FIRST, FORGIVE YOURSELF AND THE REST WILL FOLLOW – Marilyn Armstrong

One Sunday in church, Pastor’s sermon was about forgiveness. He asked everyone in the church to stand up. Then he asked those who had any enemies to sit down. Everyone sat down but one very old woman.

“You have no enemies at all?” asked Pastor.

“Not a single one,” she answered, nodding her agreement.

“Please, come up here and tell everyone how you reached such a great age without having any enemies,” said Pastor. A deacon accompanied the elderly woman to the pulpit and everyone in church applauded as she slowly made her way up the steps. The pastor adjusted the microphone.

“You must have done a lot of forgiving,” said Pastor. “Please, tell us your secret.”

The old lady smiled beatifically.

“I outlived the bitches,” she said.


Life marches on. You get older and after a while, you realize all the people you used to obsess over, the people who hurt you, are gone. By the time you pass 70, a lot of people have disappeared from your life. Good ones you loved and the evil ones you hated. The sickly ones with bad hearts.

Chickens come home to roost.

Crazy drivers meet their maker on a dark highway. Heavy drinkers, smokers, drug users find a sad end. It turns out that hating them was a waste of energy. Cancer, heart attack, and other diseases weed out people, the best and the worst, remorselessly and without no regard for personal qualities. Meanwhile, the older generation passes away, one funeral at a time.

Roaring Dam: Photo: Garry Armstrong

Time makes most of the fears and worries of living less important. It turns out, forgiveness is not about repairing relationships so you can be friends again. It’s all about letting go. Passing all that negative crap to your “higher power,” whatever that means to you. Acknowledging that you can’t fix everything and you might as well stop trying.

Realizing it’s not your job to fix it. It never was. Everyone told you that … even your mother, but you weren’t listening.

Shit happens. Some of it — unfair and unforgivable — happens to you. You can make it the center of your world and spend your life brooding and obsessing over it. Or, you can decide you won’t be defined by the worst stuff that happened to you — or the worst stuff you’ve done.

I know people who had wonderful careers full of honor and respect who lost their jobs and promptly declared themselves failures as if the one negative event — getting let go — negated everything which had gone before.

I know men and women who were abused as children who still define themselves as victims — 50 or 60 years later. They can’t let it go. I think — and I could be entirely wrong — that they are waiting for the chance to tell “the bad people” how awful they were. Get it all off their chest once and for all. The problem is, it doesn’t happen in real life. That’s movie stuff. In real life, the bad guys stay bad, never apologize, never admit they were wrong, never own up to anything.

Best choice? Love yourself. If you feel good about you, you can be pretty happy no matter what life throws at you. It’s that simple — and that difficult. If you begin the process of forgiving, forgive yourself first.

Forgive yourself for the mistakes you made, for the bad choices, the stupid decisions, the asshole(s) you married, almost married, allowed to mess with your head.

 

The jobs you screwed up, shouldn’t have taken, should have taken (but didn’t). The opportunities you blew. The unfinished manuscripts still lying dusty in the box in the basement, the unpublished stories that never went to an editor. The times you were wrong and didn’t apologize. Your failures as a parent, the books you didn’t read. All the “shoulda coulda woulda” you’ve accumulated.

If you throw it all out, you won’t eliminate all your problems. The money you don’t have won’t suddenly show up in your bank account. Youth and health won’t return. But, you don’t have to haul the past with you into the future and you can enjoy what you do have without obsessing over what you missed.

The sooner you do it, the better. Life isn’t forever, even if you live entirely on salad and never miss a day of exercise.

With a little luck, you’ll outlive the bitches.

JAPAN’S KIDNAPPING PROBLEM – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I recently wrote a blog about Japan’s strange (to us) cultural norms regarding women’s roles. The blog elicited a lot of interesting comments so I decided to follow up with another blog about a different cultural phenomenon in Japan that is even more appalling to Westerners.

