Finding balance in the second half of life

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What We Know

In Family on November 5, 2011 at 6:06 pm
Dmitri May 1983

A few months before the cream cheese incident.

Last weekend I had one of those alarming conversations with my daughter, who is much too far away. I was alarmed by clues that I had, perhaps, failed her as a mother.

The scene that came to mind right after I hung up the phone was set in the kitchen of the apartment where her older brother and I lived when he was two, before she was born. It was after church; I was making lunch. While I cooked, he sat very quietly at the table behind me, completely absorbed with the half a bagel I’d given him to tide him over.

When I finally turned around, I found that he was quiet for good reason. He was scraping the cream cheese off his bagel with one index finger and applying it to his toes, which were bare.

“Don’t put cream cheese on your foot!” I exclaimed, a phrase that became emblematic for me of the rules we would tell our children if we ever imagined the need. (That particular rule also represents a peculiar subcategory of rules, really: rules we’re not sure we dare tell our children because we’re afraid we’ll inspire things they’d never think of on their own. Rules of this type, for sons, often open with “Never try to burn…”)

Anyway, that set me thinking for a few days, wondering what I should have told my daughter but hadn’t. Which led me to think about when, exactly, it’s too late. Or what topics a responsible parent should have been expected to cover, and in what depth or specificity.

About that time, our middle son very generously made a cheesecake for a friend’s birthday, using a springform pan that I generously loaned him. Several weeks later, I texted him that I needed the pan back, because a baby shower required me to make another cheesecake.

“Um. Bad news about that. Paul threw it away…? He didn’t realize it wasn’t disposable…”

Who doesn’t know that a springform pan’s not disposable? Well, Paul, for one. He blames the “void of homemade cheesecakes in my life,” which, I suppose, would do it.

And that reminded me of a guy my sister dated back in college, who didn’t realize that you could re-roll the scraps when you’re making biscuits.

So here I was, musing about the holes that can gap in one’s knowledge, when I ran across this spousal exchange in A Lighthearted Story of Two Innocents at Sea, by James A. McCracken:

You know what that means.” My rose petal looked at me accusingly.

“‘Junk of Pork’? Sure. It means a piece of rotten, poisonous pork. It’s junk. To be thrown away.”

“It’s perfectly good Maine usage. It means a piece of pork. A ‘junk of wood’ is a piece of stovewood. A piece or a chunk or a hunk is a ‘junk.’”

“Thanks.” I looked at her. Here we’ve been married all these years, sitting around in this boat for all these days, and she’d never told me that. What else did she know?

Well, that turned my musing on its head. It was a gentle reminder that whatever I know that someone else doesn’t, there’s likely just as much or more that someone else knows that I don’t.

I know my daughter, for example, who might be a little sketchy about laundry technique, knows quite a lot about biology. She knows the names of all the bones in the body, and is intimate with the lives of sand crabs, which I hope never to observe directly.

Dmitri March 2008

Finding happiness in a way completely foreign to me.

When I get over the self-absorption that parental insecurity can induce, I can recognize that of course none of us will know only the same things. That the job of a parent is not to transfer an encyclopedic knowledge. It is to point your kids in generally a right direction, roughly toward love and happiness, and to teach them how to learn things for themselves. On our best days, we realize how much we can learn from them.

And the way they find love and happiness may be completely different from your own. Good thing they can learn things we don’t already know. At this moment, I’m thinking cream cheese might feel really good on my feet.

–Lois Maassen

Working Physics: How Changing Space Alters Time

In Community, Survival on November 2, 2011 at 1:40 am

Time passes differently in an office. As a freelancer, I work at home or the coffee shop or the library, but sometimes it makes sense to work onsite with a client for a few months. That’s when I notice the movement of time. It’s not that it goes faster or slower in an office or that it’s better or worse. It just goes differently. Sideways, maybe.

When my mom was in the hospital overnight, I spent the day with her. Mostly we were waiting—waiting for tests, for medication, for the doctor. The doctors and nurses were busy and efficient and I knew they were getting things done. But what happens in there isn’t life, or at least not normal life. Normal life is what happens outside the hospital walls. You can see it from the window. Two nurses taking a walk during lunch, a man unloading groceries from his trunk, a group of teenage girls sitting on the lawn, heads bent over their phones.

That’s the best comparison I can make to how I experience time in an office. I feel like I’m alongside life. I’m not unhappy. I just feel that something is missing, or that I’m missing something. After a few days in the office, the feeling starts to dissipate. After a few weeks, it’s almost gone.

It’s easy to understand why time moves differently for me inside an office. On my own, I have total control over my time and my days are varied. I’m used to moving directly from folding a load of laundry to interviewing a source to walking the dog. By comparison, a day in the office feels pretty monotone.

