I love Christmas and especially the weeks leading up to it, as I have said before. At this time of year most people are holding their loved ones in their thoughts and planning to do something wonderful for them. Retail establishments wait with bated breath for this season because our sales increase and we feel appreciated as customers come in and buy stuff instead of “just looking.”
It’s funny, though, that so many customers lust after items for themselves as they scour the stores for gifts for others. My very favorite people are those who yield to this temptation. Instead of saying, “I really want this for myself, but this is when I am supposed to be buying gifts for other people,” they give in and buy themselves something nice for the holidays. I appreciate that little flash of greed.
I just finished reading a beautiful novel, The Book of Ruth, by Jane Hamilton. The narrator is a resilient young woman whose voice is reminiscent of that of Ellen Foster, the main character of Kaye Gibbons’ novel of the same name. Both characters are marginalized by those around them, but are gifted in the ways of understanding and forgiving others.
Ruth has been mistreated and abused by most of the people in her life, but embraces a man with many flaws, and who is the one person who has ever found her beautiful. Ruth understands very well that everyone has a little hate inside him or her, some more than others. Part of our work, she explains, is to keep that hate stuffed down inside.
Other authors have explored the idea of our dark side. In Lord of the Flies. William Golding’s British schoolboys crash land on an island, and their careful upbringing and perfect manners fade away, and right beneath the polished surface is violence. The most violent are the ultra-regimented boys used to marching in formation.
I try hard to be good! I love people and am quick to forgive, especially children. Yet, my daughter Abby calls me The Queen of the Shit-talkers. Years ago I got an NEH grant for a summer course in Women and Fiction in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. I idolized the professor of the class, Pat Sharp, but my friend Clorinda and I enjoyed gossiping about the other members of the class. On the last day of the summer, Clorinda and I were sitting on the front porch of The Red Lion Inn when Pat came up and joined us for a beer.
The first thing Pat said was, “So who do you think drove me craziest in the class?”
That person was a woman who repeatedly raised Joseph Campbell as an authority, someone whom Pat considered a defender of the Patriarchy. That didn’t surprise us as much as hearing Pat talk shit about a member of our group. We called her on her gossiping, but she defended gossip as a traditional and accepted form of communication among women. One of the ways women know and measure ourselves, she explained, is in comparison with others.
Still, I feel bad about myself when I say judgmental things about other people. One of those situations occurred when I was in college and had a classmate whom I found unbearable. Her mother was the model for the image of Betty Crocker on cake mix boxes, and Jody believed she was spawn of Betty Crocker, perfect and scrubbed. I was entertaining a group of friends with an unflattering imitation of Jody when suddenly all laughter ceased. Jody had walked into the lounge behind me and had watched me imitate her. I was mortified and felt sick when I saw the expression on Jody’s face. I promised God that if Jody would forgive me, I would never again make fun of anyone. Needless to say, I have broken that promise.
Meanness is certainly part of my nature and something I struggle against. I am not a violent person and wasn’t a spanker of children, but when I am tired and feeling negative about myself, I can spout a stream of cuss words that would make a stevedore blush. It’s when those words are used to hurt others that I know my own dark side.