Japan has a unique approach to child custody that differs from most of the rest of the developed world. Japan does not recognize the concept of ‘joint custody.’ Instead, courts give custody to one parent, applying what is called the ‘continuity principle.’ This states that if the child is settled in one household, the continuity of their care should not be disturbed. This, in turn, means that if one parent kidnaps a child, once the ‘new’ household is established, the court will consistently award custody to the kidnapper.

This bizarre system is deeply rooted in Japanese culture, where children are not viewed as having individual rights or even as ‘belonging’ to their parents. They are seen as the ‘property of the household’ where they live, so as soon as a child moves to a new household (say, with the kidnapping parent), the estranged parent automatically becomes an outsider with no right to ‘disturb’ the newly established household.

As a result (surprise, surprise), tens of thousands of Japanese children are kidnapped EACH YEAR, by one parent, usually the mother. And the other parent, usually the father, has no recourse to the authorities or the courts for help. Hundreds of these parents/fathers per year who are kept away from their children are foreigners who married Japanese citizens.

In one situation, an American man was married to a Japanese woman and they were living in Washington state. There was a divorce and the father was awarded custody. He dropped the six-year-old child off with his mother for a visit and she immediately took the child to Japan. The Japanese government refused to help him and, in fact, the Japanese embassy in Portland, Oregon actually helped the mother escape to Japan by getting her young child a passport in just one day.

Campaigns have been organized here, in other countries and even in Japan, to protect the rights of the outsider parents as well as the children. An American pressure group is called “Bring Abducted Children Home” and represents over 400 American parents whose kids have been abducted to Japan by a Japanese parent.

The Prime Minister of Italy and the President of France have raised this issue with Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, calling the situation ‘unacceptable.’ A formal complaint has also been filed with the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, arguing that Japan has violated the Convention on the Rights of Children and the Hague Convention on International Child Abduction.

But this only deals with the plights of foreign parents who are deprived of access to their children. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese parents are in the same boat.

Apparently, momentum for change is building domestically and internationally. This past February, Prime Minister Abe acknowledged that children would want to see both their parents, which is a huge concession and opens the door to giving rights to ‘outsider’ parents.

 

Also, the U.S. State Department says that progress is being made regarding enforcement of the Hague Convention on abductions since 32 kidnapped children have been returned to the U.S. since 2014. That’s just a drop in the bucket and more abductions are happening every year. But it is a step in the right direction.

In the meantime, it seems that the best policy for foreigners is to avoid marrying and having kids with a Japanese citizen until Japan joins the rest of the developed world in their views on custody and parental kidnapping.

GOOD, BAD, AND UGLY – Marilyn Armstrong

There are a lot of marriages that stay together and I have no idea why. It’s obvious that the two people don’t love one another. Sometimes, they appear to actually hate each other.

If you get one of them alone, they will give you the usual reason why they are staying together:

      • Children
      • We can’t afford to get a divorce (too poor or too rich)
      • He/she is wacko (and sometimes, he/she really is)
      • We run a business together
      • Religion
      • Drug abuse, gambling, alcoholism or any addiction
      • Fear by one party of the other; abuse is a lot more common than most people realize.

No matter how many ways you point out that there are solutions, they aren’t listening. Sometimes, something happens and one day, the relationship snaps.

The kids grow up. They decide money is less important than they thought and they can run the business, even unmarried. They do some minor religious switching and suddenly divorce is fine.

I always worry most about abused spouses because sometimes, when they snap, a partner dies. They may deserve it, but the killer doesn’t deserve what’s in store for him or her.

It’s not an easy choice, especially when there’s a good chance that if they try to leave, someone else is going to die — the kids or a wife, husband or any combination of the above.

Despite feeling strongly that people living in really bad marriages should do something about it, I grew up as a child in such a marriage. I understand.

I know how ugly the outcome of these divorces can be, especially for children. No how bad your parents are, the alternative can be worse. With all of the studies and statistics on how dreadful foster care is, we have yet to come up with a better solution. When you are a kid, you often feel you have a choice: live with the devil you know or get thrown into life with devils you don’t know who could be worse.

