Finding balance in the second half of life

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Smaller but Deeper

In Fulfillment on August 3, 2020 at 8:05 pm

When I change my footwear after lunch, Bodhi starts bouncing around the kitchen. He knows it’s time for a walk in our woods, and he can hardly wait: he’s entirely optimistic that he will find something new. Today, for example, he found a well-aged leg bone, no doubt from a deer skeleton that’s been there for months and months.

FernsThe air is just cool enough today to call fall to mind, which calls to mind the change of seasons. It’s a false construct, really, this four-season model. When I walk the trail every day, I see the progression is constant, day to day, week to week. In the early spring, the trail is wide and I can see deep into the forest; now parts are claustrophobic: I have to turn sideways if the leaves are wet, or I’ll get soaked. The Bracken ferns that were roll-ended sticks forever in the spring are now waist-high and part of the crowd. The Sensitive ferns have popped up in the sections that are flooded in the fall (and will be again, too soon).

Receding water is part of the transition from spring to summer. This spring was wet enough to have flowing water in a few sections of the trail. Now the entire circuit is dry, although you can tell by the patterns of dirt and moss and leaves where the water will return first in the fall. The boardwalk that’s underwater in May is now twenty feet from the edge of the pond.

We’ve watched the blackberries leaf out and then blossom. We can pick a bowl-full every day now, which feels deserved when we watched and waited for the berries to turn from little green nuts to blushing pink and finally—finally—to black. There are patches all over, some with berries the size of your thumb, others the size of a pea. Every one of them is delicious in a pie or a clafouti or in a bowl topped with sweetened condensed milk, which is my granddaughter’s second favorite way to consume them. Her favorite way is direct from the bush.

There aren’t many flowers at this time of year, after the progression of April through June, but maybe I haven’t been paying attention (or have been scouting only for berries). I’ll look more closely tomorrow. What’s multiplying is the number of seeds that find a way to attach themselves to any passing dog, pant-leg, or princess dress; some have painful hooks, others are a more subtle kind of velcro.

I’ve walked this trail at least a few times a week for at least a decade. In our current routine, it’s rare for me to miss a day. And somehow, I’m paying more attention. What was a task—walk the dog—has become something entirely different, sometimes a social occasion, sometimes a game, most often a meditation. While my world has become smaller, it’s become deeper.

Cooking with Friends

In Fulfillment on July 26, 2020 at 6:23 pm

I rotate things. This is a longstanding habit; I’m not quite sure when I started or why. My approach might be described in business terms as “first in, first out,” or FIFO, but there’s never been a particularly business-like motivation. Lest you fear for my wellbeing, these are only habits that I’ve set, I’m aware that I’ve set them, and I can break “the rules” whenever I like without losing a wink of sleep.

I hang my clothes by category (dresses, skirts, tops, pants), and insert clean clothes to the right in each section. Items on the left are up for grabs when it’s time to get dressed. This system limits the daily dithering about what to wear, although my partner would assert, and does, that my system is not as efficient as his, which is a uniform of blue jeans and white shirt, every day, all year. This habit also highlights things that can go: If I’ve skipped that blue shirt for a month, there must be a reason. What’s been clarified in the last few weeks is that dresses without pockets are even more worthless than I’d thought (at least until it’s cool enough for pocketed layers).

I’ve allowed myself two shelves for cookbooks. When I cook from a book, I return it to the top left, shifting the books between shelves as required. If a new cookbook enters the house, I need to make room for it. Books on the bottom right are prime candidates, since I use them less often. (I recently acknowledged that formal French cooking is not so much my thing with information from this rotation.)

I’d thought a few weeks ago, when I moved The Microwave Cook’s Complete Companion from the top shelf to the second, possibly on its way to eventual exit, that it represented a pandemic lifestyle change. Although we’re cooking all the time now, we don’t need to cook quickly. In the weeks since, I’ve realized other blessings from my inventory management system.

When I’m seeking inspiration or wanting to change up our menus, I can look to the bottom right to hear from a different culinary voice, possibly a different culture. A glance tells me we could consider some Indian food, exotic pizzas, or Perfect Picnics. In the absence of ready treats at coffee shops or convenience stores, I’ve dusted off the cookie jar and am keeping it populated. Choosing from the lower right supplied us with “Grandma Jean’s Herb Cookies” with fresh mint, a complete departure from my habitual oatmeal chocolate chip. 

