Finding balance in the second half of life

Author Archive

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

Life Goes On

In Community on March 19, 2011 at 10:42 pm

Our local, small-town newspaper has downsized a bit. Not surprising, I suppose; more surprising, perhaps, that it’s managed to stay in print for nearly 120 years in spite of being sandwiched between two larger city newspapers that publish daily and include more substantive news.

The downsizing, while making me sad, introduced a feature I like: The back page now reprints news from a hundred years ago:

  • Mrs. Charles Meek of Grand Rapids is spending a few weeks with her father, A. Rynbrandt.
  • Denn M. Bos made a business trip to Grand Rapids last Wednesday.
  • Dr. Masselink purchased another fine driving horse from King Brothers of Grand Rapids. It’s a six-year-old.
  • Peter Roon visited at the home of Mr. and Mrs P. DeWitt Sunday.
  • George Aldering was the guest of George Bos Sunday.
  • The singing school of Drenthe was entertained at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Telgenhof on West Main Street last Thursday evening. After the singers rendered some fine selections, refreshments were served and the merry crowd returned home at a late hour.

Why do I love to read these? I don’t know the people, of course, since the year is 1910. I can only speculate about whose grandparents or great-grandparents they might be, since many of the surnames are still familiar in this area.

Every line is a short story, so there’s plenty of what Anne of Green Gables would call “scope for imagination.” Try this one, for example:

  • Notified by residents in Robinson township that John Beukes of Holland were begging from the farmers in that vicinity, Sheriff Andre [Sheriff Andre? Who could make that up?] sent his deputies out and had the pair picked up. As there was no charge which could be held against the young woman, she was released, but Beukes was taken before Justice Hoyt at the Haven, and sentenced to 65 days in the House of Correction at Detroit for vagrancy. Beukes is an odd character, almost 70 years of age, but though indigent, was married to a young Allendale woman last November in Grand Rapids. Since that time he has been living in Grand Rapids, but has done nothing in the line of work. His young wife, who is about 24 years of age, will return to the home of her parents, who are now living near Coopersville.

Aside from that one sad example of the wages of… I’m not sure what, it sounds like a leisurely, civilized life. People paid calls and made their own entertainment. They moved at a more reasonable pace—and shorter distances, too.

Fortunately, I happened to read, at the same time these newspapers started to arrive, a collection of essays published by the local historical society. The essays reminded me that if I lived in 1910 I could also be maimed by polio, killed by tuberculosis, or bleed to death after having my leg amputated on my own dining room table.

I guess that means they didn’t actually have a simpler life. I’m tempted to think that living life on a smaller scale would be easier, somehow, but I see that’s illusion. There are enough tragedies surrounding us even with medical advances: aneurysms, tumors, enlarged hearts. Not to mention earthquakes and tsunamis.

This downsized newspaper of ours, I realize, isn’t publishing the whole story. They haven’t, so far, chosen to republish the obituaries or the legal notices. Sort of like Facebook status updates that feature only the happy parts of our lives.

Which, come to think of it, is perfectly okay with me. It’s sufficiently hard to miss the difficult parts; I don’t need reminders. I sometimes do need reminders that we can choose leisure, that we can live in community with others. That life, however ordinary, goes on.

–Lois Maassen

Looking for Redemption

In Community, Fulfillment on March 1, 2011 at 2:07 am

It was a small thing, but I remember it almost 30 years later: “I hate people who don’t turn off the water when they brush their teeth,” a friend said.

This probably hit me harder than it would strike other people. My family had some odd prohibitions. We weren’t allowed to curse, of course, but “hate” was also really strong language. We could hate tuna noodle casserole—well, as long as we ate it—but “I hate people” was a phrase that would have gotten me sent to my room, no matter how it was completed.

Of course perfectly lovable people have the bad habit of letting the water run while they brush. Surely something careless tooth-brushers might do could redeem them. And I really doubt that my friend meant what he said.

A few weeks ago I read Living Into Hope for a discussion group. Tucked inside, among other stories of reconciliation, is the story of Joan Brown Campbell’s 1999 trip to Kosovo to gain the release of American soldiers who’d been captured by the Yugoslavian military. These are the people who were part of the group, led by Reverent Jesse Jackson: three Serbian Orthodox bishops, a bishop from the Greek Orthodox Church, president of the board of the American Muslim Council, a Los Angeles rabbi, a bishop from the United Methodist Church, a Jesuit scholar and conflict-resolution specialist, and the Quaker director of Mercy Corps. Oh! And Rod Blagojevich.

Rod Blagojevich. Then a congressman from Illinois, more recently former governor, well-known for his hairstyle and his profane and self-serving wire-tapped telephone conversations, the latter eventually leading to his impeachment.

I will admit that I snorted. Probably out loud. So it was a very good thing that my friend Kay said that she loved that he was on this list. “Really?” I said, unable to disguise my incredulity.

“I love that he had a moment of redemption,” Kay said.

Ah. Yes. This is why we need insightful friends: They’ll say the right things to keep us honest and humble.

I’m thinking about this because of the way that groups and organizations are made villains right now. There’s the attraction of simplicity, of course, in seeing things as all good or all bad, all black or all white. But the simplicity of that oppositional view is overwhelmed by the complexity of all the conflict it engenders.

My brother had a biography of Jesse James when we were kids. The opening paragraph made us laugh and laugh. I don’t recall it word for word, of course, but it ran something like this: “Jesse James was a thief without conscience, a heartless torturer, and a vicious murderer. But he loved his mother.”

