Free advice.

February 24, 2011 § 16 Comments



"Mama said, mama said..." The Shirelles


My mama said:

“Never say Damn, or take the lord’s name in vain.  Never say fart or butt or shut up.” 

My mother was both a lady and an ardent believer in the force of words.  It may seem she was forbidding two separate behaviors: being profane and being vulgar, but both edicts were calls to civility.  First, be polite to God.  The lord you worship on Sunday should not become the curse you use the rest of the week.  Second, be polite to those around you.  Vulgarity cheapens the whole enterprise of being alive.  If you don’t think that’s true take a look at the vulgarity piped into your home by the media.  Elevating, right?

My mother’s banned four letter words were mild in comparison to the part of the list she never mentioned, or perhaps never knew (from her I got the impression that the word “shit” was the crass word for “urine”), and she came up with some ridiculous replacements for the forbidden words—in our family a fart was called “a noise in the peaches.”  But the idea the words we use demonstrate our respect for language and for those we talk to still appeals to me.

Among the things you couldn’t say, the one which got us in the most trouble when we did was “shut up.”  The greatest vulgarity of all was being unkind.

“Never wear your rosary around your neck.  Jesus is not jewelry.”  The nuns.

The nuns of my childhood were black and white in all their habits from the ones they wore to their habits of mind (if  they had doubts they never shared them with my catechism class).

In many ways it was comforting to know that by drawing strictly from the “thou shalt” side of their list and assiduously avoiding the “thou shalt not” side we could guarantee God’s continued affection.  Actually, they said his affection was constant, but that he was capable of a sorrowful disappointment our parents couldn’t hope to match.  None of us wanted to disappoint God, so clear rules were helpful.

Unless you were the kid wearing Jesus around your neck.  And I was.   Although my red glass rosary beads were beautiful, that was not why I’d hung them around my neck.  The nuns didn’t understand that wearing Jesus was the only way to ensure that I wouldn’t misplace him.  I could lose anything not attached to my body.

Hauled out of the pew and made to stand ashamed in the church aisle I wanted to yell, “Yes, but…”  I’ve discovered that most black and white rules work better if they can be amended with a, “Yes, but…”

“Never go barefoot.  If you do you may step on a needle.  It will go into your foot and enter the blood stream, and when it reaches your heart…you’ll die!”  Nonno

My grandfather lived in fear.  He knew dire outcomes were real and that they lurked everywhere.  His conviction that life was precarious was borne out by experience.  He was sent away to a harsh boarding school very early.  He lost a favorite younger brother in the trenches of WWI.  He lost a daughter at age three to appendicitis.

I could never understand the advantage of expecting the worst–although my grandfather did enjoy being right when the worst happened.  And maybe expecting the worst turned a second-to-worst outcome into a pleasant surprise.

“Never squeeze a pimple.  It will get infected, the infection will spread, and then…you’ll die!”  Nonno

See above.

“Hesitate rather than err.”  Piano teacher,  Mr. Deihlen

My piano teacher believed anything you do incorrectly, even once, can become habit.  So the trick is to never make the mistake in the first place.  And so he encouraged the painfully slow playing of a piece until the habit of playing the correct notes could take.  Slow and anxious playing also hid the fervor of the music.  I quit playing piano under his watch.

When doing something expressive like writing a story or making music my method is to run down the hill as fast as I can with my arms wide open and err without apology.  Perfection can come later.

“Passionate!”  William Trego

Mr. Trego was the choir director at Princeton High School from 1964-1992.  I was one of many, many young singers who climbed up on the creaky choir risers and watched this chunky man lift up on his toes in anticipation.

My first year in girl’s chorus we were all nervous and timid, especially when we had to perform.  With his back to the audience he would mouth one word, “Passionate!”  The word ignited us, traveling like a flame up our legs–and we sang.

Although I gave up the piano I still sing.  Passionately!

“When drawing from nature draw exactly what you see.” Edna Lawrence.

