Finding balance in the second half of life

Author Archive

Step Away from the Shelves

In Family on August 9, 2014 at 8:43 pm

In the strongest possible language, I must caution you: If you happen to notice that your bookshelves look dusty, avert your eyes and step away. Find something else to do. Alphabetize your spices, or search for substitute mates for odd socks. Clean the globes on your light fixtures.

If you succumb, you’ll find that there’s no substitute for removing all the books from each shelf, using a combination of vacuum and dust cloth to restore your books and the shelves they occupy to respectable condition. If that were all, it would be fine. But it’s not. There are insidious side effects.

You will, for example, spend an inordinate amount of time trying to decide whether the collected works of Walt Whitman should be considered poetry or prose. You may be tempted to count the relative number of pages devoted to each; you may give in to temptation. You will no doubt find yourself gathering together all of the Whitman in one pile, just to affirm your decision to consider him a poet.

You’ll start another chain of unintended consequences by deciding that Austen really ought to have a shelf in your office. There’s a shelf that’s almost empty, but it’s not empty empty, which you’ll solve by adding the contents of the shelf to your in box, creating another project for another day. You’ll notice that this change puts Austen right next to the eleven volumes of A Series of Unfortunate Events, and you’ll spend more time than you should wondering if that’s unsettling or exactly right, since Austen’s events are generally so fortunate, at least by the last chapter.

You’ll try to find an excuse for putting Tina Fey in a section other than “post-1900” just because she doesn’t seem entirely comfortable in such close proximity to Faulkner, or even to Martha Gellhorn. You’ll ask yourself whether you can’t just send Tina to Goodwill, whether you really need to reread her; you’ll wonder just how many IQ points you’ve lost since college.

bookshelf 2014.08.09You will discover that there’s a shelf that you and your partner assumed had a different designation. What you thought was the introduction to the philosophy section, he has thought was “current reading.” “Current reading?” Who gets a shelf for that? What does that make the top of the dresser, the top of the desk? What’s the pile by the side of the bed? “Really current reading?” The good news is that you can stop trying to suss out exactly how that eclectic collection adds up, what angle on philosophical exploration it represents. You didn’t get it not because you couldn’t think deeply or broadly enough but because there was no it.

You’ll find, though, that you’ve forgotten things you used to know, which will cause you to reevaluate whether to shelve books entirely by author, without regard for time period or genre. This is hard on your self-esteem, and also on your relationship, because your partner would prefer to organize books thematically. If you can’t remember when people lived, you certainly can’t remember where or who knew whom or who studied whom. Putting any book away would require a full term-paper-like research project. Which might, of course, refresh your memory, but what would you not do to make time for all that refreshing?

You’ll wonder if the Russians really need their own section. Can’t they, after all this time, just get along with their contemporaries? And what about Strindberg and Ibsen? Are they more comfortable with Russians or Americans? Couldn’t they have been more prolific, so they could have their own section? Or were they, in fact, more prolific, and it’s just one more thing you’ve forgotten?

At about that time, you’ll discover that someone—certainly not you but far be it from you to assume it’s your partner, although he’s the only other person with ready access—has put a couple of story collections by single authors in the anthology section. Your partner confesses, when asked, but says there was no room where they really belonged. You’ll feel compelled to prove that it can be done, which requires shifting virtually every book on the shelves, because the author of one collection has a name that starts with W.

You’ll feel great satisfaction with having those books in exactly the right place, but it will be short-lived. Misplaced on the very last shelf you empty and clean you’ll find something by Richard Yates. You’ll at this point feel so dirty and dusty and tired of bending that you’ll be strongly tempted to pretend you consider Yates a nineteenth century writer. Or maybe a poet. Possibly even a cookbook author.

Seven hours after you thought you’d quickly dust the bookshelves, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing there’s not a single dust bunny (or stray cat toy) lurking behind the books on your shelves. You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you can locate any book within seconds—except for the ones about which you’ve lied to yourself for expediency.

