Karma chameleons

Many years ago in a galaxy far, far away, an old boyfriend bought me a lapel pin at a street fair that said “My karma ran over my dogma.” The pun was both funny and a little bit true. I talked way too much about karma at the time, even though it was a subject about which I knew very little.

Nowadays, I’m not the only one. Karma is commonly discussed pretty much everywhere, from casual conversations to the media. But what do we really mean when we speak about karma, instant or otherwise?

”I’m sending you good karma,” a friend cheerfully told me in an e-mail recently. Much as I’d welcome some, is it transferable? In another context, a different friend dismissed a difficult situation by saying “I guess it was their karma.” Isn’t this another way of justifying a failure to act? At the very least, it quickly put an end to the conversation.

At its worst, “karma” can become a cudgel with which to batter people who have suffered a tragedy, as if it’s their own fault that things completely accidental and beyond their control turned out so badly. Hollye Dexter in her memoir “Fire Season: My Journey from Ruin to Redemption” tells of a devastating house fire that she and her family were lucky to escape alive. Afterward, certain friends shrugged it off with remarks like “gee, you must have some really bad karma.”

Karma talk in this case is a finger-pointing exercise, and a way to distance oneself from the disaster. It’s like citing fate or destiny, but with fault attached—which is less than helpful to the person involved.

A twist on karma, likewise used as a way to explain the inexplicable, is the idea that we create our own reality and even our health by our thoughts and actions. It’s true that there’s much worth exploring in the mind/body connection. However, it shouldn’t be used as a way to victimize sick people.

A friend once described her harrowing experience with uterine cancer, a journey that included surgery, suffering and months of chemo. It didn’t help to have friends insist she had caused her own illness, whether through missteps in diet or lifestyle, wrong thinking, character flaws or (dare we say?) karma.

The sad truth is we simply don’t know what to say that’s helpful or consoling when something awful happens to someone. We might tell a grieving person that their loved one’s death was “God’s will,” but this is not useful to hear when you’re hurting. As my friend Mary said after her husband died, “If one more person tells me he’s in a better place, I’m going to scream.”

Here’s a suggestion. Let’s put aside the bromides and keep our ideas about karma to ourselves, and instead dish up heaps of simple compassion when confronting calamity. Before assuring someone that “when one door closes, another one opens,” let’s take a moment to properly mourn whatever was behind that closed door.

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Yoga: a humbling experience

One morning not long ago, I ran into a friend at the post office who was fresh from her yoga class at a studio across the street. This woman is in her 80s but looks 10 years younger. She’s slender, perky and has lovely smooth skin—there’s barely a line in her face.

I asked about the class and she told me it was an easy one that somebody her age could handle—lots of stretches, apparently, but no advanced contortions. I don’t think she’s doing headstands.

Nevertheless, I know from experience that yoga is serious exercise. Even standing upright in mountain pose—one of the simplest—is harder than it looks. And I couldn’t help wondering: Was yoga keeping this lady fit and youthful at 85-ish? Or was being fit and youthful the reason she could take yoga in the first place?

Whatever the answer, the conversation got me thinking about yoga. So a couple of weeks ago, my husband and I began sampling classes at a new studio just blocks from our home.

We’re not new to yoga. We studied over a decade ago with a wonderful teacher named Sabine, under whose tutelage we advanced from beginner to intermediate level. But after several years, we fell away from the practice. Life grew increasingly complex and overscheduled, and it became difficult to get to sessions. How I wish we had stuck with it.

We may not be Ironman material, but neither are we seriously out of shape; both of us are active individuals. No matter. That first Yoga 101 refresher class showed us how out of condition we really are.

I had trouble simply assuming the cross-legged lotus position, even with the blocks the teacher helpfully provided for me to perch on. I could haul myself up into downward-facing dog, but couldn’t hold the pose for any length of time—no upper-body strength. And so it went, for 90 minutes’ worth of reality check.

At the end of class, as the advanced group came in for the next session and their teacher celebrated by walking about the studio on his hands, our instructor suggested we might do better in a gentler class. And so the following Monday we tried Slow Flow & Stretch, or as the teacher Carissa calls it, restorative yoga.