Cookbook shelfI have long preferred my own cookbooks and clippings to online recipes, and this season has helped me understand why. My cookbooks connect me with people, past and present; recipes I have made before can do the same. Cooking has always been a therapy, a meditative practice for me, and in this time of separation, I’m often meditating on people and the histories we share. 

This cookbook was a gift from my friend Deb, and contains a “Zucchini Soup” recipe that’s a good candidate for tonight’s dinner. She lives only a city away, and we’ve shared interests in needlework and papercrafts for decades. I own that cookbook because my brother once spent a summer in Colorado—and a son lives there now. Here’s one I bought as menu inspiration when planning a church fundraiser. This cookbook I was given as a tenth birthday present; from it I made oven-fried chicken to serve my dad while he could still eat solid food. That cookbook came to me when my mom winnowed her own cookbook shelves; when I flip through it, classics—cole slaw, potato salad—conjure full childhood images. This cookbook taught me vegetarian cooking, and from it and that tiny kitchen on Eleventh Street I fed gatherings of college friends.

All of these people and all of those times are with me in the kitchen, which is no doubt why I don’t mind mincing onions, julienning carrots, and peeling squash. For all the frustration, heartbreak, isolation, and loss associated with this pandemic, there has also been grace. And gratitude. There is, daily, the chance to remember who I am, who I love, and where we’ve been and what we’ve done together. Sometimes the kitchen is downright crowded.

Hazel and the Naughty Bear

In Survival on July 19, 2020 at 6:02 pm

This week I posted a photo of my granddaughter, Hazel, running ahead of me on our forest trail. It’s a magical photo, if I do say so myself. And social media friends agreed: “This looks like a cover for the next edition of The Secret Garden or something!” “Chasing the White Rabbit!”

The longer description, which didn’t quite fit in a social media caption, is this: When Hazel and I walk our trail, I’m assigned to play the Naughty Bear, lumber behind her, arms upraised and hands clawed, saying “Rawr” periodically and, once or twice, “I want to eat a sweet Hazelnut!” Hazel’s role is to run ahead of me, occasionally turning back to bring me a “sweet bloody stick” which I may [pretend to] gnaw on, since I’m unsuccessful [by design] in ever catching an actual sweet Hazelnut to assuage my hunger.

I’ve been thinking about this game since. First, I hope she’s not having nightmares. 

Next I think about all the ways in which we create motivation for ourselves. There have been other times on this trail when Hazel is dragging, asking for piggy-back or shoulder rides to make one circuit. When chased by a bear, she can run two or three times around—three times is a mile—without pausing even to catch her breath. I’m not sure how I feel about this motivation including faux fear, but Hazel herself is giddy, exhilarated, so I needn’t judge.

But then I think about fear. Of course there’s an enormous difference between fear we engineer ourselves—by assigning a Nana to act [sort of] like a bear—versus reacting to a genuine danger—like an actual bear. Once we get past the hard-wired fight or flight response, there’s some wisdom in considering our fear: Is it real? Or did we make it up? Do we have reason to be afraid? Or is it just Nana? 

For Hazel in the woods, fear is a toy; playing with it makes her feel brave and adventurous. I don’t want to live fearfully, especially in these disordered days. I’m going to work on clarity about which threats are imagined, and which are real. For those that are real, I’m going to do my best to look with clear eyes, to define any threat as clearly as I can, and to figure out what I can do to disarm it. And I’m going to hang on to hope. And maybe a sweet bloody stick or two.

Not Chicken to Zoom

In Fulfillment on July 12, 2020 at 8:54 pm

My office has two windows, for which I’m grateful. One faces west, and through it I can see anyone coming up the driveway, the occasional deer getting too close to the vegetable garden, and cavorting rabbits or one or twenty turkeys that explain why Bodhi is barking like a dog possessed. The windows are covered with matchstick blinds, or they could be, if I unrolled them. Mostly, I don’t. It’s not always textbook productive, but I appreciate being able to stare off into the distance.

My spouse-ish one inclines toward making things. Sometimes the things he makes are over-sized animals. In our barn’s storage racks we have a half-dozen multi-colored reindeer, three-dimensional if you slot them together. I haven’t looked recently, but we have also, at various times, had a herd of adult-sized stick horses and a small flock of musk-oxen. At some point, a four-foot-tall chicken made its way into my office, where she has stood patiently in a corner for some time. 

