Monday, April 06, 2009

On swearing

So as anyone who's ever talked to me for five minutes knows, I swear. A lot. I swear a lot, in everyday, casual conversation. Probably an f-bomb in every couple of sentences.

That is, I used to swear a lot. For the last three months I've been making a concerted effort not to swear. It was kind of an experiment, a spiritual experiment, and I am here to say I think it's working. I've pretty much stopped swearing in casual conversation, no f-bombs, no s- words, not even the little ones, the h- and d- words. I can't say I never swear, but I am so much more conscious of it when I do, and I try very hard not to cuss at all.

I come by my terrible mouth honestly. When I was a kid in the '60s my family allowed us to swear. One incident stands out as an example of this. I was eight, riding in the front seat of the car with my mother, and my sisters were in the back. They had just picked me up at my piano lesson. Innocently, I asked my mother what sexual intercourse was. All of a sudden I heard Bondi in the back say, "Fuck. Fuck. Fuck!" "Will you stop swearing," I said impatiently. And then listened while my mother explained what sexual intercourse was. Oh! Fuck! So that's why Bondi was swearing! And, ewww! I knew what "fuck" was, and I had no desire to hear my mother explain it in the car, with the added embarrassment of having subjected my older sisters to this horror, as well.

But what stands out for me today is that my sister, who must have been nearly 14, could happily say the f-word in front of my mother and no one thought it odd. My mother blames it on my father. English was his third language, and the words simply didn't have as much power for him. Besides, the '60s were an adventurous time and they were both trying hard to throw off the shackles of their old-fashioned upbringings. What's so bad about those words, anyway?

Well, really, what is? Except that I grew up using them whenever I wanted, and I wanted a lot. As a teenager I knew enough, most of the time, not to swear in front of adults, but in my twenties I had to learn that using those words on the phone to a customer service person when I was irate, wasn't nice, even if I wasn't using the words to describe her, specifically.

As I got older I kind of wore my swearing as a badge, as in, "It's what I do, it's who I am." It became automatic and I just stopped hearing it. Every now and then I would catch myself and think, huh! I just said the s-word in front of my in-laws! But they never said anything. My niece and nephew would discuss it after I visited them. "Yup, Aunt Sasha swears a lot," my sister Cate would tell them, and maybe she still does. I used to pay a quarter per swear to Lily when I was caught, and my niece would catch me too, at times. But having other people police me didn't work; I would brush them off and ignore my fine. Eventually we all kind of forgot about it. It was just too common.

Then, for various reasons, my meditation sits last winter got longer and longer. For several months I meditated for a half an hour every day. Part of it was the calming atmosphere of living in the country, as I had hoped. My friend Dee commented on how nice it was that I wasn't swearing when we met for dinner last winter in Manhattan. I was very proud.

But for more various reasons my meditation periods lessened, and probably not coincidentally, my swearing picked up. Then a couple of months ago, right after the New Year, I was speaking with a friend about some of my habits that I want to let go of. She suggested that every day I ask for help from the universe not to swear. So I tried that.

At first it didn't work so well. I would get confused about what a swear was: just the f- and s- words? What about "ass"? Or "Jesus Christ", which I use a lot. But then one day I heard a story on the radio about a teenager in California who started a website called He was asking people not to swear at all, not even the h- and d- words. I realized that what I was missing was a definition of swearing. I have learned that if I want to ask for something from the universe, it's more helpful if I'm specific. So now I ask for help "not to swear, not even the little ones." That about covers it for me.

Today it's still new enough that I still laugh to myself when I say something like "nerts!" I'm a little embarrassed about it, and still talk to my friends about it. A friend who's also trying not to swear says two things I'm going to borrow, "holy cats?" when she's amazed (she says it with that questioning inflection at the end, and her high school students crack up every time), and "Oh, Betty!" when she messes up, rather than some variation of, "you stupid jerk!" I think I'm going to say, "Oh, Gloria!"

I note with pride my successes. A couple of months ago boiling oil splattered on my wrist and forearm, and I did not swear. Not one word. Dave caught it, and he was impressed. And there are setbacks. Last week, alas, I tripped over a box of socket wrenches in the basement and fell hard all the way to the floor, smashing into a bench on my way down. I don't know what I said exactly, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't "Nerts!" I have a purple bruise on my left thigh that's bigger than two of my hands -- counting fingers! -- side by side, and looks like the map of Africa. But the success here was that I didn't swear over and over and over for a few minutes.

Who knows, maybe this is temporary too, and I'll start up again some time. I sure hope not. Today, word by word, I am relearning this lifelong habit. It's extraordinary what you can accomplish with a little help.

Next up: Stop biting my fingernails!

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