“Abstract!”  Mrs. Melansen  

As a freshman at the Rhode Island School of Design I spent half a day every week in each of the warring “Nature Drawing” classes.  Edna Lawrence, the grand dame of the nature lab, seated us at tiny desks with colored pencils and specimens from her many glass-fronted cabinets.  One class we might work on crystals, another beetles.  Drawing small, precise renderings we immersed ourselves in the complexities of objects that sometimes required a magnifying glass to fully appreciate

The other half of the day was spent in a large, barren room in which huge sheets of paper were taped to the walls and drawing was done with the entire body.  The natural object was just a stepping off point for an abstraction reminiscent of Georgia O’Keefe.

Mrs. Lawrence made each of us into a faithful observer and admirer of nature.  Mrs. Melansen empowered us to adapt what we saw to suit our own artistic desires.  I strove to be bold and original for Mrs. Melansen, but felt more at home in the less grand role of nature observer, and there I have remained.

Aspirations are good, but so is being honest about the scope and size of your talent.  Few of us turn out to be Georgia O’Keefe, but all of us can be admiring observers.

“It’s just a walk in the dark.”  Barbara Tracy Workman

Barbara was my partner in “Soft Shell Designs” an art gallery and hand-painted clothing store we had in The Keys.  I could have a hundred quotes from Barbara.  Although she was not well educated—I remember her saying that she had never read a book she had enjoyed–she had an honest way of looking at things and then expressing them in words that were direct and pithy.  “Have we gone out of business only nobody’s told us?” was the remark that finally got us to close our doors.

“It’s just a walk in the dark,” was one she made after we’d gone our separate ways.  Barbara had become a flight attendant, I had left the Keys for Tallahassee.  One day she called to tell me she had a brain aneurism.  The possible outcomes of the surgery she was facing ranged from excellent to death.  I got on a Greyhound bus.

I spent the night with her in the hospital before the surgery.  In the morning I walked beside the gurney to the operating room.  Before she went through the swinging door she squeezed my hand.  “It’s just a walk in the dark,” she said.

It was not as blithe as “a walk in the park,” but more truthful.  Sometimes we have no choice but to walk in the dark, and my grandfather was right.   In the end…you die.  Even while we are alive we  go in and out of the darkness.  Some of us, like my grandfather, brood on the dark times.  Me, I concentrate on the feeling of sun on my face, turning toward whatever light there is, no matter how weak.

Note:  If you’ve given me some great free advice and don’t see it in this post, there will be more such wisdom in future posts.  If you’ve kept that free advice to yourself, let fly.  I’m listening.


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§ 16 Responses to Free advice.

  • Linda Guy says:

    Love this line: When doing something expressive like writing a story or making music my method is to run down the hill as fast as I can with my arms wide open and err without apology. Perfection can come later.

    Would be a good one for tonight!


    • I’ll try to work it in.

      FYI: Tonight Linda and I will be handing out awards to the winners of the Leon County Reading Council’s creative writing competition. But the young writers of Leon County are pretty amazing, so perhaps they already know about writing with abandon.


  • craig reeder says:

    i grew up in a nearly opposite environment, kind of a laissez faire world without any “thou shalt nots” or dire predictions of doom. my single-parent mother encouraged tolerance, individualism, and creativity, but i think without any black and white boundaries, i tend to err on the side of impulsiveness and egotism. it slips me up frequently. but i don’t hold back…….very much. in some strange way it is comforting to hear about your upbringing of restraint and caution. maybe i need a little more of that in my life.
    or maybe not :->


    • Hog wash! (Am I allowed to say hog wash?) You turned out great! If you were telling the story of your family we’d all be jealous. After all, you are one of the amazingly musical Reeder boys.

      My parents too encouraged tolerance, individualism, and creativity, but there were two of them, plus my grandfather, which meant there was energy left over for religion, rules concerning language, as well as stories that graphically illustrated all the possible dire consequences of an unwise act (that was primarily Nonno’s department.

      My mother in particular also had great expectations for us. We would either sing at the Met, compete in the Olympics, or dance for the ABT. Fortunately she liked us so much she construed the things we actually did to be GREAT SUCCESSES.