What’s more intriguing to me is why time stops moving differently, and quite quickly. It’s possible that I get used to it. People are adaptable, and you can get used to anything. (This is why college students raised in tidy homes adjust to dorm living.) Maybe being able to adjust is just nature’s way of helping out. But that answer seemed partial at best.

I was still thinking about it last week when I got an e-mail from the client. The team I’m doing work for was going out for lunch, she said. Would I like to join them? Sure, I said. While at lunch, I heard about children’s sports-related injuries, Halloween plans, and career paths. A few days later, in honor of all the people with October birthdays, donuts, bagels, and sliced apples magically appeared atop a bank of filing cabinets not far from my desk. All day people stopped to snack and chat.It’s an open office, so I overheard conversations about work, upcoming college visits, recipes. I remembered one of the best parts of working at an office: People.

And I think somewhere in there is the answer to why time begins to feel normal again. The more time I spend onsite, the better I get to know the people who work there. Then—not surprisingly, I know; none of this is rocket science—I feel connected and that’s when the shift occurs. That’s when time inside the office stops feeling like it’s operating alongside life and starts feeling like a part of life.

Or it could be the food. But that’s just six of one, half dozen of another. –Christine MacLean

I Frazz, Therefore I Am?

In Fulfillment, Survival on October 15, 2011 at 8:42 pm

Doing laundry in less than three hours for the second Saturday in a row, I realize I’ve reached the point I worried about several years ago: I don’t have enough laundry to get my thinking done. I dug out this essay, first written for Jugglezine, to explain.

Joyce Carol Oates, asked to describe her writing process, said, “I clean my own house.” For a minute, I thought she’d misunderstood the question, but then I saw: Cleaning the house gives her time to think, the mental leisure for ideas to bounce around and connect in different ways. When she sits down to write, she’s very productive, because she’s documenting the thoughts that she’s already assembled.

This makes perfect sense. For a writer, it’s the difference between sitting down with a blank page and a sense of purpose, or sitting down with a blank page and a sense of impending doom. The former is invigorating; the latter is enough to put you off writing for the rest of whatever.

It’s getting harder and harder, though, to follow Oates’ example. Our technology and the expectations created by its use have encouraged us to think that every moment needs to be filled to overflowing. We measure productivity by the number of messages sent, phone calls fielded, simultaneous tasks–anything but the quality of thought.

This is in spite of growing evidence that we’re mistaking activity for productivity. The IQs of participants in one study dropped measurably–lower than marijuana users–when they were subjected to “always-on” technology–instant messages, Blackberries, anything that demanded immediate attention. Other researchers concluded that 28 percent of the work day is spent on interruptions–2.1 hours a day. The same study estimated that interruptions cost the U.S. economy $588 billion a year–based just on wasted time, not the lower quality of work produced by distracted people.

There’s also a human cost. Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, author of CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked and About to Snap–Strategies for Coping in a World Gone ADD, has seen a dramatic increase in patients with symptoms like those of attention deficit disorder. He adds a new term to the multi-tasking discussion, “frazzing: frantic, ineffective multitasking, typically with the delusion that you are getting a lot done.”

Surely there’s a place for the always-connected, immediate-response work style. Hallowell describes his patients as “making decisions in black-and-white, shoot-from-the-hip ways rather than giving things adequate thought.” While that doesn’t sound good to me, it fits for situations and jobs where the rules are black and white and snap decisions are what’s called for. Oddly, I can’t think of any really good examples–because in any setting, sooner or later something would be missed, some subtlety or implication.

The appeal of the grey zone

But lots of work–especially creative and high-end knowledge work–is done primarily if not exclusively in the grey zone between black and white. That’s where we’re told our future lies, what keeps jobs from migrating to cheaper labor markets or being replaced by machines, what gives our companies their competitive edges, what in the long run can make the world a better place. So what’s a frazzing knowledge worker to do?

First, put technology in its place. Suggestions are everywhere: turn off the “ding” or the cell phone; set aside a specific time (or several) during the day to check e-mail; leave the cell phone turned off or at home when you’ve got something else to think about. Isn’t it odd that people who don’t otherwise seem selfless are willing to abandon themselves, their time, and their trains of thought to whoever might be on the other end of the ringing phone or bonging e-mail or IM?

Once you’ve decided to subjugate technology to your own agenda, make some space for thinking time. There’s a bit of serendipity involved, of course; you can’t always force creative thinking. It is like building a social life: If you don’t leave your house, you’re not likely to meet someone. And if you don’t make some space for thinking, you’re not likely to have ideas that inspire you.

The shower is one of the most-cited spots where inspiration strikes, perhaps because the shower is a place we’re ill-equipped to multi-task. Drive-time works for me. I can use a cell phone while I drive, but I’d rather not–and I’m not very good at it. My commute is short and full of stop signs and I drink a Dr. Pepper while I drive. I just don’t have enough hands. But I’ve also found that having time for myself and my thoughts makes me better prepared to start work in the morning and shift out of work at the end of the day.