After three weeks, I can now awkwardly assume lotus position. My posture has improved in the warrior poses (watch those shoulders!) and I’m managing a reasonable approximation of down-faced dog. However, it’s far from easy, and we may drop in on the class our 80-something friend takes to see if that’s more at our level.

One way or another, we’ve vowed to stick with it. Here in our 60s, we don’t want to turn creaky and rigid. Now’s the time to build strength before we lose it, and to improve posture, balance and flexibility.

It’s said that engaging with gravity—aka exercising—is the key to staying young. Lord, just keep us from having to take chair yoga!

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What’s in a name?

I don’t know why I was surprised, since it’s the course most brides take. Nevertheless, I admit to being taken aback, just for a moment, to learn that my niece, who is getting married next month, will be changing her name.

“I’ll get used to it,” I told my sister-in-law after speaking the unfamiliar moniker—her first name and her fiance’s last—out loud. But I couldn’t help feeling that in some small but ineffable way, we’d lost her. There will be one less person in the world bearing the family name.

To change your name or to keep it has been a topic of female debate for 40 years or more. It was a big issue for women of my generation, coming of age as we did as the feminist movement hit its stride. Some changed names and others didn’t; either choice involved soul-searching.

But old habits die hard, and the larger culture never warmed up to the idea of married women keeping their maiden names. Indeed, the onus was such that Hillary Rodham belatedly attached “Clinton” to her name when she became First Lady in 1993, some 18 years after marrying Bill. Over time, as so often happens, the maiden name fell away. She’s now Hillary Clinton.

Things get even more complicated with divorce. I know several women who have reclaimed their family names after a divorce. On the other hand, someone like Joni Mitchell has always used her first husband’s name. It was her name when she rose to prominence and so it remains, a different kind of stage name. Others assume the names of subsequent husbands when they remarry. No wonder it’s so hard to find old girlfriends on Facebook.

Personally, I’ve tried it both ways. I changed my name for my first marriage, which meant changing my byline—I was a newspaper reporter and it was a pretty big deal. After my divorce, I tried to reclaim that name but the publisher at the magazine I worked for at the time thought it would be weird to alter the masthead. I had to wait until I got a new job.

Upon my second marriage, I opted to keep my name professionally. I was older, and had a reputation of sorts. But within the community, I use both my given name and my husband’s, depending. Like Hillary, I gave up on using both. The triple play was too much of a mouthful.

It might be simpler in Iceland. Icelanders customarily go by their first names—think Björk—but they do have a second name that acknowledges their fathers. In the singer’s case, for example, she is Guðmundsdóttir (Gudmund’s daughter). Her brother is Guðmundsson.
Switching over to English, I’d be Jacqueline Waltersdaughter and my brother, Michael Waltersson.

I’m told the Icelandic naming terminology makes it hell to look up someone in the phone book. But it would certainly simplify things for U.S. women. My niece wouldn’t have to think about which name to assume; Michaelsdaughter she would remain—truly daddy’s little girl.

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The bracelet that said ‘I love you’

In the run-up to the first anniversary of my mother’s death, I’ve just finished Bob Morris’ funny and touching memoir “Bobby Wonderful: An Imperfect Son Buries His Parents.” I recommend it to anyone who—like me—feels they could have or should have done more, or done better, in dealing with the decline and fall of the colossus known as Mom or Dad.

The truth of the matter? Nobody gets it right.

Many of us can relate to Morris’ ambivalence about whether to forgo a vacation in Scotland when his mother is hospitalized. (He goes, but comes home early.) Or whether he should come back from a country weekend because his dad has taken ill. (He does, and finds his father actually quite fit.)

Like Morris, many of us have hectored a parent about getting some exercise—do you really need that wheelchair?—even when they’ve told us they can’t. And no matter how often we’ve visited, don’t we feel guilty that it wasn’t more?

It’s hard work dealing with these eldercare quandaries, and there no easy answers. You make it up as you go along.

