I’m (Not) Sorry

 

Brenda behind mug

Guest blogger Brenda van Dyck is no longer in a sorry state

I’ll admit it—I don’t generally set a lot of goals for myself. I live in Minnesota, after all, the land of the naturally above average. But I have set a big goal for myself: to stop saying “I’m sorry.” I blame my Minnesota roots.  It didn’t even occur to me that this was a thing until I saw a mug at the “I Like Me” store booth at—where else?—the Minnesota State Fair. It was a simple mug with the shape of Minnesota and the words “I’m Sorry” written across the front. It was a forehead-slapping moment.

Here in the North Star state, we have much to apologize for. We apologize for these harsh Minnesota winters. Who would willingly subject themselves to subzero weather and live in a climate that keeps us hidden from our neighbors for half of the year? And then there is the mosquito, the unofficial state bird, that attacks any exposed flesh for the three nice months of the year.

And we’re not even as nice as our moniker “Minnesota Nice” would suggest. I was shocked to hear that non-natives have trouble breaking into our tight web of social and familial connections. Of course, I felt bad about that.

We Minnesotans have perfected the art of passive-aggressiveness. We have trouble being direct and assertive, for fear of confronting people; we couch our behavior behind the cloak of “I’m sorry.” When someone budges in line at a store, we say, “I’m sorry, but I think I was next.” Or when the waiter gets our order wrong: “I’m sorry, but this isn’t what I ordered.” We’re not sorry! We just don’t want to come off as too brash, too–might I say–East Coast.

But it’s more than just being from Minnesota, the land of perpetual guilt. Growing up Catholic adds to this sorry state. I remember preparing for my first confession as a child. While I was not perfect, I was stumped when it came to confession, something that I had to tell the priest I was truly sorry for. Without being able to come up with anything egregious, I may have said that I was mean to my brother. The memories are fuzzy now.  The truth was that if I was mean to my brother, he probably had it coming. He usually did.

We’ve all encountered people who fall over themselves unnecessarily apologizing for things. These are people who feel bad about everything. At least I’m not that bad. I think.

Over the years, I’ve perfected the art of the “apology.” I apologize when I have to ask for something and I’m afraid the person will say no.

I apologize when I think I’m bothering someone. “I’m sorry to call so late…” even when it’s not really that late.

I apologize in order to ingratiate myself to others. “I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you earlier…” when I knowingly procrastinated.

I apologize sometimes to spare someone’s feelings, “I’m sorry, but I have to go.”

I say “I’m sorry” as an imprecise verbal filler, as in “I’m sorry to tell you this, but your skirt is tucked into your tights.”

I have said, “I’m sorry to have to ask… “ “I’m sorry you were caught in the middle of that… “ “I’m sorry to be a bother….”

I’ve had to stop myself from starting emails with “I’m sorry, but…” as a buffer to break bad news.

Maybe apologizing is an effort to be perfect. Often these words simply come out of my mouth because I don’t want to cause offense and I fear falling out of people’s favor.

Alternatively, we’ve all heard the “non-apology” apology. “I’m sorry IF you were offended…”

Then there are the insincere apologies of children, the sarcastic “I’m ssooorrrrryy,” we force them to make to classmates or siblings. But if I say I’m sorry and I’m really not, isn’t that the same thing?

Why have I been doing this all these years? Can it really be that I am afraid of offending people? That I’m afraid of what people may think of me if I offend them, even unintentionally? Yes. And yes. There it is. Somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that I should be a little braver in my everyday life. That I should stand up for my true feelings instead of acting and reacting the way that I think people expect me to. Or in a way that risks putting me in disfavor.

I’m sorry that I’ve been saying “I’m sorry” all these years without giving it a second thought. Now when I find myself composing an email and I have more time for reflection, I delete the words “I’m sorry” from the beginning of an email. And in speaking to people, I’ve stopped myself from saying, “I’m sorry” when it’s not appropriate.