Change the angle

Folding laundry is good thinking time for me. I worry that, as my kids grow older and leave home, there just might not be enough towels to get a really good insight. Like Oates’ housecleaning, folding laundry is active but automatic enough to let my thoughts wander. Which is a good thing, science shows. We can look at problems from different perspectives, combine different elements, and come up with solutions we couldn’t have if we’d just tried to “power through.” Washington University psychologist R. Keith Sawyer says, “When we take time off from working on a problem, we change what we’re doing and our context, and we can activate different areas of our brain.” While it may be good to have a housecleaner, or to drop off your laundry for someone else to do, don’t outsource all your repetitive, manual labor just for more time to multi-task. Come up with something else–knitting? woodcarving?–that will give you an excuse to let your thoughts wander.

After we’ve included some open thinking time in our days, we need to rethink our planning and pacing of projects. Typical plans include only the time a person needs actually to do the hands-on work, not the time required to have the idea to execute, or the time for reflection between iterations. A graphic designer I work with told me how important it is for her to immerse herself in a project–but to be able to walk away and return a day or two later with a fresh perspective. And working on several projects interspersed can mean that an idea that springs out of one project feeds another project that’s percolating.

I’m proposing that we embrace woolgathering–by its original meaning. I learned recently that the word originally described poor people scavenging along hedges and trees for wool that had been pulled from sheep walking by. When the gatherers had enough, they’d card and spin the wool and make it into garments. Now that’s productive assembly of elements, over time, from here and there, merging them into one creative output.

Obsessing is not thinking

Finally, we need to use our thinking time for things that deserve it. We’re hugely drawn to obsessing about things that don’t matter; we’re compelled to run down to-do lists over and over. What works for me–when anything works for me, which is not always–is to plant reminders of what I want to be thinking about. For this essay, for example, I’ve had a note on my office whiteboard for weeks. A related magazine article on my desk at home, when I’ve walked by–on my way to that laundry–prompted me to think about this rather than the groceries we need or the state of my basement.

And it’s worth it to me because the experience of sitting down to write with my thoughts collected and a direction to go is so enormously satisfying–at least as satisfying as having a clean house.

–Lois Maassen

Sleepless

In Survival on August 18, 2011 at 2:30 pm

This is what happens when you can’t sleep:

You put the book back on the stack and turn off the light. You curl your arm around Luna, who is conveniently sleeping next to your pillow. When you close your eyes and suddenly aren’t sleepy any more, you find there’s a cat paw right next to your hand. You can squeeze the paw and make the claws come out: squeeze, retract, squeeze, retract. Luna doesn’t even lift up her head. You can feel every bone in her paw, feel the way the joints work.

Luna is so cooperative you pet her, long strokes from head to tail. You compare the feel of her fur to the rabbit fur mitt one of your clients recommends for touch therapy. You think Luna is actually softer than the rabbit fur, and this is not the softest or lushest-furred cat who lives in this house.

You realize you’re contemplating skinning your cats and deliberately redirect your thoughts. You pet the cat once more with, you hope she knows, affection and respect, and not envy or avarice. You realize how bright the moon is. You note the smaller moon reflected in the window. You wonder if you should reconsider window treatments so the room is dark.

While you’re at it you note the amount of light given off by the large-number digital alarm clock, which your husband bought as a convenience for you. As on previous sleepless nights, you wonder whether it’s a good thing to be able to see the minutes popping by.

You pet the cat again, hoping she’ll purr, which is sometimes a soporific. You wonder at the differences in the three cats’ fur, but then realize that you could also tell your three children’s hair apart by touch, even if they had the same haircut.

Because, after all, your three kids are quite distinct, and have been from conception. Which reminds you of the book you were reading before turning out the light. It was a gift from your daughter, a book about mother/daughter travel—both physical and emotional. If you knew whether she’d read the jacket or the book before giving it to you, you’d know how seriously to take the tensions between the characters and the daughter’s depression. You wonder if you should be a more perceptive mother.

You think you could read another chapter or two, but your book light is on the other side of the bed, left there when you asked your husband to switch bed-sides for a few weeks to see if sleeping on your other side would lessen the pressure in your surgically damaged ear. You debate various acrobatics that would net the book light, but, especially since Finnegan has now curled up by your knees, you’d probably disturb your husband and two cats: Is it worth it?

Because why, after all, are you still awake? Are you stressing about your work? Your daughter? Your volunteer project that has grown tentacles? The sheer number of things left undone? Your fear that you’ve passed this part of your nature along to your daughter?