What baffles me more are people who basically have good marriages, but the first time something goes wrong, they are filing papers. I agree, for example, sex outside (monogamous) marriage is uncool.  I’ve heard conversations where everyone agrees that if such a terrible thing should happen in their relationship, all bets are off. It’s the divorce court. No conversation, no forgiveness, no discussion.

Why not?

Given the looseness of pre-marital relationships in this century, is there some reason to assume that this is going to entirely change because you stood up in a church or a registry office and vowed: “Till death do you part”?

Marriage isn’t a vow. It’s a process. It’s not dating. You don’t just hook-up until it stops being fun, then go to your next hook-up.  It’s when things get a little rough that the real marriage begins.

Half the time, the partner would never even know anything happened if the spouse didn’t have some sort of bizarre need to “confess.” I’ve always wondered what the point of that confession is supposed to be. Is it going to improve the marriage? Of course not. I’m sure it’s intended to do exactly what it does: break the relationship up.

You need to be honest? If you needed to be that honest, why did you do it in the first place? Since you’ve already strayed, live with it. Find a priest and confess. Find a shrink and confess. Find a complete stranger on a bus and confess. But leave your mate out of it and move on.

Also, a genuinely committed couple who have built a life should be able to cope with reality and maybe with a degree of dishonesty, too. Life in the real world is not life on television or Hollywood.

I’ve seen couples divorce because one of them was sure he/she could do better. A few do. Most don’t.

It’s not about the wedding or even the honeymoon. It’s working through issues, changing your behavior. Helping your partner change his behavior. It’s helping a partner get sober or quit gambling. It’s sticking with them if they fail. And them sticking with you when life isn’t going well.

Loving them when their hair falls out and they aren’t nearly as cool and dashing as they were 30 years ago … but you still think they are.

You don’t know what kind of relationship you have without the lumps, bumps, twisted ankles, and heart attacks. Without consoling them for lost jobs, broken backs, and twisted feet.

That’s when you know you have something that means more than pretty cakes and chapel bells.

NOT QUITE THIRTY – Marilyn Armstrong

We are about to celebrate our 29th  wedding anniversary. As I ponder the upcoming 29th — a year short of the big 3-0 — I hear distant bells.

I remember the wedding. The thrill of ultimate victory, the agony of getting there. How, by the time I got to the altar, I was a nervous wreck, but Garry was cool as the proverbial cucumber and looked dashing in his tuxedo.

After it was clearly established that we were definitely, unquestionably, without any doubt, getting married, it came down to details. Dates. Rings. Caterers. Bakers. Flowers. Music. Photography. Videography. And (trumpets) a ceremony.

I had been married twice before — okay, three times because I’d been married in a registry office in London, then the whole Jewish medieval ceremony in Jerusalem. Having been there and done that. I wanted to elope or maximum, go to city hall, have the mayor marry us. He would have. We knew the guy and still do.

We could have been married at City Hall, I’d toss a bouquet, someone would throw some confetti, and voilà. Married. After that, we and our actual friends could all go out for Chinese.

Garry wanted a Real Wedding.

He was 48 years old. Never married. This would be his one and only wedding and by golly, he was going to Do It Right.

“I want a real wedding. In the church in which I grew up. In New York,” says Garry. “And I want my old pastor to officiate.”

“Pastor G. is retired … like fifteen years ago.”

“I’m sure we can work it out.” When he said we, I thought he meant he and I would do this thing together. Because where I come from, that’s what “we” means. I was delusional.

“Why can’t we just do something in Boston? New York is 250 miles away. You haven’t lived there in 30 years. Everyone you know except your parents live in Boston or some other part of the country.”

Garry’s face was set and stony. He wanted a hometown wedding in the church he attended as a child. With the Pastor who ran the church when he was a kid. Who was very retired.