If I only say I’m sorry for things that I am truly sorry for, doesn’t that make my apologies more sincere and meaningful?

I would like to try the tactic of replacing the words “thank you” for “sorry,” as the comic artist Yao Xiao illustrates in her comic strip Baopu #15. She suggests, for instance, instead of apologizing for being late, say “thank you for waiting for me” or when you feel like you’re rambling, not to apologize but to thank the person who is listening to you. It’s a subtle verbal shift in words, but a seismic mental one.

I am not sorry about not saying sorry any more.

 

Brenda van Dyck is an occasional guest blogger on WordSisters. To learn more about her or our other guest bloggers, click on Guests above.

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The Makings of an Extraordinary Pie

Photo by Miika Silfverberg - originally posted to Flickr as Young rhubarb

Photo by Miika Silfverberg – originally posted to Flickr as Young rhubarb

It was the sure sign of spring—those first green tufts of rhubarb pushing their way through a patch of the garden that may just a month earlier still have been covered with snow. After seeing the rhubarb, we knew the growing season would soon follow and the garden would once again be full of green and growing things. With their agrarian roots, my parents both tended the garden, but it was my mother who found a use for the rhubarb.

She showed my siblings and me how to tame its tartness by dipping the stalks into a cup of sugar. I imagine that her mother may have shown her this on the Iowa farm where she started her life. Picking the pinkest stalk available, I would dip one end into a cup of sugar so it was completely covered with the miniscule crystals of sweetness, the juice from the cut end of the stalk leaving just enough moisture for the sugar to stick to; I’d bite off the coated end and immediately taste a tart and sweet mixture of flavors that made my mouth pucker in delight.

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 10.53.59 AMOf course, rhubarb is the perfect conduit for sugar, as proven by one bite of my mom’s rhubarb pie, a particular favorite. My mother and I would pick a variety of stalks—the ruby red ones, the ones that were both pink and green, and then a few that were perhaps a little too green. But mixed with flour, sugar, and butter, the mixture would meld together into a tangy, sweet concoction that tasted perfect between the layers of a flaky pie crust.

Admittedly, rhubarb is not the most popular of vegetables. I believe the reason we may have had it was because it was a food that the earth could provide, and in my parents’ upbringing, no food went unused. Even a vegetable that needed a great deal of sugar to make it palatable. Now as I see rhubarb come back in my garden, spring after spring, I am reminded of that some things will always be.

But in truth, I let this harbinger of summer go to waste. I get excited about its growth, but don’t pick the stalks when I should, always thinking that I don’t have enough time for pie or muffins or even a simple rhubarb sauce. Soon their leaves start to turn yellow and their stalks shrivel, as if shaming me. I think of my parents and their disdain for waste. I look at the waning crop and admonish myself to be a better steward of this steadfast plant. Perhaps I should be gentler with myself, remembering that my mother baked pie when she was off from teaching school in the summer and had more time to show me all the steps to baking a pie—from mixing the filling, to rolling out the pie crust, and knowing when the filling was bubbling up just enough to tell us it was done.

***

After my mother had moved out of my childhood home with its massive garden, we went for one last look before the closing sale. Surveying the garden, which was overrun with weeds, I asked my mom, “Do you want anything from the garden?”

“Will you see if there is any rhubarb?” she asks. Sure. And there is, among the stinging nettle, wild daisies, and bindweed. Of course there is rhubarb. There always has been. I gingerly make my way through the weeds and begin breaking stalks off. “How much do you want?” I call up to my mom, who’s watching from the deck. “Oh, I don’t know, a few stalks,” she answers.

I pick a fistful of stalks, and not eager to stop, I get a few more, knowing that this rhubarb, the last that we will pick from this garden, will make an extraordinary pie.

Lessons from a Life

This week, guest blogger and WordSister Brenda van Dyck continues our meditation on fatherhood.