Now you feel a little cramped, and you don’t think it’s just the cats. You’re pretty sure that your husband has encroached on your side of the bed. Knowing all the time that it’s petty, you still count the slats in the headboard to see just where the centerline is. When you prove that, indeed, one shoulder and one leg are over the line, you realize how pointless the exercise is. You nestle.

You wonder if you could read your book by the moonlight, because it seems just that bright.

You’re too hot, so you maneuver to poke your feet out from under the blanket. This involves sliding your legs under Finnegan, who turns to concrete when he sleeps and is otherwise imperturbable. You think there must be a haiku about sleeping with cats, but you can’t get beyond the first line: Kittens sleep in heaps.

It’s a dangerous slide into thinking about the other things you should be writing, so you redouble your efforts to get Luna to purr. She doesn’t lift her head, still. You put your nose into her fur, and can’t quite decide whether she smells like anything at all. Maybe a little like dust.

Dust. Dust. Dust makes you think about the discussion at book group earlier in the evening, where books with big themes frequently lead to discussion about the state of the world. You think about whether you can really follow through on your advice to stay engaged with the world, to resist turning off NPR in favor of Vivaldi because the news is just too painful. We saw in The Handmaid’s Tale what happens when people aren’t vigilant—especially women. You have to admit that you’ve been listening to music instead of news for the last five days, since the Iowa straw poll.

You wander into thoughts about what’s happened to women in the last three decades, how much is different for your daughter from what you experienced. You’re afraid it’s not enough: She may not be asked to bring a man coffee in the office, if she happens to take an office job. But choices in relationships are still determinant of options for her in ways they aren’t for men, you think.

Because you’ve been listening to music instead of NPR, there are lines from Joni Mitchell songs accessible in your head. “I am as constant as a northern star” | And I said “Constantly in the darkness | Where’s that at?” Or Crown and anchor me |
Or let me sail away…. Or When you dig down deep | You lose good sleep | And it makes you | Heavy company….

You feel less and less secure in your ability to give good advice to your daughter, should she ask, because not all of the choices you made were smart ones. You’re not sure whether you should have listened to less Joni—whose favorite theme has been disappointed love—or your daughter should listen to more, but you know this for sure: You want her to be happy, to live in some proximation to her dreams, to have a relationship with someone who will cherish her. You want her to know what it means to have a real partner, but you’re not sure you can describe how you know for sure when you’ve found one, since you feel just plain lucky yourself.

After seeing the giant luminous 3:44 on the too-bright clock and being abandoned by Luna, who seeks solitude in the linen closet, you stop.

In the morning, after sleeping through two alarms, you’re awakened by your husband from a dream in which you’re looking for the flip charts from a series of meetings. One of your former bosses assures you that they’re all taken care of, that they’ve been automatically uploaded to the web. You think the notes should have been synthesized and edited before they were made public; the former boss doesn’t think that’s a problem because no one knows where to find them on the web, anyway. You can’t find them, either.

The sun streams into the bedroom and you are stupefied with sleep.

–Lois Maassen

Greater Depth of Field

In Family, Fulfillment on July 13, 2011 at 7:34 pm

A few weeks ago we celebrated Father’s Day early at my sister’s house.  “Here,” she said, handing me our dad’s camera after lunch. “Would you take some pictures for Dad?” My dad is 80 and the tremors that come with his Parkinson’s disease make it difficult for him to hold the camera steady.

I was glad to do it, taking pictures of the family members gathered around the table and of Dad opening his presents. I documented the facts of the event. I assumed that’s what he wanted.

My father is a practical man, hard-working and smart as a whip, to use one of his expressions. On the farm when the hay baler broke down, he could fix it with a few tools, some spare parts he had on hand, and ingenuity.  His solution wasn’t always typical, but it always got the job done.

I didn’t think of him as particularly creative; back then my definition of that word was narrower than it is now. My mother was the one with artistic sensibilities. She loved her flower garden and regularly pointed out nature’s beauty—the red wing blackbird’s song, the sunlight filtering through the morning mist, the smattering of Dutchman’s britches in the woods. She noticed beauty everywhere and frequently pointed it out to us.

My father noticed work everywhere and frequently pointed it out to us. He then issued a directive to us to do that work. Working three jobs himself, he hardly had time to sleep, let alone ponder life’s beauty and mystery.  He was all about getting things done. The garden got planted. The beans got picked. The hay got baled. The cow got milked. Dinner got made. And, in good time, because all those things and many more got done day after day, year after year, his children got fed, clothed, and educated. My dad showed his love by providing for us and teaching us to provide for ourselves. Love was spelled W-O-R-K because it led to a better life for us. Other things—things like beauty, longing, the landscapes of his children’s inner lives—were superfluous and not worthy of his time and attention.

Or so I thought.