But! Those seven hours were hours for which you had an entirely different agenda. In addition to being reminded of how much you don’t remember, you’ll be wistful, if not despairing, about how many books you’d like to read or reread. You’ll question whether any other agenda really matters, which will cost you when Monday morning rolls around. You’ll have a new list of resolutions, including to have more biography and more poetry in your own “current reading”—as if you needed more resolutions, since if there’s one thing you have more of than agendas it’s resolutions. Worst of all, you’ll be questioning your compatibility with the partner you were quite happy to wake up with only this morning.

Seven hours ago.

Before you noticed the dust.

So look away. Now.

–Lois Maassen

O Tannenbaum

In Family on December 31, 2012 at 8:32 pm

This year I’m in no rush to bundle the Christmas tree out the door. When I had a more structured life, I usually aimed to de-decorate on New Year’s Day so we were all decluttered and ready to re-enter the fray. Sometimes I kept it up through the twelve days of Christmas. This year, though, I’m thinking we can redecorate it for Valentine’s Day or even Easter. Or, you know, both. Sequentially.

I know ours is not the only household with annual disagreements about the tree. I’ve heard from friends who’ve given up and gotten artificial trees, or who have a tree delivered, sight unseen so nobody “wins,” or strict divisions of labor to keep the holidays friendly: I do all the shopping, you do all the wrapping; I get the tree, you put up the outdoor lights.

In theory, we have one of those agreements, too: We alternate between cutting one of our own trees and buying a tree from a local farm. But in real life, and since our tree-farm friends got out of the business, my spouse-ish one, who also drives the vehicle most conducive to tree-carrying, would prefer that we never buy a tree.

We took a tour of our ten acres weeks before Christmas, looking for a possible candidate. Our property was a cornfield when we bought it. In the early years, there were plenty of small pines. Over the decades, though, some have grown too big, and the smaller trees are likely to have been crowded out or stunted into peculiar shapes by the overshadowing ones. The pine trees now are giving over altogether to the next generations of species. We saw one possibility, but it was actually over the property line. Probably bad neighbor relations.

I’d assumed this put us on the path to a purchased tree, but I underestimated. My spouse-ish one kept looking, and finally found one he thought would work—and because it was in the right-of-way for the power line, it would have to come down sooner or later anyway.

He claims the tree grew as he dragged it toward the house. All I know is that by the time he’d pulled it up on the deck outside the living room, it was 14 or 15 feet long. It’s not, shall we say, classically shaped. It’s only a Scotch pine, not an elegant fir. Its branches are saggy. It was a pain to get into the house and upright in the stand. Its first morning in the house, it slowly, gracefully tipped over with a rustling of branches and ringing of bells (only one ornament broke). It’s now wired to the wall, which is a good thing, since our largest cat discovered that about half-way up is a circle of branches upon which one can sit. If one is a cat.

big treeAnd yet, I’m quite fond of this tree. Part of it is the ornaments, I know. We’re not of the “decorating” persuasion; our tree is a crazy quilt of ornaments collected over the decades. Because of the scale of this tree, it holds the whole host of angels I embroidered and sewed for my first adult tree. All of the stuffed children from around the world are there, as they were for my oldest son’s first Christmas. There’s a needlepoint ornament from a friend who died of cancer this year. A silver cross from one who now lives much too far away. Several Santas from one now in St. Paul. Real fur mittens from our daughter in Alaska. The kayak and bicycle and high-top tennis shoes and hedgehogs that mark our interests.

But all of those ornaments appear every year—or every year the tree is large enough to hold them. I’m not quite sure what gives this tree its [rather large] place in my heart. The spouse-ish one says it’s that it’s monumental, like the jar in Tennessee. Maybe that’s it. Or maybe it’s the amount of laughter it’s brought us, from the moment—moments, because it’s a big tree—it entered the door.

I’m not ready for it to come down. Check with me at Easter.

—Lois Maassen

Too Patient for Words

In Family, Romance on October 22, 2012 at 11:39 pm

Every now and then a text arrives like a feather floating from the sky. This one arrived a few months ago: “Is it possible to be too patient?”

And the question haunts me.

In the abstract, of course, it is never possible to be too patient—if the patience is authentic. “Patience is a virtue,” I told my kids. And I believed it, and still do. Being willing to wait, to suspend judgment, to dispel irritability, to maintain an even temper—these are messages of love. Being patient generally communicates that you’ve settled into an admirable equanimity—that you know you are not the center of that waiter’s universe, that not everyone knows exactly what you know, that everyone doesn’t walk at the same pace or attend to the same details, that reading Goodnight Moon for the 112th time is more important than your to-do list.