Finally it happened. Father’s Day came and went, and instead of feeling sad, I was grateful. Every June in the eight years since my father died, I have met Father’s Day with dread; the day was an annual reminder of what I no longer had. But this year, I found myself thinking more of my five-year-old daughter and what my dad can still teach her.

My daughter, Shelby, was born three years after my dad died. He was 41 when I was born; I was 41 when I gave birth to my daughter. I think that’s as far as the similarities go. For him, I was the fourth child to come in the four-and-a-half years since my oldest sister was born (yes, that’s right, four kids in four-and-a-half years). For me, the birth of my only child was a much sought-after and anticipated event.

Brenda and Shelby

Brenda and Shelby

In the months after Shelby was born, I mourned the fact that she wouldn’t grow up with my dad around. He was grandfather to nine others before her, and in many ways, he was a better grandfather than father; without the responsibility of having to provide for his grandchildren, he was more relaxed, more playful, and more able to enjoy them without worry. She wouldn’t experience his sense of humor, gentle teasing, or steady presence.

Despite his absence, he can still teach her things.

My father was stubbornly stoic—a man of few words and even fewer expressions of emotion. He wasn’t one to give advice. But he taught me a lifetime’s worth of values, not from what he said, but from how he lived.

Here is what I think he would say to her.

Work hard and you will overcome your struggles. There is always value in working hard. My father only had a primary school education; he grew up in a village in Yugoslavia where more schooling than the basic Catholic primary school was a luxury that few families could afford. When he was 14, my father moved to Munich during World War II to become a baker’s apprentice. In the long trajectory of his life, he would live through the war, immigrate to another country, learn how to fix mainframe computers, and retire from a steady career working for Control Data. He made the American Dream his own.

You are not a victim of your circumstances. Despite what you witness, despite what you live through, know that you will live through it. My father didn’t like to talk about growing up poor or living through the war. He didn’t say much about his father, who died when my dad was 16. There was certainly a lot of pain in his life. And while he was not given to emotion or affection, the hard times of his life shaped him into a man who was strong and quietly compassionate.

Four kids in four-and-a-half years

Four kids in four-and-a-half years

Family is the glue that will keep you together. Family will help you keep perspective on what’s really important. My father’s immediate family, consisting of my dad’s parents, three brothers and two sisters, was broken up by poverty and war. After my father was about 12, the family never lived together again because of various circumstances. But when my father came to the United States, joining an aunt and uncle and their children in a small house in the east side of St. Paul, he finally experienced the family life he had longed for. It gave him the semblance of a normal life at last. He would go on to meet my mother and raise four children in a very conventional and blessedly uneventful way. And they created a solid footing for the next generation to come.

Don’t be a phony. If you are overly concerned with what people think of you rather than being a good person, you’ve got it wrong. My dad could always spot a phony, and he wasn’t shy about showing his disdain for those who spent more time trying to appear to be hot stuff rather than being authentic. He wasn’t impressed by wealth, and was even turned off by it, but he was more impressed with authenticity, kindness, and respect.

Parents love you the best way they know how and they aren’t perfect. They will disappoint you, hurt your feelings, and even fail you. Learn to forgive them for their shortcomings, because it will make you who you are. There are many things I wish my father had done differently. I wish he’d been more communicative and more nurturing for starters, but I know that he did the best he could. And what he did do in providing a stable home, was pretty darn good.

Be responsible and dependable. Do what you say you’re going to do and be the kind of person that people can count on. My father was reliably on time. If he said he would do something, he always followed through. I hope that I have inherited that quality from him.

Lastly and maybe most importantly, leave those around you better than when you found them. Through your love, your gifts, and your efforts, make this world better. Do right by your family and friends and the rewards will come back to you. This, in essence, was my dad’s life. It’s what he did for me, and it’s what he has enabled me to do for my daughter.

Brenda van Dyck is a writer and editor who lives in Minneapolis with her family. She writes memoir and essays, bolstered by her WordSisters since first joining the writing group ten years ago.