When my parents moved to a retirement village, my brother-in-law put hundreds of the pictures Dad had taken over the years onto a CD. Knowing an overwhelming job when he sees one, my brother-in-law didn’t try to organize the slides, so a picture of my sister’s second birthday in 1961 is followed by a picture of the trailer my mom lived in in 1954 while Dad was in the Air Force, which is followed by a picture of a hometown parade from 1968.

I was clicking through that CD, looking for a photo of my father as a young man to post in honor of Father’s Day. And in that visual mash-up of my dad’s days I saw that my dad—a retired farmer, roofer, and proud U.S. Postal worker—is also a photographer, taking the time to frame the shot so it tells a story. He intuitively grasps depth of field, light, and the elements of composition and, before Parkinson’s, he used them to great effect. In moments stolen from getting things done, he didn’t just tend to life’s logistics and practicalities. He attended to life’s moments of beauty and grace.

Most astounding of all to me, he attended to us and captured something of who we were at that moment. My parents had six children in nine years and we lived on a working farm. I knew I was loved. But life was busy. I felt not so much invisible as not seen. But it was my father who wasn’t seen, at least not in his entirety. I didn’t have much depth of field when I looked at him.

I wish I had figured all this out before Father’s Day, before I took his camera in hand and trained the lens on him. I wish I had been more mindful so, although I don’t have his skill or his eye, I could have at least tried for the kind of photo he would have taken—the kind that’s a distillation of life and not merely a record of the event. It would have been a much better way to honor the whole man than posting an old photo of him to Facebook.

I got it all wrong. But my dad got some things all right. –Christine MacLean

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Can You Say “Dead”?

In Survival on July 3, 2011 at 7:57 pm

My Uncle Clare died on Tuesday. So far, no one has mentioned it.

There is much talk of his “passing,” as if he’d finally been promoted to fourth grade or sped by the slow-moving vehicle ahead of him on I-96 or successfully pulled off faking his race, gender, or sexual orientation. But no one — not the hospice social worker, not the young chaplain, Bible in hand, who gently escorted my aunt to her car, not the two kind men from Dykstra Funeral Home who came to retrieve my uncle’s body — pronounced the D-Word in my hearing.

I have to think that Uncle Clare, a plain-spoken, even occasionally gruff son of a considerably gruffer, occasionally mean working-class father — a man who never relinquished the colorful vocabulary of his Army and construction worker days, even after he returned to college at the age of 42 and became a teacher who attended church and lived with his wife in a beautiful home on the Thornapple River, one of the tonier suburbs of Grand Rapids, Michigan, the city where he was born — would scoff at our reluctance to use the definitive four-letter word that describes his current condition.

Uncle Clare is dead. As in, he won’t be teasing me about wearing heels to try to be taller than my old uncle. As in, he won’t be calling “Sweetheart” from the open door of the refrigerator to ask my aunt if there’s any butter. As in, his ashes are in a cardboard box in the back of my VW Bug.

“I just can’t realize he’s gone,” my aunt tells me every time we speak. And that gets to heart of it, I think. Not that she can’t “believe” he’s “passed away,” but that she can’t comprehend the reality of his utter, absolute, irrevocable goneness.

If words can do anything to help the bereft, bereaved, thunderstruck human being whose best beloved has been snatched from her arms, it must be in the service of this realizing.

When my father died, Emily Dickinson’s words helped:

You left me – Sire – two Legacies -

A Legacy of Love

A Heavenly Father would suffice

Had He the offer of -

You left me Boundaries of Pain -

Capacious as the Sea -

Between Eternity and Time -

Your Consciousness – and me -

In two short stanzas, she sums up the whole human tragedy: we are loved; we are left. The condition of experiencing the former is experiencing the latter — those Boundaries of Pain that death lays down in black permanent marker. By acknowledging, putting words to the inviolable barrier between my father’s consciousness “- and me -” (that final, heartbreaking dash breaking off into the empty eternity of separation spread out before me), Dickinson’s poem helped me to realize the unbearable truth about what had happened to me.

The word “dead” had that kind of shocking, cold-water-in-the-face effect on me, too. My dad is dead, I told myself over and over, and the heavy downbeat of those two D-laden words hammered the realization into my resistant consciousness. The weight of the noun (the verb form to die is lighter, more ephemeral — you die in an instant; you’re dead forever) gives it finality. And dignity.

Auden knew how to use it:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,

Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,

Silence the pianos and with muffled drum

Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead

Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead . . .

Clarence Ekema at the age of two.

My dad is dead. My uncle Clare is dead. Someday you and I and all the people we love will be dead. Realize it. Call it by its name.

–Debra Wierenga


Another Thing a Dad Can Do

In Family on June 19, 2011 at 7:23 pm

In honor of Father’s Day, Moms Rising has created a special site where people can “share a favorite moment” involving dads. Since I’d been trying to come up with a meaningful way to say Happy Father’s Day to a dad who is no longer around to open cards or presents or check out his Facebook wall, I decided to give this a try. I found myself writing about how my dad used to play “Barbie Queen of the Prom” with my sisters and me on the evenings when my mom was at bridge club.