Along with the book, Morris has launched an online site called Museum of Your Parents where viewers are invited to post pictures and short essays about items a parent owned. “My parents are gone, but I still have their things,” Morris writes. “A plate, a chair, a matchbook, a sweater, an old cell phone. Something of them lives on in this stuff.”

I’ll say. I still have many things my mother owned, including her jewelry. Not the good stuff—we sold off the few pieces containing gold and precious stones several years ago to help underwrite her care. She kept them in a turquoise Avon cold-cream jar in her dresser, in the belief that thieves—should any find their way to her suburban ranch house—would never think to look inside.

I’ve kept the jar, along with most of Mom’s costume jewelry, of which she had a lot. Some of it I wear. Other pieces—the oldest, things I remember her wearing when I was a little girl—I’ve kept out on my bureau in a kind of mini Mom shrine.

At its center is her 50th high school reunion badge, a big round button bearing her picture at age 16 (she skipped a grade and graduated early). There’s a big, gorgeous brooch depicting a stylized bird that she wore on her wedding day, and a bracelet and two pendants engraved with her initials.

But my favorite item is a novelty Coro bracelet that always fascinated me. Within a horseshoe-shaped bracket sits a disc engraved with the letters L V Y U on one side and O O and a backwards “E” on the other. When you spin the disc, the optical illusion comes together and the bracelet flashes “I LOVE YOU.”

I used to spin that disc over and over, I love you, I love you, into infinity—constant affirmation of my mother’s love.

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Where in the world?

If you were contemplating a week’s vacation and could go pretty much anywhere you liked in North America, where would it be?

That’s the question my husband and I are mulling since buying a week’s stay at an RCI timeshare at a charity auction a couple of weekends ago. We can take that week anywhere in the United States, Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean. That’s a lot of territory. The offer is good until the middle of February, so the clock is ticking.

The bid was a little bit impulsive—this is what happens at auctions—and somewhat out of character. For years my husband and I have been vacation phobic. Cape May was about as adventurous as we got. We didn’t travel well; something always happened. But our amazing trip to Iceland in March seemed to break the hex and now here we are, geared to go.

My husband’s first thought was Hawaii—it’s someplace he’s always wanted to see. It’s an insanely long trip from the East Coast, but a friend who has been urged us not to miss the experience of a lifetime just because of a little jet lag.

And so we located an RCI property in Kauai and tried to book it. Only problem is, every other person with an RCI timeshare wants to go to Kauai too. There appears to be no “season” in Hawaii. I guess it’s perfect there every day of the year. We tried dates in each month starting in September and even contemplated spending Christmas in Kauai. Booked, booked, booked. So, we are on a waiting list in hopes that someone changes plans and a week opens up.

In the meantime, we are drowning in possibilities for Plan B. Anywhere in the Caribbean would be lovely, if it’s a beach vacation we want. But would a beach vacation be boring? Maybe a place that offered some sightseeing opportunities—something to do besides swimming or sunbathing—would be better.

Cousin Raymond recommended the Yucatan peninsula. You still get the beaches and great Mexican resorts, but there are Mayan ruins to explore too. My husband suggested New Orleans, and I think it’s the kind of place we would like. We love art, architecture, antiques, gardens and great walking districts—plus, there’s all that wonderful food and music. Laissez les bons temps rouler.

But then, someone mentioned Sedona, Arizona, and I began daydreaming about red-rock canyons and those mysterious energy vortexes that are said to exist in Sedona. Not to mention, we could take a day trip to the Grand Canyon.

There’s Glacier National Park and the Canadian Maritimes, the Napa Valley in California and the rainforests and mountains of the Pacific Northwest. Closer to home, how about the Outer Banks or Myrtle Beach (my husband plays golf)? Or Sanibel Island or Key West in Florida? Truly, it’s an embarrassment of riches and a first-world problem if ever there was one.

I know I’m lucky; I know I’m spoiled. It’s going to be fun to decide.

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Words with Friends or Scrabble? What’s your choice?