When I think about times I’ve been “too patient” myself, honesty tells me it’s not patience at all I was exercising. I let a member of my team struggle for too long without seeing the situation for what it was—a perfectly good person in a job that was a nightmarishly bad fit. I put up with too much in several relationships, most notably a marriage that called for endless stores of “patience” that was really martyrdom and victimhood.

Because it’s awfully easy to confuse being patient with many other things; unfortunately, the confusion often lifts only with time. Sometimes when you tell yourself you’re being patient, you’re really avoiding confrontation, “picking your battles,” rejecting the alternatives, even being cowardly. I suppose the way to tell is whether you could in any sense describe yourself as “seething” as you’re “patient.” If you’re grousing, you’re not patient. Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t grouse; it likely means it’s time to admit you’re not patient (even if you wish you were) and figure out what else is going on.

A friend and I were talking last week about how nice definitive tests are—like pregnancy tests, which have (almost always) a clear, unambiguous answer. Wouldn’t it be handy to have that for all the varieties of emotional diagnosis? Am I patient, or only too tired to care? Am I depressed, or only a little sad? Am I in love, or only quite fond? Pee on a stick, and see what the color tells you.

I can’t quite come up with a physical test, but I can approximate a Cosmo quiz for determining whether you’re really feeling patient or something else altogether:

Are you gnawing on the inside of your mouth?

  • It’s bleeding (5 points)
  • Gnawing is a strong word (3 points)
  • I’m serene (0 points)

Have you looked at your watch or calendar more than twice in the last five minutes?

  • More like 10 times (5 points)
  • Now that you mention it, I have (3 points)
  • I’m not wearing a watch (0 points)

Are you casting your mind back to any of the dozen times this has happened before?

  • Dozen times? More like 73 times that I can specifically remember. (5 points)
  • I haven’t counted the times it’s happened before. Yet. (3 points)
  • I can’t remember this happening before. (0 points)

Have any curse words formed themselves in your mind, whether or not they’ve come out of your mouth?

  • I’ve gone through my entire vocabulary (5 points)
  • Do “frickin’” and “jiminy cricket” count? (3 points)
  • I can’t think of a curse word right now (0 points)

Are you fantasizing about getting into your car and driving for eight hours in any direction?

  • Eight hours is not nearly long enough (5 points)
  • Only to the nearest bar (3 points)
  • I’m happy sitting here (0 points)

If your score totals more than 12, you might spend some time thinking about whether you’re experiencing something other than patience.

Because that feather of a question arrived out of context, with no particular bird to attach it to, it could have had nothing to do with relationships. But in my own life, it was a relationship that befuddled my judgment for the longest stretch of time. I claim no expertise in relationships. It seems to me that miracles, good friends, synchronicity, and happenstance are what took me from a relationship that required the daily exercise of “patience” to one that requires much less actual patience, even as it makes it easier to achieve. And I do realize, of course, that I’m not actually involved in my kids’ romantic lives. They’re adults, usually.

And yet, in spite of having no role and no expertise, I can’t get over being a mother, thinking that I should be able to offer some kind of helpful counsel and support, just as I offer homemade bread, neatly folded clean clothes, and free haircuts. I wasn’t sure I knew what to do when they told me at the hospital that it was time to take that first seven-pound bundle home, either. “Really?” I thought. “Me? Just take him home?” I made things up for at least those first 20 years, and we seem to have made out okay.

So just in case it’s helpful, I offer this second Cosmo quiz for prospective partners—before a relationship gets to the point at which you’re wondering whether it’s a lack of patience or a loss of faith that you’re feeling:

In a restaurant, do you have to discuss how to share food?

  • I never share food
  • I’ll finish whatever s/he doesn’t eat
  • My plate is his/her plate and vice versa

If your life is a construction project, what phase are you in?

  • The blueprints are final, the materials are purchased, and the contractors are hired
  • A napkin sketch that’s awaiting the ideal collaborator
  • I don’t understand about phases

How would you describe your role in past relationships?

  • Caretaker
  • The Decider
  • The Romantic

How far are you willing to go to make my son/daughter happy?