Did I mention my husband is stubborn? He is very stubborn.

“This is going to be a lot of work. It’s hard to plan a wedding long distance,” I point out. “And I have a full-time job. in case you’ve forgotten.” Garry is unfazed.

“We can,” he repeats, “Work it out.” There was that we again.

“Fine,” I eventually agree. “We’ll have a wedding. In New York. At your church.”

There were caterers to hire. Music to be arranged. A bagpiper (don’t ask). Battles over the guest list. A cake to be designed. The cake was my favorite part. It went like this. Having settled on a vanilla cake with lemon filling, we needed to decide on decorations.

“Do you want the bride and groom in white or black?”

“Can we have one of each?” No, we could not. In 1990, they do not have a mixed couple cake topper. I offered to take a marker and paint the groom black, but inexplicably, Garry found this objectionable. I suggested they take two sets and cut them in half, but it was deemed too complicated. In the end, I opted for wedding bells, the DMZ of wedding cake toppers.

So, Garry got his wedding. It was (for him) as simple as simple could be. Marilyn arranged the wedding. Garry showed up in a tux.

You see? We worked it out.

P.S. I eventually learned that “we’ll work it out” always meant “you’ll take care of it for me.” That included moving, packing, unpacking, cooking, arranging vacations, airline tickets, mortgages, and car loans. For Garry, it meant “show up nicely dressed and smile.”

RETHINKING WEDDINGS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My son is getting married for the second time. He had a big wedding the first time, complete with a beautiful service in a synagogue, bridesmaids and groomsmen and a formal reception in a local restaurant’s banquet hall with 100 people in attendance.

I helped his first wife find a gorgeous but not outrageously expensive wedding dress. We also found inexpensive ways to decorate the reception room and dinner tables and she cut costs wherever possible. But it was still an expensive undertaking.

With young people drowning in debt these days and with housing costs so high in many parts of the country, I wonder why people are still having big weddings. In addition to the cost, the logistics of organizing every detail of a ceremony and reception can be overwhelming for people who are already overworked and short on free time.

Maybe part of the problem is that it’s hard to find a middle ground between a large, complex, over priced affair and eloping. That’s what my son discovered this time around and he opted, in effect, to elope. He and his fiancé tried to be as frugal as possible in planning an actual wedding ‘event’. They were going to have both the ceremony and the reception at my home, saving lots of money for the venue and decorations.

But they would have to keep the guest list at 60-65 people and that proved to be a problem. Once you start down the slippery slope of inviting one relative, you have to invite them all. The same applies to circles of friends, once one is invited, you’ll hurt everyone else’s feelings if you don’t invite them too.

Then my son found out that it’s not that easy to plan a full meal for 65 people, even lunch. Some caterers are cheaper, but they just bring food, not dishes, glasses or silverware. Others will bring dessert but not coffee. Then there’s the problem of who’s going to set up and man the bar and keep the food platters full. And who clears the meal and sets up the dessert?

No matter how small and simple my son tried to be, the logistics and the costs still got out of hand. That’s why my son and his fiancé decided on a quasi elopement.

They are getting married by a Justice of the Peace (an old family friend), in their living room, with just immediate family and two close friends. There will be thirteen people in all, including the bride and groom. Then we’re all going to a restaurant for lunch. If they take a honeymoon, it will only be for a weekend since they both have to work.

They got beautiful and thoughtful wedding bands and the bride bought a lovely new dress for the occasion. My daughter is flying cross country, from LA, to be at the truncated ceremony. So it will be a special and meaningful day without months of headaches and piles of bills.

Unless a bride and groom have high paying jobs or a wealthy family, it doesn’t make sense to spend hard earned savings on a big wedding extravaganza. Especially if you have to go further into debt for it. And even if you have the money, why waste months and months of your life stressing over wedding details and dealing with the family strife that is usually created?

Weddings used to mark the point when two individuals moved in together to create a joint home and a new family unit. And wedding gifts used to be a way to help young couples stock their new home. Today, many, if not most, couples live together before marriage.