Caesium. Unless you’re a chemist, you might comfortably live your entire lifetime without encountering that word—unless, of course, you play Words with Friends. CAESIUM was the word that Zyngawf fielded a couple of days ago, laying the “S” on top of the existing word QUIRTS to make SQUIRTS, for a cool 71 points. Drat! Outmaneuvered again.

Zyngawf is the Words with Friends moniker of one of the folks with whom I regularly play. At the moment, I have six games in progress—one with him, another with Inthesticks and two each with Iggypop and Boomergirl.

These friends have taught me a lot about Words with Friends by example, especially Zyngawf and Inthesticks. Both are experienced players. Inthesticks, especially, loves to win and so, I’ve discovered, do I. Indeed, I didn’t realize how competitive I really was until I began playing with Inthesticks. I’d much rather lose to Zyngawf. He’s such a gentleman that he once apologized for netting 121 points with LAXATIVE on a triple-word spot.

I’m late to Words with Friends, having begun playing only about six or eight months ago. A friend came over one day and, in true 21st-century fashion, we sat in my living room talking while noodling around on our devices—my iPad, her iPhone.

Hey, she said. Do you play Words with Friends? And so we each downloaded the game on the spot and began playing, ignoring my husband’s sensible suggestion that we simply set up the Scrabble board. He and I used to play Scrabble all the time. For years we had an ongoing game, playing at least once a week, sometimes more. We each won about half the time. I knew more words but he played more strategically.

But Words with Friends was different, as I soon found out. I couldn’t seem to get the hang of it and I found the losses humbling. “You don’t have the killer instinct—yet,” Inthesticks advised. Playing with her and Zyngawf soon sharpened my skills. Now I even beat them once in a while. Other times, I groan at their uncanny ability to land the big points—the CAESIUM thing.

Boomergirl is about where I was six months ago. She makes words all right, but she doesn’t play the double and triple squares advantageously. More important, she leaves triple-score openings for me. SCREWED, I put down the other day, for 46 points. That’s for sure, Boomergirl retorted. And so I repeated what Inthesticks once told me: “If you leave me a triple spot, you can be sure I will take it.”

Sometimes my husband looks over my shoulder when I’m playing Words with Friends and even helps with the occasional move. I’ve urged him to download the app to his own iPad, so that we could play a game—together, yet alone in our own little screens.

No way, he says. Where’s the Scrabble board? But since I started playing Words with Friends, we just haven’t done taken it out.

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‘Best place to retire’ may be here

A few years ago I proposed a lateral move to my husband. The idea was to trade our turn-of-the-century village home for a smaller house that would better suit us as we grew older—something on one level, with easy upkeep and no rooms screaming for renovation. It sounded sensible as we entered our 60s and we even looked at a house or two, including one with a mold problem. Eww.

In the end, we stayed put. We’ve been in our house for 18 years now, which is the longest I’ve lived anywhere. I don’t know if we’ll ever move, but we sometimes talk about it—most recently last week, when I spotted one of those “best places to retire” lists online.

The cities were chosen based on criteria like cost of living, health care, crime rate and other quality-of-life issues. Climate factored in, but not as much as you might think. Wintry spots like Pittsburgh, Madison and Fargo all made the cut.

But none of the places I daydream about were included. When I ponder moving, my thoughts first turn to New England. My home state of Rhode Island tops the list, despite the taxes and high cost of living. I’ve often thought of moving back, since I’ve always loved it there and try to visit every summer. Wouldn’t it be nice to be near the ocean?

I love Massachusetts, too.  I could see myself living, say, on Cape Cod or perhaps in the Berkshires. Or maybe I’d settle down in the town where I was born in central Massachusetts, with aunts and cousins nearby.

Then there’s Vermont, another state where I spent a lot of time when I was younger. My husband and I visited Waterbury last month and were entranced by both the scenery and the vibe. There’s great interest in environmental issues in Vermont—we spotted an electric-vehicle charging station at the coffeehouse, for example.  We even toured a place that was for sale by owner—a house-cum-antiques shop we stopped at on the way home, with a barn and chicken coop out back.