  • Want some colorful epithets? Grow up in a preacher’s house. The “h” word was forbidden, but not “heavens” – “heavens-to-betsy” preferred above all others. And don’t even think of “d___” or “GD!”. I believe today my “crummy buttons” still surprises golfing buddies when I miss a putt! As to “s___” and “f___”, I can honestly say that I never even heard these until the summer I worked as a singing waitress at The Farm House in Blowing Rock, NC. That was the summer of The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkle and opening my eyes to the world of collegiate counter culture. There are some things you just never mention to parents!


  • Tgumster says:

    My mother held onto the fear in every situation. Her pronouncement of “that’s it!” signaled the recitation of one hopeless scenario after another until the world did not end, again.

    Her arms would shoot straight up in acknowledgement of the disaster at hand. Then, all of her 4′ 11″ would pace any area available to her–usually some variation of a three-bedroom, two bath ranch home with attached garage–when she still smoked, her Kent cigarette smoke circled her and the endless possibilities of “that’s it!”

    She walked hard on her heels for years. Now, she prefers email.


    • That attitude of fearful-preparedness must be hardest on the person who feels responsible for repeatedly shouting that the sky is falling. The rest of us observe that, time and again, the worst fails to happen. We relax and let things come. We even learn to laugh when dire outcomes are suggested.

      Sure, bad things take us by surprise, but would they have been any easier if we had kept a sharp lookout and seen the first hint of a black hat coming over the horizon?


  • My mother’s family is from Charleston, so we grew up with a strict list of rules and a copy of Emily Post installed on our bedside table. From a very young age we learned which fork to use, when white shoes were allowed, how to sit, speak, and wear gloves. I spent many hours walking with a book on my head, my mother coaching, “Glide, don’t bounce!”

    We would never have said shut up, or called someone out. Bad behavior wasn’t mentioned, but there were repercussions. One of my cousins neglected to write a thank you note to her grandmother; the grandmother barely spoke to her for three years.

    I was the black sheep of the family, the gawky tomboy with braces, the one they pulled kicking and screaming off the baseball field in 6th grade because it wasn’t ladylike to play. In the end, the rules that made sense to me took, and the rest I ignored. And to this day I take great pleasure in telling each bride or expectant mother, “Please don’t bother to write me a thank you note. I’d much rather you spend that time having fun.”


    • Tgumster says:

      Amen! to thank you notes. Thank you, Leigh. I have put your words in my “Pearls” book, although I am sorely tempted to have some cards printed….


  • My family wasn’t long on the Emily Post form of etiquette. None of us had a clue about how to glide.

    Leigh, although you may not acknowledge it, you are quite a lady, so some of that gliding and politeness took. I think you’ve been able to sort out the trivial from the significant and what you have been left with is genuine kindness and a politeness that has little to do with rules, and everything to do with having a good heart.


  • Richard D. says:

    I grew up without a moral nag. Mother never let slip anything stronger than “Damnit” and dad did not use profanity, except for “Shit!” when he struck a finger with the hammer. Amazingly, none of my classmates used bad language, either, until the 7th grade, when we moved back to Florida and I got to know my cousins. There wasn’t a bad word they didn’t know and use. I never liked my cousins that much. Mother’s lifted eyebrows when they were around told me all I needed to know, so it was given that I would not copy their behavior or their language. No, my choice of four letter words is deliberate, never casual or careless, and contains real meaning, and satisfaction. Hear that, Ma?


    • I remember that profanity and vulgar language was much less common when I was growing up than it is now. And you are right. It has a lot more power when it is used sparingly.

      For my mother vulgar language indicated lack of class or education. Those were not messages we sent in my family.


  • And how did things turn out for Barbara Tracy Workman?

    I LOVE this post. Reminds me of ….


    • Barbara needed a second operation–there was another aneurism on the other side of her brain, but she is absolutely fine and absolutely Barbara once again. She walked into the dark, lingering long enough to realize she didn’t belong there, and she walked out again.


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