  • At least across the street if the traffic’s not heavy
  • Fifty miles or less off the interstate
  • To Mars if s/he asks me

Scoring is difficult on this one. While “never shares food” might be a red flag, “my plate is his/her plate,” while it sounds very generous, could be creepy in practice. Partnerships work best when they’re collaborative, but two people can generally negotiate a compromise more easily than they can manufacture an entire vision. A caretaker is handy, until it’s clear that there’s baggage that comes with that. And going to Mars seems romantic, until you consider that it requires an absence of at least nine months and there’s no guarantee of return.

Unfortunately, there are no guarantees anywhere in love, even based on the best research results. That’s the toughest part, I guess, of parenthood at this point in the game: Heartbreak is out there in many forms, and it’s impossible to predict and prevent. What I’m left with is my wish for my kids—and for everyone else, of course, though somewhat less fervently—is that they find someone with whom they can be who they want to be and do what they want to do, someone who understands what miraculous people they are, someone they can find miraculous. I hope they have partners with whom they can share laughter, tenderness, and creativity, partners who understand the value of the private joke and a spontaneous touch.

And when their hearts are broken, as they may well be, I hope they don’t give up on love. I hope they’ll find patience when it’s deserved, be impatient when they need to be, and be true enough to themselves to tell—always—one from the other.

–Lois Maassen

Not So Simple, Really

In Community on April 23, 2012 at 5:57 pm

I’ve about had it with KISS. You know: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

I’ve been fuming about this since I heard an interview on NPR way last fall. The reporter asked a person who’d helped with social media during the uprising in Egypt what advice he had for the Occupy Wall Street folks. “They need to Keep It Simple, Stupid,” he said.

And I thought, but you’ve missed the point. They’re saying it’s not simple. They’re saying we need to learn how to have difficult conversations, to include diversity, to acknowledge disparity. If they were to keep it simple, they’d perpetuate the very things they’re protesting against. It’s simple for one viewpoint to be allowed to dominate as the only reality; that’s what makes dictatorships so efficient. It’s much more difficult to make room in a society—or in a community—for the diversity that our democratic ideals suggest we value.

This KISS phrase haunts me. I object to the “Stupid.” I didn’t allow my kids to call each other “Stupid” (and it was a dictatorship—simple!); in my house, the repercussions for that were as bad as for swearing. I’m not sure we’ll have reasoned discourse with each other until we assume that we’re all smart people. And if you say it’s directed at the speaker herself? Same issue, and then some. If you think you’re stupid, then maybe I’m not so interested in hearing your point of view. If you think you’re stupid, maybe your perspective is not so grounded in a healthy humanity.

And then that “Keep It Simple.” “Keep” implies that we are in control, that it’s up to us to decide whether it’s simple or complicated. It denies the reality that there’s a whole lot going on around us—the weather, the economy, geopolitics, and, that most complicated of all, each of the individuals in each of the communities of which we’re a part—that we don’t control, even if we wish we did.

I can’t quite commit, either, to the notion that simple is better. A hard-boiled egg is simple, and tasty, too. But I made gnocchi with roasted vegetables and spinach pesto, and that was awfully good, too, though hardly simple, in preparation or flavor. My kids made great simple drawings when they first held crayons, but I’m not ready to eschew Van Gogh in their favor.

I like the idea of finding the simplicity beyond complexity. But saying that we must keep it simple sidesteps the idea of all of the work it takes to find that path. Remember that quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes? “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” That, after all, is how Steve Jobs made money—and changed our technological lives—with Apple products: “You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

It’s taken me some time, but I’ve finally come up with an alternative to propose: Instead of KISS, let’s RICE: Recognize It’s Complicated, Einstein.

First, let’s assume the best of each other and of ourselves. We are smart people, or we can be, if we demand it of ourselves. And our relationships will all be stronger if we assume that other people are pretty smart, too. Maybe they’re not smart in the way that we are or in the way we have come to expect; maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe we have a more accurate view of the world and understanding of what we’re up against—and what we have to celebrate—when we value each other. (I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t easy. Phyllis Schlafly? Sarah Palin? But maybe “hard” is better than “easy,” as “complex” is richer than “simple.”)