I don’t mind Zoom calls, really I don’t. (Neither do I love them enough to invest in that special lighting you’re apparently supposed to get so you’re not backlit or a voice from the dark void.) My issue has been with late-in-the-day calls, because the west-facing window that affords such varied entertainment is directly behind my desk. Come 6:30 or so at this time of year, I’m positively incandescent on the screen. I’m also entirely blinded by the light.

My first few attempts to problem-solve involved draping a towel or blanket over the window, more difficult than it sounds, given the climbing-on-the-desk maneuvers required. Sure there was a better solution, I started researching curtains, room-darkening drapes, blackout blinds, and light-blocking shades. I couldn’t quite see how any would work: Would it bother me to have something on one window but not both, even though it’s completely unnecessary for the north-facing? What kind of covering could make itself invisible 95 percent of the time? What wasn’t a crazy investment for a problem that occurs only occasionally and during a pandemic?

I explained all of this over dinner to my spouse-ish one. “What about your chicken?” he asked. Indeed. What about my chicken. It took me a minute. As it turns out, a four-foot-tall chicken is sufficiently rotund to block almost all of the eye-level sun. She’s easy enough to lift onto the desk, and I can still peer around her if I hear tires on the gravel drive or wonder what Bodhi’s spotted in the yard. When the call is finished (or the sun is set) she goes obediently back to her corner.

I tell you all of this so that if you have a late-in-the-day Zoom with me, and I happen to look up and seem to smirk, you’ll know it’s just me smiling at my chicken. I’m still paying attention. And being reminded that, even—especially—during these odd times, what I need is likely here, somewhere, though I may not recognize it at first.

Hot-Footing It on the Trail

In Survival on July 5, 2020 at 6:45 pm

You’d think on a 90-degree day, choosing footwear for a walk in the woods would be easy. There are the Birkenstocks, coolest and comfortable enough for all-day, every-day wear most of the summer. There are Chacos, which strap on a little more securely; a little warmer, but still a sandal. Too often, even on a day like today, I’m lingering over the tall blue wellies, which require socks for comfort and create a mobile sauna for each foot. 

The issue is snakes. I have no issue with snakes intellectually, theoretically. I know they do all the good things in the ecosystem, are part of creation, in my neck of the woods are not in the slightest bit harmful to me. But the perceptual and psychological effect of having a stick or root I”m about to step over (or on) animate and slither away is significant. Same issue with toads, who pose as clumps of dirt or dried leaves until the very last second. Instead of slithering, they pop, at least until later in the season when they tend to be larger and heavier and sort of “blop.”

Wellies are the only option from first thaw until mid-June here in the flatlands. Early in the season it’s more likely frogs, sometimes in multiples, than toads that will leap away as I step. I’ve occasionally seen tadpoles, but in those conditions I’m typically slogging, not striding. All through the spring, because of my wellies I can plash through ankle-deep water and squelch through sucking mud: In wellies, I am unstoppable.

Today I opted for the Birkenstocks, counting on other coping mechanisms. The first tactic is to avoid looking over-much at my feet or the path directly in front of me, instead focusing at least 20 feet down the trail. This is not a bad tactic for life, either: Over-attention to immediate hazards can slow us down, and certainly makes the experience small and fraught. 

Bodhi, the dog who motivates my daily walks, is my other tactic. For his first five years, he required two walks a day to gain sufficient calm to be a worthy household companion. We’re down to one mid-day the last year or so, which seems to suit him, whether or not it’s good for me. Bodhi likes to lead these walks, sometimes by a wide margin. He’ll run back to check on me, though, to be sure I’m still coming, to encourage me along, to be sure I haven’t tripped over a root in my Birkenstocks by focusing on the middle distance. In three or four gallops back and forth on the path, I’m fairly certain, he’s startled away any imposter sticks or clumps. 

Occasionally, he leaves me on my own. Off the trail, I hear a thrashing and gabbling and know he’s flushed a ticked-off turkey into the trees. Other times there’s a crashing and a snapping of branches and then a deer pops across the trail ahead of me; if I’m lucky, I see the back end, tail like a flag on a mailbox, as it disappears again into the underbrush. Fortunately, Bodhi doesn’t chase deer, like other dogs we’ve had; he runs back to me, smiling, tongue lolling, saying, “You saw that, right?” When we’re near the pond, I hear the splashing that means he’s taking a quick dip and, more likely than not, has seen a frog or two that requires investigation.

