Close up Hands Tea x

Sit a bit and hear some observational stories I’ve been steeping.

Mary, Mary…quite the contrarian.

Mary, Mary…quite the contrarian.

Cockle shells 006 copy

When I was a kid I wracked my brain trying to figure out what exactly in the “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary” rhyme gave any clue that she was a contrarian (which also goes by the totally cool Latin name: opposium totalis).  I mean, look at this:

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,

How does your garden grow?

With silver bells, and cockle shells,

And pretty maids all in a row.

There is just so much about it that rankles me.

First off, cockle shells… what?  It wasn’t until I was an adult that I slyly looked it up on the internet, because up until that point I didn’t want to appear ignorant or silly for being the lone, odd grown-up who didn’t know what they were.  So, I used my work computer and a slick search engine to find cockle shells at the desk job where I was being paid a good chunk of change to do a lot of different things, and none of them included cockle shell searches.  In asking around recently, it turns out there are a lot of folks who didn’t and still don’t know what a cockle shell is – though the vast majority of them simply didn’t and still don’t care, either.


Well, I’m going to define the phrase anywhoose (because I’m of an age now that I don’t care about the opinion of “those people” anymore, the ones who might think me an ignoramus or silly.


cock·le·shell (noun) kä-kəl-shel

1) a: the shell or one of the shell valves of a cockle (a marine bi-valve mollusk).

b: a shell (as a scallop shell) suggesting a cockleshell.

2) a light flimsy boat.

Oh, I believe we can check off definition #2, because there was no indication that Mary worked in a shipyard.  It was clearly stated that she was hanging out in a garden (I don’t say “working” because I bet a buck, if she was a true contrarian, she probably had people doing her dirty work and just was the overseer of her garden and all that grew in it).

I do have to immediately question what the dealio is that she had bi-valve mollusks in her garden?  Did she use them as fertilizer?  Perhaps she was hoping that the smelly soil would prevent rabbits from eating and people from stealing the silver bells (pendulous white or pale pink flowers whose Latin classification name is Halesia Carolina).

Long before the nursery rhyme monkeyed with my brain cells, there were academics who pondered the Mary Contrary picture and came up with a bunch of historical explanations.  Among the theories?  References to religion, queens and persecutions.  Wow.  I suppose, but I was mostly confounded about the contrarian that this Mary was labeled (libeled?) and liable to be.  It made me think that anyone could come along and call me the same thing, with little to no evidence to back up their claim.

So, what was it that made lil’ ol’ maid Mary-Mary so contrary?  Was it because someone asked her how her garden grew and instead of being truthful, she gave some bogus answer?  Well, we never were told any other information about her garden, so how would we know what really grew there?  She said “silver bells” but I’ve since discovered that they grow in North America and China – did that wacky Mary have a wildly different topography and climate where silver bells wouldn’t or couldn’t grow?  Saying that they did would make her out to be, if not contrary, a big fat horticultural fibber!  And the idea that she had marine life “growing” in her garden, not her salt-water pond.  That would make her seem off her trolley, too… but, not necessarily your garden-variety contrary.  Oh-oh!  What of the “pretty maids” – what happened there?  Were the “pretty maids” not-so-pretty (too much makeup plastered on or homely without it) or were they just not exactly lined up in actual rows, posing for their garden show mugshot?  I don’t know.  Seriously, people!  Where’s the evidence of this Mary being contrary?  For the love of Pete, HOW would I know without more information?!

Bear with me.  I realize I’ve spent an awful lot of energy on this, but if I don’t spew it out now and find closure, it is likely to haunt me for the next half century, too — when possible grandchildren decide to show up.  I’d like to spare the little darlings these same questions that bother me and just concentrate on more important things. Like, how the goldfish crackers that toddlers eat remind me of true stories of folks in the 1930’s who crammed themselves into phone booths and swallowed live goldfish for fun.  Then, I can send the little crumb-crushers home to mom asking things like what the devil a phone booth is and could they please could have real goldfish to swallow like grandma had suggested.  Which I didn’t.  It’s just one of those hysterical historical bits of wisdom I’d like to pass on to the next generation.