But, oh, the cold. Someone told us the average temps last winter had been minus 5 during the day and minus 20 at night. That put a chill, so to speak, on our Vermont fantasy. I can’t see living someplace colder than Iceland.

Then, how about the opposite direction, Florida—the winter home, in fact, of the Vermont friends we visited? We have family and other friends on both coasts. But my husband thinks the heat would be oppressive. He puts thumbs-down on a Florida move.

That leaves Ohio. It’s not on anyone’s “best places” list, but it’s got one huge advantage: My brother and his family live there. But I don’t know. In between the farm land, there’s lots of malls and highways. It would be like moving to Paramus.

So, until a better idea comes along, I guess we will stay where we are. There really is no place like home.

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Paging Martha Stewart

My college journalism professor, a crusty, old-school newshound, used to tell us he didn’t particularly like to write—he liked to have written. I feel the same way about gardening. I don’t really like digging, planting and weeding. What I like is to watch the flowers come up afterward.

I’m having trouble getting motivated this year. Here it is the end of June and I still haven’t planted the dahlias. I usually put them in around Memorial Day and then dig them up again in October. This year, except for a handful I stuck out back, the bulbs are sitting in the cardboard box in which they spent the winter, all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Did I ever really like to garden, or did I just fall prey to what you might call the Martha Stewart effect? Gardening was one of those things one did in the country. All the shelter magazines said so. There was a mystique to it—a glamour. Closer to home, I had the example of my mother, for whom planting was an art form. Her huge backyard garden was all about texture, color and light.

When I first moved to Pennsylvania, my storybook cabin in the woods—which someone once described as “the chalet at the end of the road”—had no garden. So I dug one.

In small plots flanking the front door, I planted bleeding heart, burning bush and other perennials along with a sprinkling of spring bulbs. There were so many rocks that I feared I might be digging up a drainage field. My neighbor Charlie assured me that was just the nature of the soil in Dingmans Ferry.

I chose plants that tolerated the shade and they stayed petite. Everything was on a small scale. It was pretty and manageable. Martha would have approved.

Then I met my husband and moved to town. Our house had no landscaping of any kind, just a poorly kept lawn. We set about fixing that. We bought shrubs for a foundation garden, then dug gardens lining the path to the front door and filled them with flowers and bushes. In time we created additional gardens at the front, back and sides of the property. There was lots and lots of planting.

To say that things thrived is an understatement. We’re in the valley here, not the mountains. Unlike my Dingmans garden, the one here in town enjoys good soil and plenty of sun. The shrubs became enormous and the perennials so vigorous that we regularly dig out the overflow and pot them up to give away. A wisteria that was the size of a No. 2 pencil when planted is now like something out of Little Shop of Horrors. My husband hacked it into submission a couple of weeks ago because it had engulfed the patio furniture.

You can’t argue with success. But it’s a lot of work keeping all these gardens under control. Maybe next year I’ll hire a landscaper. In the meantime, I really must put in those dahlias.

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Let’s hear it for aunts

Two or three years ago, I was ordering bouquets for Mother’s Day and chose identical arrangements of iris and tulips for my mother and my aunt— my mother’s younger sister, who is also my godmother. Aunts don’t get as much respect as they deserve. The drugstore had only a handful of “aunt” cards to choose from, and the online florist’s pulldown menu for “Relation” didn’t even list aunt. Mother was there, of course, along with wife, sibling, cousin, friend, colleague and a few others. But there was no box for aunt. I had to choose “other,” which seemed disloyal, somehow.

Aunt is an important category in my book, even more so now that my mother has died. In these months following her death, I’ve bonded more deeply with my aunt in a kind of love swap made all the easier by the fact that the two of them look so much alike. When friends see photos of me with my aunt, they invariably think it’s my mother.

My mother was just 19 when I was born and my aunt was in high school. We lived in the apartment upstairs from my grandparents in a small town in central Massachusetts, so I enjoyed an Italian extended-family upbringing for the first four years of my life. It’s a great setting for a little kid.