He did. Without complaint, without rolling his eyes, without making us feel that things girls liked to do were innately dumb, he bought the dress, got elected to a club, and found a steady date in order to vie for the honor of being crowned Queen of the Prom.

One of the best things about playing with him (and, now that I think of it, one of the reasons he regularly won) was that he never disdained the nerdy Poindexter as escort. In fact, he professed to prefer Poindexter. I think he may have felt sorry for him, seeing how often his daughters rejected the poor freckled, big-eared guy in favor of rounding the board another time in hopes of landing on the all-American Ken or the more sultry Bob (always my first choice).

He wasn’t shy about consulting with us on choosing his prom gown, either, questioning whether pink was really his best color.

My dad was manly man, don’t get me wrong. He played as many sports as Ken did, built things with his hands, knew his way around a table saw. I often thought it was a shame he didn’t have sons to toss a football with or coach in Little League (this was pre-Title 9). But now it occurs to me that he — a boy who lost his mother at a tender age — enjoyed the immersion in female life that came with having three daughters.

He was never afraid to tell us how pretty we looked, that he liked what we’d done with our hair. He came to our tea parties and ate our attempts at cooking with genuine relish. He never made us feel that there was anything wrong with being a girl.

Many stories about fathers are written by sons who remember the ways their dads showed them what it meant to be a man. I am glad to add this story about a dad who taught his daughters something essential about being a woman.

–Debra Wierenga

It’s About the Books

In Fulfillment on June 19, 2011 at 1:22 am

There’s been a fair amount going on in our world that I’ve been working hard not to comment on, on the longstanding wisdom that if you can’t say something nice, you ought not to say anything at all. And while, if I tried hard enough, I could probably come up with something nice (all those years in marketing were not entirely in vain), a magazine arrived today with a caption that struck a nerve on a topic I feel completely free to vent about, without choosing my words carefully, without wondering which of my Facebook friends will unfriend me.

“Declutter bookshelves,” the offending magazine advised. “Keep a light look by limiting books to half a shelf or putting them in baskets. Group just a few select accents, which will give the shelves room to breathe.”

News flash! It’s not about the shelves. It’s about the books. The more books you have, the better. If you can’t fit them in vertically, cram them in the space above. If the shelves are completely full, stack the books on the floor. If the stacks bother you, strew the books about. That will give the books room to breathe.

Over the past several months, I’ve seen this book-lite advice more than a few times, along with arranging your books by color or by size, and, I swear, covering your books with white butcher paper so they all match.

I like a match as much as the next person—watch me when I sew plaids—but… how do you find the book? Because, you know, having the books isn’t enough. You want to be able to find them, and read them, and stow them away, and find them again months or years later, like a long-lost friend or, occasionally, like a completely unfamiliar intruder.

My son brought a friend to visit a week or so ago, and somehow the conversation turned to our book organization system. It’s a little convoluted, I know: twentieth century and later starts in the bedroom and continues through the living room, alphabetical by author. Poetry is in the bedroom, as is 19th century. The dining room has reference, Shakespeare, and religion; women’s studies, crafts, and time management are upstairs. The detective collection (a clear deviation, I know) is downstairs, along with business. Design and law are out in the studio; philosophy may be out there, too: I’m not sure because I don’t read it much.

I know where to go when I’m in a certain mood, or need to accomplish a certain something. Can you imagine saying, “I’m thinking a blue book” when you might say, “I’d love a mystery”? “I feel like a tall book” when you might say “I need something like Austen”? Can you imagine searching through all those white-jacketed books in search of the one with the fox and geese mitten pattern? Can you imagine not running into P.G. Wodehouse in your search for Thomas Wolfe?

Please. Let your bookshelves be bookshelves. You may have as many uncluttered shelves as you like, with as many tasteful accessories. Just don’t call them bookshelves.

Let your books be books, not accessories. Let them sport their very own dustjackets, or their very own cracked spines, which, it is to be hoped, you helped them acquire.

And put your books in baskets only to carry them to the beach. To, you know, read them.

“I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people

who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.”

—Anna Quindlen, “Enough Bookshelves,” New York Times, August 7, 1991

–Lois Maassen

Prophylactic Poetry

In Fulfillment on May 19, 2011 at 3:22 pm

This morning I straightened the shoes in the front hall and said to the dog, the most attentive member of the family, “I’d do it all again–/marry the man, carry the sons. I’d eat/ the whole McIntosh, seeds and all.”* She sighed and sank to the floor, waiting for the rest of the poem or perhaps completing it herself in dog-speak. Surely she could. She’s heard it and half a dozen others often enough as I struggled to memorize them.