I’m tempted to judge myself for cowardice when I eye the wellies. But the truth is, there’s not one thing wrong with any of the choices. Well—more accurately, there’s a single thing wrong with each of them: The wellies don’t breathe. The tread on the Chacos can gather a half-cup of mud on each foot. The Birkenstocks can slide off, or I can slide off them, when I hit uneven terrain. There’s nothing that eliminates surprises from our walks or our lives. I’m grateful to be able to gauge—at least when it comes to snakes and toads—my appetite for astonishment each day. 

It’s Father’s Day

In Family on June 21, 2015 at 3:16 pm

The photos of fathers shared on Facebook this morning, Father’s Day, send me to my photo albums. Surely there’s something in there that I could scan and share, to assert that I, too, have a father who was loving and loved. What I find is the result of my father’s role as photographer in our family. I have photos of him in the army, hamming it up in Paris and Morocco. I have a photo of him and my mom during their courtship. For the 10 years we shared a family, I have photos of myself, running down the sidewalk, sitting on a rowboat, smelling tulips and apple blossoms. This morning, I recognize those photos as seeing myself through my father’s eyes.

I was in the bathroom when my father died. I mention this because I’ve come to see it as emblematic of death coming at its own convenience, during the mundane, the remarkable, the everyday, the breathtaking.

My mother knocked on the door. “Lois?”


“Your father is gone.”

It was ridiculous, unbelievable. My father’d been sick for some time. I hadn’t seen him standing up for weeks and weeks; how could he suddenly get up and go somewhere?

I fastened my shorts (grey ones my mother had sewn) and opened the door. My mother’s eyes were red but she wasn’t crying. She hugged me, and I followed her downstairs, to the den where we’d installed a hospital bed. My father lay under a loosely woven gold cotton throw. He looked gray and asleep. My mother stood next to the foot of the bed, looking into his face. She put her hand on his calf in a gesture of love and loss. He didn’t move. Her eyes were red but she wasn’t crying.

One of Dad’s nurses, Mary Lou, sat by the head of the bed. She stayed for a few minutes after we came in and then took muted, white-shoed steps out the side door.

The ambulance, white with orange trim, rolled up silently. I was not there when they put him on the gurney, but I saw it half-wheeled, half-carried out the front door and down the few cement steps of the ranch house. Looking past the sheet-tented gurney and the ambulance and the lawn and the street, I saw the red-brick church, the cement staircase to my father’s office.

His parents, my grandparents, drove in from two towns over. They came in through the garage, into the laundry room. I ran through the kitchen, past the bathroom, and met them. Grandma hugged me; which was not her instinct and happened rarely. My brother and I weren’t sure what to do. We asked Mom if it would be okay if we watched The Beverly Hillbillies. She said not. We sat in the awkward silence as the living room filled up with people; then we went to our rooms to read.

The funeral home was on the east side of town. To get there for the visitation, we walked past the house of the only adult I’d ever met with the same first name I have. She was a member of my father’s church.

My father’s brother, who was also a minister, led the funeral. I sat in the front pew, right side, with my mother and brother and sister. I wore a cream-colored dress, also sewn by my mother, with a rust and gold pattern of birds, branches, and birdcages. There was brown lace on the ruffles on the short sleeves; there were three buttons down the back and smocking across the front, under the bodice.

All of that is quite clear to me, as though I were taking my own photos of myself, seeing myself through my father’s lens. As the decades pass, though, I have many more questions—about who my father was and might have become, what our relationship might have been, what I might have become as a result—than I have clear memories.

It’s only in retrospect that we can recognize the legacies we’ve received. I know I’ve inherited a sad season. It starts with the lilies of Easter, which are inscribed on his gravestone to symbolize the resurrection, and extends through his birthday and Father’s Day in June, ending with the anniversary of his death on July 5. Along with that is a love of words and books, a certain sense of humor, a dash of rebelliousness, a heritage of faith.

And those questions.

In The Jesus Cow, Michael Perry has a character muse, “She supposed it was the work that had kept her head occupied while her heart healed in the wake of Dougie’s death. In fact, it didn’t heal so much as learn to beat with a hole in it.”

I recognize that hole, which, in spite of the passage of time, does gape on Father’s Day. And I know that my heart does keep beating.

–Lois Maassen

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