone who presents to the world as a cheerful and light disposition, explore the darkness that must also be inside him somewhere. 

We audience members go to see Macbeth to have a chance to dip into the darkness without too much personal risk. We sit in that dark theater, and we take that ride with the actor from hero to murderer, witnessing all of his doubts, terrors and theories. And in the end, we get to shake it off and go home to our loved ones. The actor lives in that place for a bit longer, through the rehearsal process and then sharing it with the audience. It’s an incredible opportunity to put on that skin, be a killer, go farther than brief fantasy and then walk away, understanding more fully how close each of us comes to that precipice. “There but for the grace of God go I,” the saying goes. Right? It puts me in mind of all of those people who work inside prisons with men and women who have been convicted of terrible crimes. They too have the opportunity to closely associate with people who have tipped over into the darkness. The difference is, of course, they aren’t fictional characters. 

We can all watch these intersections in movies like Dead Man Walking, but there’s one documentary that hit home for me in a more personally relevant way. It’s called Shakespeare Behind Bars, and it was made in 2005. The film was made in a state prison in Kentucky, where a group of inmates were rehearsing The Tempest under the guidance of a man named Kurt, who has since become my friend. He’s one of the most peaceful, quiet, non judgmental souls you could ever hope to meet. In the Shakespeare Theatre Association where I met him, he is revered for wisdom, and he is the one they look to when any prickly situation needs an impartial arbitrator. I imagine he honed those skills working with the guys on the inside. 

Kurt was one of those pioneers of bringing Shakespeare to the prison system. He began his work in 1995, and after more than 25 years, he has some impressive stats. The national rate of recidivism is 60%. That’s terrible. I mean, 60% of people who are released and considered rehabilitated, end up committing a crime and coming back to prison. In Kurt’s program, it’s 6%. That is a staggering improvement. It seems, as I have long believed, that Shakespeare’s language has power far beyond the black marks on a page. When these men read those words and then learn to embody them, they are finding ways to express the pain and anxiety that they carry around inside them on a daily basis. When their traumas couldn’t be expressed and discussed, they turned into desperate actions that had dire consequences. 

Ben Johnson said, “Violence happens when words fail.” Shakespeare knew this. When he has characters who really don’t want to turn to violence, like Macbeth, and Hamlet, he gives them tons of words to speak first, so we can see them reason through every other possibility. In culminating fight scenes, he often has the two opposing characters exchange a whole page of dialogue before they exchanged blows. Perhaps there’s a better way to solve this, these characters are asking. Like how when Hal meets Hotspur on the battlefield, or Edgar when he challenges his sociopath of a brother at the end of King Lear. Sometimes it’s too late for words, as when Macduff finally finds the fiend of Scotland on the battlefield and says, “I have no words, my voice is in my sword.” 

The men behind the prison bars know that feeling very well. Sadly, their moments of violence are often enacted upon some collateral victim, rather than the true object of their hatred. When I watched the film for the first time, I experienced an unexpected test of my ability to empathize. When we first meet the prisoners who will be taking part in the play, they’re just a group of guys who happen to be wearing the same uniform. No mention is made of their crimes, much like the rules for engaging with prisoners in that you don’t ask them. To know their crime is to forever see them through a filter. They just want to be treated like fellow human beings. Therefore, it isn’t until halfway into the film, that you find out what they did to end up in that place. By then it’s too late because you’ve heard them speak as Prospero, or Caliban or Miranda, and you admire them, you laugh with them, and you’ve forgotten that they are criminals. 

I had a particularly hard time with one however. Halfway through the rehearsal process, he was sent to solitary confinement, because they found he was continuing the behavior of his crime from the inside. He was in for sexual abuse of children, and he had been caught again soliciting kids via the internet. While my brain can reason that this behavior comes from mental illness and a history of similar trauma, my heart grieves, and rages and screams: “No forgiveness!” But then Kurt’s wise voice is heard in the film, saying, “The people most in need of mercy are the ones who least deserve it.” I wish I was that generous of spirit. I will try to remember those words. I know I will fail. But I guess that just means try again. 

I just this morning had an experience that put me to this test. Remember that cat I told you about? A couple of episodes ago whom we were calling Morpheus, the cat who showed up here in desperate straits very hungry and skinny and out in the cold? Well, we finally located his so-called owner, after bringing him to the vet and finding that he had a microchip after all. But the microchip company had not been alerted that he was missing. And there were no posters up to say that he was missing. But we found some phone numbers and we got in touch with the person who was supposed to be caring for him. And after a horrible exchange with this person in which they never said thank you, but they blamed us for not trying harder to find them, they took the cat back. And I thought, Okay, I hope that’s the last I see of it. But this morning at 7:00 in the morning, there the cat was after being gone for a week, one week of being taken care of – maybe. The cat was back and so hungry. And there were large tufts of his fur that were falling out and he seemed to be even more rickety than he had been the last time I saw him. I just started to cry, and of course I fed him. And then when my mom came down, she said she was going to call this person and try to give him back again. I was not for that. I was absolutely not for that course of action. But my mom felt that was the right thing to do. I’m sure she’s right, but when this woman came to pick up the cat, she was absolutely vitriolic. She was horrible, and said, “I’ve never had a problem with this cat until you came to this neighborhood.” And I can’t even believe the level of misunderstanding of the entire way the world works! The only appropriate response would have been ‘Thank you.’ That’s it. That’s it. And yet she was accusing us of judging her. This poor cat is terribly mistreated. 

So I don’t know what to do with the fury that I experienced in this situation. And if I see this cat again, I just don’t know. I feel like he needs better. He deserves better. He’s a sweet fellow. And this sociopath is not caring for him. Oh, them’s fighting words. I know. I have a rough time with people who mistreat others so badly, especially children and animals, and I don’t know what to do with that. I’m living with that today, and it’s very upsetting. 

So, thank you for hearing me out. And I hope that you got some interesting points of view from my discussion of the film. Go and see that film. It’s terrific. You can get it from your library or online. Or you can go to Shakespeare Behind Bars the website and they have it there for rent. And see how you feel about being confronted with those kinds of feelings as I was there, and as I was today, It’s an interesting reflection on ourself. I hope to keep practicing patience and wisdom, like my friend Kurt. Thanks for staying in the struggle with me, and I’ll see you next time.