A month ago, I couldn’t recite any poetry. I didn’t even read poetry, and I didn’t particularly want to. Then I got my first smartphone.

I’ve held out on buying one for a long time, and even in the store I was ambivalent. I’m in a service industry, and I know a smartphone will help me provide better service to clients. But I don’t like carrying the whole world and an entertainment center around with me. It’s too much connection, too many choices (Pandora, Netflix, or Facebook while waiting to pick up carpool?), too much doing, all on a tiny screen, and not enough reflecting. I’m not a Luddite; I just think enough is enough.

In his book Hamlet’s Blackberry, William Powers talks about the importance of the gap between times of technology use. He uses the example of calling his mother from his cell phone to tell her he’ll be late. After he hangs up, he continues to think of his mother, visualizing some happy times they’ve shared. This simple call reminds him of their deep connection—but only because of the gap after the call. If he’d immediately made another call, it wouldn’t have held meaning beyond conveying information.

“The gap is the essential link between the utilitarian side of the digital experience and the ‘vital significance’ side. And it’s a link that’s completely overlooked in current thinking about technology, with its unexamined faith in nonstop connectedness,” he writes. “To share time and space with others in the fullest sense, you have to disconnect from the global crowd. You have to create one of those gaps where thoughts, feelings, and relationships take root.”

That idea of creating space away from technology isn’t new to me. It’s one of the reasons I have a little garden and why I don’t much mind washing dishes by hand. The phone, though, raised the stakes.

So I was thinking about those gaps as I drove to book club. For the first time, our book club had chosen to read and discuss two books of poetry, one by Jack Ridl  and the other by Debra Wierenga, both of whom were going to be there.

To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to it. Poetry intimidates me. I don’t get it. And it’s embarrassing to be a writer who doesn’t get words in a creative form. But that night at book club the poets said poetry is about being, not about meaning. It’s meant to be experienced, they said, like music, because a good deal of poetry’s power comes from the rhythm and rhyme of the words. Even though I don’t know much about music, I enjoy it, and on the drive home, I allowed for the possibility that poetry is something I might like, after all.

In my favorite movie of all time, Shakespeare in Love, Viola De Lesseps puts the importance of poetry right up there with adventure and love. She’s adamant when she says, “I will have poetry in my life,” and she risks plenty to get it. To her, poetry is integral to a life fully lived.

She gets poetry and a life fully lived; I get technology and, if I don’t draw some boundaries, a life barely lived. There are fewer and fewer gaps because the more you can do with technology, the more you think of to do with it. It’s like not needing anything until you go shopping and suddenly you realize how much you need. Except that you really don’t. And you buy things and then you have to figure out how to fit them into your life.

So I’ve taken up prophylactic poetry. I’m memorizing poems to keep technology from propagating and to protect the gaps. No one is more surprised by this than I am. If for book club we’d read a book on kickboxing, I’d probably be doing that instead. But we read poetry.

I haven’t been at all methodical in choosing the poems. I started with Tennyson’s “The Eagle,” because it was short and I’d learned it for sixth grade. Thanks to this scene in “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” was next, then a few others.

So far, the effort is paying off.  I’ve found it impossible to memorize a poem without reflecting on the poet’s word choices and placement. Sometimes, reflection even gives way to meaning. I memorized “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” by Robert Frost, in early May–just the right time to fully appreciate “Nature’s first green is gold/Her hardest hue to hold” (and capture it with my smartphone’s camera). 

It has also shortened my 3:00 a.m. spells of insomnia. Like a toy can distract an anxious child, poetry distracts my mind from the usual worries just enough—ooh! Look how pretty!—to let me sink back into sleep.  I think my concentration is improving, too. It had been a very long time since I’d had to memorize anything, even a phone number. With a smartphone, there’s even less reason to; everything is at your fingertips. It’s reassuring to see that I still can memorize something.

I’ve always thought that, whatever losses and indignities old age might bring, my quality of life would be good enough as long as I could read or listen to books. I assumed I’d always be able to—until a friend mentioned that her mother, an avid reader, can no longer follow a plot because of her Alzheimer’s disease. By the time she reads a new page, she’s forgotten what happened on the previous one.

And so I memorize these words that poets have so carefully strung together and hope that poetry will be prophylactic in this final sense, protecting the words and their order, so even if their meaning is lost, I’ll still be able to experience them.  For a writer, the only thing worse than not understanding words is not having any words at all. –Christine MacLean

* From “Self Portrait as Eve,” by Debra Wierenga in her chapbook Marriage and Other Infidelities.

Congregating in Faith

In Community, Fulfillment on May 16, 2011 at 12:36 am

I’m a churchgoer.

I say that right up front because, while I have a lot of friends at my church and others, I also have a lot of friends who aren’t churchgoers, whether or not they are believers, never mind in what.