See, it’s more than the nursery rhyme that plagues me.  I have a rather large problem with an actual, honest-to-goodness contrarian in my life and because of this I find myself, at times, quietly reciting the childhood verse of “Mary, Mary…” to calm me down.  It’s my version of counting to ten so I don’t explode and say things I’ll later regret.  So, know that I say it a lot.  A lot, a lot.

To try and have a pleasant conversation with a contrarian is impossible.  They will ask you to give your opinion on just about anything (music, food, weather, etc.) then proceed to verbally knock you down, where you stand.  Unlike the simply opinionated person, who genuinely has a conviction about the words they’re smacking you around the ears with, the contrarian just takes the opposing view of whatever you just said and runs off to the argument market with or without you. They simply live to be different.  They are masters at debate and can engage for hours in a group discussion about topics ranging from the important (politics, religion or questionable historical accounts) to the impertinent (ranting about who is or isn’t lazy/fat/undisciplined, even if you present truthful facts about the illness/emotions/finances of those inappropriately – and publicly – hung out to dry).

I’ve spent most of my life being pretty stinkin’ angry at each contrary Mary-Mary I’ve ever encountered.  That is, until I did a bit of observational weed-whacking to try and see what was underneath it all.

Without fail, most of the contrarians I know and interact with are not the happiest of campers, or gardeners.  Their friendship fields are fallow and they don’t have many seeds of compassion to sow when called upon for sympathy.  I’ve come to realize that they are in pain and being contrary keeps everyone at arm’s (aka heart’s) length. The whole reason for their being in constant opposition, I believe, is that you couldn’t possibly relate to someone like them – because at every moment of every day, they differ from you.  Being different, emotionally, spiritually and intellectually means being removed from everyone and everything.  It’s brilliant survival strategy, really: you cannot hurt them if you cannot reach them.  Unfortunately, in the bigger picture that they rarely ever see – you also cannot help them.  They are untouchable in every possible way.  Even if you have enough love to save them, you emotional superhero, you – being met by contrary behavior repeatedly… is relationship kryptonite.  You cannot win.

You can however, develop strategies to make dealing with them a bit easier (hence, cutting back on the times that you have to repeat the “Mary, Mary” rhyme in your head to cope).  Here are just a few tips:

  • Ask their opinion about things first.  If you can agree: do.  If you do not agree, move on to something else.  You have the power to not engage in an argument, so don’t do it.
  • When they are contrary ask them to elaborate and educate you about their opinion.  You might find it interesting or entertaining when all is said and done.  You don’t have to agree or disagree.  Again… move on.
  • When you communicate, use the facts and only the facts, m’am/man.  Otherwise, there is room for argument and you don’t want that.

There are many who would tell you to limit the time you spend with a contrarian – because they are just so difficult to handle and nearly impossible to reach.  I cannot walk away from the “Mary, Mary” in my life, because she is someone I love very much and want to look after as she gets older, though she doesn’t make it very easy.

Contrarians really are an island unto themselves.  An island where I’m pretty sure neither silver bells nor cockle shells have a hope to thrive.  But, thank goodness the rhyme is there to help us survive.  Perhaps if we mumble it fast enough, it can help set the pace as we row as close as we can get… to that rocky and uninviting shore.

+_+ xo – t. <3

“I swim against the tide because I like to annoy.” – Carols Ruis Zafón

“The Rum Tum Tugger is a Curious Cat:

If you offer him pheasant he would rather have grouse.
If you put him in a house he would much prefer a flat,
If you put him in a flat then he’d rather have a house.
If you set him on a mouse then he only wants a rat,
If you set him on a rat then he’d rather chase a mouse.
Yes the Rum Tum Tugger is a Curious Cat –
And there isn’t any call for me to shout it:
For he will do
As he do do
And there’s no doing anything about it! ~ T.S. Eliot

“Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature. ~ Saint Augustine

“Don’t say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

One thought on “Mary, Mary…quite the contrarian.

  • Mimi Bogan says:

    I find that I’ve been in both places throughout my life. Being named Mary my mother sang this to me and I was quite contrary. I think I began the transformation in my 30’s. Sometimes we develop contrary relationships and breaking our repeated roles can help. Thanks for the reminder, memories and your talented writing!

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