Their households have already been merged and their kitchens fully stocked with all the necessary equipment and tools. When my son moved in with his fiancé, they had to hire an organizer to help them make room for all of my son’s stuff in their small house. They had to get rid of tons of ‘duplicate items’, particularly kitchen items. They have no room for any more ‘stuff.’

Getting married is a big deal, even today. Maybe our traditions celebrating the event should change along with the times. Maybe a small, informal party for close friends and family should be the norm. Something more like a bridal shower but for men too. And instead of gifts, guests should give checks to pay down student loans or to go toward the down payment on a new house. The concept of tangible items as gifts should maybe go the way of the dowry.

I’m not sure what will evolve in the future, but at least for those not in the top 1%, I think wedding celebrations will begin to change in the next few generations.

A ROAD HOME – Marilyn Armstrong

I grew up in a semi-rural nook in the middle of Queens, New York. The city had surrounded us leaving a tiny enclave walking distance from the subway.

The house was more than a hundred years old. It had been changed by each family who had lived there, so much that I doubt the original builder would have recognized it. From its birth as a 4-room bungalow in the 1800s, by 1951 it had become a warren of hallways, staircases and odd rooms that could be hard to find.

It sat at the top of a hill amidst the last remaining fully-grown white oaks in New York, the rest having fallen to make masts for tall ships. The shadows of the oaks were always over the house. Beautiful, huge and a bit ominous. Some of the branches were bigger than ordinary trees. I remember watching the oaks during storms, how the enormous trees swayed. I wondered if one would crash through the roof and crush me.

I was four when we moved into the house, five by summer. When the weather grew warm, I was told to go out and play. Like an unsocialized puppy, I had no experience with other children, except my baby sister and older brother and that didn’t count. Now, I discovered other little girls. What a shock! I had no idea what to do. It was like greeting aliens … except that I was the alien.

The first contact took place on the sidewalk. We stood, three little girls, staring at each other. First on one foot, then the other, until I broke the silence with a brilliant witticism. “I live up there,” I said. I pointed to my house. “We just moved here. Who are you?” I was sure they had a private club into which I would not be invited. They were pretty — I was lumpy and awkward.

“I’m Liz,” said a pretty girl with green eyes. She looked like a china doll, with long straight hair. I wanted that hair. I hated mine, which was wild, curly and full of knots. She gestured. “I live there,” she pointed. The house was a red Dutch colonial. It had dark shutters and a sharply pitched roof.

A dark-haired, freckle-faced girl with braids was watching solemnly. “I’m Karen,” she said. “That’s my house,” she said, pointing at a tidy brick colonial with bright red geraniums in ornate cement pots on both sides of a long brick staircase. I’d never seen geraniums or masonry flower pots.

“Hello,” I said again, wondering what else I could say to keep them around for a while. I’d never had friends, but something told me I wanted some. We stood in the sunlight for a while, warily eyeing each other. I, a stranger. I shuffled from foot to foot.

1952

Finally, I fired off my best shot. “I’ve got a big brother,” I announced. They were unimpressed. I was at a loss for additional repartee. More silence ensued.

“We’re going to Liz’s house for lemonade,” Karen said, finally. Liz nodded. They turned and went away. I wondered if we would meet again. I hadn’t the experience to know our future as friends were inevitable.

1953 – Three little girls

Summer lasted much longer back then than it does nowadays. By the time spring had metamorphosed into summer, I had become a probationary member of The Kids Who Lived On The Block. I did not know what went on in anyone else’s house. I imagined the lights were bright and cheerful in other houses. No dark shadows. No sadness or pain except in my scary world where the scream of a child in pain was background noise, the sound of life going on as usual. Behind it, you could hear my mother pleading: “Please, the neighbors will hear!” As if that was the issue.