Every now and then I have to revisit my reasons for going to church. Sometimes I get an an awfully tempting offer for another Sunday morning engagement, sometimes I get lazy, sometimes it’s just not easy to be part of a church.

It’s unfortunate, right off the bat, that the word “church” is such a buffet. There’s the “church” building, there’s “church” as a Sunday morning event, there’s the “church” as a nonprofit organization, there’s the “church” as a hierarchy, there’s the “church” as a congregation of people. No wonder we can find ourselves ambivalent about the whole thing; it’s hard to know what we’re even thinking about. And to make matters worse, there’s the occasional use of “the church” to give form to a point of view, often ascribed to Christians, who may in the moment be behaving in less than Christ-like ways.

My non-church friends talk to me about worship; they ask whether I can’t worship anywhere and at any time. And of course I can. I know I need, though, that weekly structured mindfulness in company with others who are working to be mindful of the same thing. So it’s not worship so much I’m headed to church for, but headspace, recalibration. And since I’m a puzzler, who carries conundrums on the back burner of her heart until they become at least a little clearer, I’m also looking for missing pieces, for wisdom that comes from others’ experiences and education.

I wish I could claim to be pursuing only worship. I’m sure I would feel a better person if that were my only aim. My nature, my history makes it more complicated than that, or makes me a needier person.

I saw only two movies before I was in high school: Mary Poppins and Sound of Music. The church my dad pastored had members he knew to be more conservative than he. He took seriously the advice from Paul to the Corinthians: “Be careful that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” Paul was encouraging early Christians to set aside their inherited religious laws against, for example, eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. At the same time, he didn’t want a controversy about whether eating that meat was sinful to get in the way of God’s larger message, which is, we’re reminded, to love each other as God loves us.

For my dad, movie theaters were like sacrificed meat. He didn’t, himself, believe that movie theaters were of the devil, but it wasn’t a controversy he particularly wanted for a distraction within his congregation. When we wanted to see a movie, we went to the far north side of the city to the east, where it was unlikely that any parishioners would see us. And there were only two movies attractive enough to warrant the risk and the travel. I thought Julie Andrews was the world’s only movie star.

Whatever other lessons those episodes taught me, somewhere I also retained the knowledge that my relationship was not so much with “the church” as it was with the individuals in the church. This makes for a complicated, messy, rewarding life together, but it’s part of the reason that showing up at church is on my priority list. And it helps me to remember that when “the church” does something, it’s not a single institutional entity, but a collection of individuals, who are, each in his or her own way, trying to do what they think is right.

Saying I learned this lesson doesn’t make it true. In spite of my best intentions and deepest insights, I can leave a church committee meeting or other gathering in deep frustration. I confess: Sometimes I stew.

On my better days, I remember that a congregation is a complicated network, that it will never behave as though every member knows the same things or thinks the same things or lives the same life. Especially difficult is seeing what looks like timidity in discussing “welcoming the sojourner in our midst” through immigration reform or, more generally, what it means “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with [our] God.”

Those issues are too connected to the political realm for some, and that means it’s too easy to act like Republicans and Democrats instead of like Christians, I guess. I struggle to see justice, mercy, and humility as that sacrificed meat; they seem to me to be so much more, to be required of us as children of God.

In society more broadly, we seem to have lost our “commons,” that place where we can come together to talk about what we all hold dear and where we have differences. I’ve read lots of articles and essays about how the fragmentation of the media and the isolation of our lives exacerbate that: There are TV stations for liberals and TV stations for conservatives, and viewers of each are reinforced in a very different reality; I know how different the realities are because of the station that runs in the waiting room where I get my oil changed. And when we sort ourselves by political (or other) persuasion, and then interact with folks only like us online, it’s far too easy to demonize and diminish other points of view.

A church congregation, it seems to me, is one place where differences could be talked about and explored, with confidence in a foundation of love. In spite of being drawn together by a shared faith, though, we’re still just people. And people have their feelings hurt and assume that everyone else thinks like they think—or should. We all have our own histories, including family members who’ve been alcoholic—or not, friends who are gay—or not, financial security or insecurity. And because we are, after all, only human, what we think we know can get in the way of what God would like us to know.

I have mused this week about whether it was time to take a different tack in my church life. My friends and colleagues know that I often say, “too hard,” and while usually I don’t mean it, this time I might have.

My spousish one asked what I was thinking on that score today as we arrived home from church. When I said I was tending to stay the course, he nodded.

“You’ve got to belong somewhere,” he said. “And a church is probably a better option than most.”

Especially when it’s a church into which you’ve been deeply knit, with people who are willing to struggle with what it means “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with [our] God.” And when that’s too hard, the answer, especially in church, even in church, is to love more.

–Lois Maassen

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