If I asked Kay, I’m sure she’d say it was a redeeming quality.

–Lois Maassen

Words Mean Something

In Community on January 24, 2011 at 6:51 pm

“This bag is compostable,” I said to my spouse-ish one. I wanted him to know that our favorite local coffee shop, which is pursuing a fairly radical zero-landfill goal, had changed their coffee bags.

“Not for ours,” he said.

“What?” I didn’t know why we couldn’t compost a bag.

It took us only a little while to figure out that when I held up what looked like a brown paper bag and said “compostable,” my SO’s brain translated to “recyclable.” And he knows that our recycling resource won’t take kraft paper.

“See?” he said, when we’d figured out our miscommunication. “Words mean something.”

Words mean something, I said to myself in a church meeting the other evening. Someone referred to a person who attends our church but is not a member as an “adherent.” I was struck by the word—it isn’t part of our usual vocabulary, it seemed.

I brainstormed alternatives (I’m not always an attentive meeting participant): guest, visitor, hanger-on, groupie, advocate, disciple, transient… and at the end of the list, I said to myself, “adherent” is exactly right. We may not know whether they share our faith or proselytize on our behalf: “disciple” is too much. They’re valued members of our community: they’re no longer “visitors” or “guests.” They’re not “groupies” because they are full participants. Whether or not they are members, “adherents” are people who have stuck with our church community.

The care taken by this community to find the right term for people who have joined us in all but an official, administrative way reflects the desire to welcome, to affirm, to include. The word chosen reflects the reality we look to create together.

And that’s the conclusion I wish more conversations had led to over the last few weeks. It wasn’t productive for people to argue about whether there is a straight line between Sarah Palin’s crosshairs map and the shootings in Arizona. And I don’t know whether it’s possible to measure the effect of overheated debate, violent metaphor, and partisan vitriol on a disturbed, armed individual.

And, frankly, it seems about as interesting as trying to figure out who really started the fight among my three kids in the back of the Taurus station wagon in 1994. If we all know we’ve been failing at having real dialog, as both speakers and as listeners, let’s all work to do a better job, starting now.

The larger question, it seems to me, is whether we can recognize that “words mean something” in the shaping of our future together. Can we develop a vocabulary that bridges divides to define the world we can agree we’d like to live in?

Honesty and substance are prerequisites, of course. I saw last week that Politifact had named “government takeover of health care” as the number one lie of 2010 because… it wasn’t true. And compare these names: “Affordable Health Care for America” versus “The Repealing of the Job-Killing Health-Care Law Act.” A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but who would know both of those pieces of legislation are attempting to address the same thing?

Those examples reflect my biases, but I make no claim to the higher ground for progressives. Seems to me that insults directed at you are more memorable—because more painful—than insults that you happen to agree with. So I don’t trust my judgment about the honesty or willingness to engage on substance of the either the right or the left.

I read an article in the Wall Street Journal at least a decade ago that talked about the dangers of jargon in the corporate world. Jargon is exclusionary, the author argued. When words mean something other than what they might appear to mean, and when new words are manufactured, you create a company—or a country—in which there are insiders and outsiders. You’ve made it more difficult to know whether you’re having a meaningful exchange. When someone says “dog,” for example, you need to know whether they’re referring to a failing program or a golden retriever.

It’s jargon that’s also often right next door to propaganda. What’s the image called to mind by “alien”? By “immigrant”? How is an “injured soldier” different from a “wounded warrior”? If I call my neighbor Doug, who hunts deer, a “gunman” or a “shooter,” how will my relationship with him change?

What if, instead of metaphors of violence and conflict, our metaphors were creative and harmonious? “Kitchen table” instead of “war-room,” a “pantry” instead of an “arsenal”: I’m both more comfortable and more optimistic with images like those.

Words mean something to all of us, together, in community. It’s not enough for us to use words carefully in our own heads, in our families, with our neighbors, in our churches, in our political parties. If we use words only to solidify our own points of view, we’ll soon clog our democratic arteries. What would happen if “help me understand what you mean by that” tripped off our tongues as often as “you lie”?

We need words to acknowledge our differences without judging them, words to find our common ground. Our collective ancestors found common ground—although it wasn’t easy—when they collaborated on the preamble to the Constitution, when they listed as our common goals a more perfect union, justice, domestic tranquility, common defense, and the blessings of liberty for us and our posterity.

Words will describe—and therefore help us to shape—the country we want to become, the world we want to become. And every word means something.

–Lois Maassen

Do or Do Not

In Survival on January 19, 2011 at 10:17 pm

I’ve been working hard to resist thinking that I need more information in order to change what I do. Two cases in point: A recent review of The Procrastination Equation made me think I should read the book, that an understanding of the history and psychology of procrastination will make me stop putting things off. An introduction to SimpliFried, a new food blog, made me think I needed to subscribe for shortcuts on menu planning.

This is a form of magical thinking. That’s what I need to keep repeating to myself: This is a form of magical thinking. I know what I need to know to meet my deadlines (which I mostly do) and to feed my family (which I mostly do). I simply need to do it. Which I mostly do.

And yet… there is the allure. Can it be simpler? Can it be faster? Can it require less mental or emotional energy?

This is a form of magical thinking.

I am, of course, attracted to magic.

–Lois Maassen