Across the street, Karen’s mother was drinking herself into a stupor every night. The only thing that kept Karen from a nightly beating was her father. He was a kindly older man who seemed to be from another world. As it turned out, he would soon go to another world. Before summer was ended, Karen’s father died of a heart attack and after that, she fought her battles alone.

In the old clapboard house where I thought Liz led a perfect life, a battle raged. Liz’s father never earned enough money and their house was crumbling. It legally belonged to Liz’s grandmother. Nana was senile, incontinent and mean, but she owned the place. In lucid moments, she always reminded Liz’s dad the family lived there on her sufferance. Where I imagined a life full of peace and goodwill, there was neither.

About 6 or 7.

A lovely neighborhood. Fine old homes shaded by tall oaks. Green lawns rolling down to quiet streets where we could play day or night. I’m sure the few travelers who strayed onto our street, envied us.

“How lucky these folks are,” they must have thought, seeing our grand old houses. “These people must be so happy.”

I have a picture in my album. It’s black and white, a bit faded. It shows us sitting in Liz’s back yard. I’m the tiny one in the middle. A little sad. Not quite smiling.

We envied each other. It would be years before we learned each other’s secrets and by then, we’d be adults. Too late to give each other the comfort we’d needed while we grew up, lonely in our big old houses all those years ago.

THE KOREAN WORD FOR BUTTERFLY by JAMES ZERNDT – Marilyn Armstrong

“Americans. They think everybody is snowflake. Only one snowflake. Only one you. But in Korea we think like snowball. Everybody snowball.” Yun-ji packed an imaginary snowball in her hands, then lifted it, palms up, as if offering Billie a present. “You see? Snowball.”

Both of them looked at Yun-ji’s hands holding nothing.

“Snowball,” Yun-ji repeated, then looked at Billie, at her unhappy mouth, at her face that looked like it had been bleached, and she pictured that soldier sitting in the tank, listening to headphones, maybe reading a Rolling Stone magazine, then the call coming in over the radio, the hurried attempts to think of an excuse, some reason why he didn’t see two fourteen-year-old girls walking down a deserted country road in South Korea.

“Never mind,” Yun-ji said and dropped her hands.

KoreanWordForButterfly

There are a lot of levels to this book. It’s a book about cultures and differences, but it’s also a book about the similarities that underlay human societies. In the end, our humanity trumps our differences and enables us to reach out to those who seem at first unreachable.

It’s about women and men, their relationships, their failure to communicate. The endless misunderstandings arising from these failed efforts — or failed through lack of effort. It’s also about the assumptions we make based on appearance and how terribly wrong are the deductions we make based on what we think we see. And how we use bad information to make our choices.  And finally, the pain that results from choices — even when the choices are the best available.

The story takes place in South Korea. Billie, a young American woman, is in the country to teach English to grade school children. She has come there with her friend, lover, and partner and shortly realizes she is pregnant. It’s the wrong in her life to have a baby and probably the worst possible place she could be.

She is far from her home and isolated by distance and culture. The story is told in the first person by Billie as well as two other first-person narrators, both South Korean.  Yun-ji is a young woman approximately the same age as Billie who also becomes pregnant and a man named Moon who is divorced and suffering through a painful separation from his son.

All the characters deal with problems springing from damaged relationships and miscommunication, misunderstanding, problems with parenting, pregnancy, and abortion. Despite cultural differences, in the end, the pain is personal and remarkably similar for each.

There are no simple, happy answers.

It’s well-written and held my interest from start to finish. Whether or not the book will resonate for you may depend on your age and stage in life’s journey. For me,  it was a trip back in time to the bad old days before Roe Vs. Wade. Of course, one of the issues made very clear in the book is that the legality of abortion doesn’t make it less of a gut-wrenching, life-altering decision. Anyone who thinks abortion is the easy way out should read this. Whatever else it is, it’s not easy.

It’s a good book. Strongly written, presenting highly controversial issues in a deeply human context.

The Korean Word for Butterfly is available in paperback and Kindle.