Whenever I see my aunt, I get new nuggets of information about those years—stories of my grandparents, parents, other relatives and family friends. When I visited last weekend, she recalled how, as a toddler, I would wait for her to get home from school, running to greet her crying “Auntie! Auntie!” Then I would demand to be taken for a walk.

Other than looks, there were few similarities between my mother and my aunt. They disagreed about almost everything their entire lives—they were those kinds of sisters. They had different talents and interests. Each could be headstrong and opinionated.

Nevertheless, they were family. When Mom lived here in Pennsylvania, we made excursions to Massachusetts almost every summer. Before Christmas and on Mother’s Day we would split the geographical difference between us, meeting my aunt and cousin for brunch in Connecticut (a mutually inconvenient location, if you will).

Now I go alone or with my husband, grateful that my aunt is still with us. She’s in her 80s and has had a few health scares. She can’t do as much as she used to. She doesn’t, for example, make homemade pasta anymore—a skill she learned from my grandmother. Nevertheless, she served a mean Bolognese sauce on our last visit.

The people in that generation above us are important. They are like a buffer zone between us and—well, let’s say eternity. I’m grateful that I still have my aunt, that she’s reasonably healthy and active, and that her mind is sound. Besides all those stories, she is a repository of recipes. She’s passed some of them along but they just don’t taste as good when I make them.


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Feet don’t fail me now

Remember the year Sally Field wore sneakers to the post-Oscar parties, flirtatiously lifting the ruffled hem of her red Valentino ball gown to give photographers a peek at the running shoes underneath? That’s the red-carpet look I’m mulling as I shop for something to wear to my niece Beckie’s wedding.

Shoes and I are having a standoff. There’s exactly one pair that I can safely wear at this point and yes, they are sneakers. Anything else can cause pain—the shrieking, screaming kind that seems almost comically out of proportion to the cause. The feet and toes are loaded with nerve endings, and all of mine seem to be wailing at the same time.

Sneakers do not lend themselves to frothy summer party dresses. It’s hard to picture myself dancing at the reception in a flirty black sheath accessorized by New Balance clodhoppers.

The problem stems from a single arthritic toe on the left foot—the one next to the pinkie toe, to be exact. This poor digit has served hard time for 60-odd years. It’s longer than it should be and sits head-and-shoulders above the toes on either side, like that freakishly tall kid in the back row of your sixth-grade classroom photo.

This overreaching has led to years of cruel abuse. The poor toe—which I think I am going to name Gwendolyn—has been crushed and crumpled in all manner of shoes and boots.

Like many women, I love shoes and have worn my share of pointy-toed pumps, though never those “Sex and the City”-style stilettos. At 5 foot 9, I was afraid of towering over the opposite sex. One of the more superficial reasons I was drawn to my husband is that he’s tall enough for me to wear heels with.

Not that I do anymore. I gradually gave them up after leaving New York City for Pennsylvania. Working out of a home office, it didn’t matter if I was wearing cute shoes—or indeed, any shoes. No one knew or cared. I bought my last pair of heels for a friend’s wedding five years ago, and never wore them again. I finally donated them to the thrift store. Let some other Cinderella cram her tootsies inside.

My fallback was ballet flats, but those don’t work for me now. Gwendolyn doesn’t like them. Even sandals are a problem, since Gwendolyn demands sole support. Thankfully, some of the athletic-shoe companies make models that don’t shout Boston Marathon, but even these can be problematic. I recently bought a cool pair of turquoise Keens cunningly assembled out of shoelaces and leather—think cat’s cradle, or maybe sports bondage—and while I can wear them briefly, Gwendolyn and I don’t dare walk far in them.

A podiatrist has offered a surgical option. I may do it one day, but for now I’ll stick with the toe cot he recommended, and wear it under my sneaks. With Sally as our inspiration, maybe Gwendolyn and I can rock the look after all.

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    Jacqueline Damian

    Jacqueline Damian is a writer and editor living in Milford, PA. The author of "Sasha’s Tail: Lessons from a Life with Cats" (W.W. Norton), she has worked in newspapers, magazines and book publishing. She currently edits Xcell Journal, a technical ... Read Full
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