Then, let’s not put ourselves in control of the universe. It takes some effort to peel off those super-hero clothes—they’re lycra, after all, and pretty clingy. But the sooner we acknowledge that we live in communities and in a world that we don’t control, the sooner we can start acting more responsibly. Pretending we’re more influential than we are only makes us frustrated and angry.

And, finally, let’s get comfortable with complexity. Comfort with complexity and ambiguity are understood as signs of the intellectual agility required of leaders, and for good reason. Seeing complexity helps you to be more certain that you’re getting the whole picture; it also helps you adapt as required by things beyond your control. And if you’re not recklessly simplifying, you don’t suffer the unintended consequence of eliminating possibilities.

Sound complicated? Good. RICE, baby.

—Lois Maassen

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

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

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

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

Read It Again, Sam

In Fulfillment on April 27, 2011 at 12:41 am

I’ve noticed of late that the adventurousness of my reading operates in an inverse relationship to the amount of other activity and stress in my life.

I love to read and do it daily. But there are stretches when I don’t seem to have it in me to choose a new book to read, let alone give it the attention it may very well deserve and sometimes needs.

That’s when I’m glad to be confirmed in thinking that a little amnesia with one’s library is a very good thing. Downstairs is an entire bookshelf of mystery novels. While my spouse-ish one is cursed with a near-photographic memory for details of character, setting, and plot, if I find myself without a book to read at the end of an overly full day, I can wander down and choose one nearly at random.

Some seem as though I’ve never laid eyes on them before. Some, like the dozen or so Erle Stanley Gardner novels I read just after the holidays, seem vaguely familiar, which I could blame on the TV Perry Mason. Others, like Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane books, are familiar in the very best way possible. Rereading those books is like having good friends come to call after an over-long absence.

It was a very late night a week or so ago that I picked up Pride and Prejudice. Blame it on the organization of our books: Mystery and detective fiction is downstairs, Nineteenth Century literature is in the bedroom. Right there at hand. And the floor in the basement is very cold, not the sort of before-bed priming one typically needs.

Pride and Prejudice led to Persuasion, which led to Sense and Sensibility. From there it was a short distance—literally—to Emma. And as I make my way through them, I’m thinking about what it is that makes certain books—books we’ve nearly memorized, so much more than books we’ve already forgotten—so satisfying to reread.

For quite a spell, I reread Jane Austen every summer. My motivation was not so much educational as recreational, and I suppose that’s why a couple of summers ago I decreed that my summer should be spent reading books I hadn’t read before.

A pointless deprivation.

Anne Elliot, Elizabeth Bennet, and Elinor Dashwood are characters I’d like in my neighborhood, or at least to be my Facebook friends. They’re smart and witty and principled, and Elizabeth, especially, would do good status updates.

While I do know how each book turns out (by virtue of owning them in movie form as well as book), there is a satisfying tidiness to seeing the pieces fall into place. There’s a reassurance that all is right with the world. I can’t be fooled on the grand scale, of course, until I stop listening to NPR, but I can at least get the same satisfaction I get from seeing the week’s laundry freshly folded and hung, a harvest’s worth of tomatoes preserved in Ball jars, or the hem of a skirt that hangs exactly right.

There’s also so much subtlety in Austen, so much irony and wit, so many near-throw-away lines, that every reading lets another jewel stand out. I like to read these books because they make me smile, repeatedly.

And I realize that we can’t read the same book twice any more than we can stand in the same river twice. We are different people each time we read a book, shaped by our moods, the day, recent events, relationships. I never noticed before this reading, for example, how much my spouse-ish one has in common with John Knightley:

A man… must have a very good opinion of himself when he asks people to leave their own fireside… for the sake of coming to see him. …The folly of not allowing people to be comfortable at home, and the folly of people’s not staying comfortably at home when they can!

I hope, for the sake of my edification as well as my book club colleagues, that sooner or later I’ll make my way back to my local bookstore or library. Or, heaven forbid, join my friends (all my friends, it seems) and get a Kindle, which makes every possible thing I might read accessible all the time, no cold floors involved.

For now, I’m satisfied to know that I’ve got years of enjoyment, well-loved or half-forgotten, right here on our own shelves.

--Lois Maassen

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