Finding balance in the second half of life

Author Archive

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

Organizing the New Year

In Fulfillment, Survival on January 1, 2011 at 7:08 pm

I just took down the Christmas tree, packed up the crèche, and wrapped the other decorations in tissue. The only remnants are the wreath on the door, which is more seasonal in my mind, and the Advent wreath on the table, since the candles aren’t yet burned to nubbins.

As much as I love the Christmas holiday, I also relish getting the house back in order, shifting from holiday food back to “real” stuff, and being able to devote my time to projects without deadlines. Or, at least, projects that don’t all have the same deadline.

But there’s something about the holiday season, or the onset of winter, or the approach of the new year, that makes me want to declutter, reorganize, increase my virtue, double my productivity. That made me extra susceptible to buying a new book, in spite of my best intentions.

I’ve long had a soft spot for books on time management and organization. Over the past several years, I winnowed my collection down to just one yard of shelf space; only a month ago, I was thinking I could probably free up that space, too: My problem isn’t with knowing what to do, it’s with doing it.

But somehow, when the email arrived early this week announcing the paperback edition of Erin Rooney Doland’s Unclutter Your Life in One Week, my defenses were down. I was already, as I said, yearning for a simpler, less decorated home. I was anticipating getting back on post-Christmas track. I subscribe to Erin’s blog, Unclutterer, and have gotten good ideas or motivation from it, as well as the weekly chuckle from the unitasker. And it’s so easy to click those links, you know; Amazon surpassed expectations by delivering the book the very next day.

One of the reasons I’m sheepish about my collection of books about organization is that if I spent as much time organizing as reading about it, well… you know. But this week between the holidays is a hiatus in some ways, so I whipped through the book.

It’s been most of a week, and my life is not uncluttered. It was an enjoyable read, but it’s really best suited for someone like my son, who’s lived in an apartment (leaving most of his clutter at our house, I might add) for a couple of years and probably hasn’t yet been hard enough pressed to build much routine into his life.

I suspected this about the best audience for the book when I read in the first chapter that I should clear my “sentimental clutter” before the official decluttering week begins. I figure it will take me at least five years to do that. Not only do I have the lifetime accumulations of three kids to sort through—and negotiate with them about—but probably 80 percent of what’s in my house would qualify as “sentimental clutter.”

I know that my cookbook collection, for example, takes up more space than it should. But in the mix are The Vegetarian Epicure, which taught me to cook without meat; the wooden recipe box my grandfather made, which holds a few recipes only because I haven’t gotten around to transferring all of them to my actual recipe storage system; and a church cookbook published the year I was born. There are enough decisions only among the cookbooks to tie me up for at least a month.

Right off the bat, the uncluttered life in one week is a dream shattered. And as I read through the day-by-day chapters, I recognize that each day could take a month or longer.

Weeding through my wardrobe, which is slated for Monday morning, I probably could do in half a day. Organizing my desk and the rest of my office, though, which I’m supposed to have done by Monday afternoon, is a rather more daunting task. A conservative estimate: six weeks. And that’s if I can organize full-time. This is partly, of course, because my office is at home; Erin prefers “work/life symbiosis” to “work/life balance,” and I certainly live that.

Organizing my kitchen is slated for Wednesday evening, and again I’m stymied. My kitchen includes an enormous amount of “sentimental clutter,” from the Willow Ware and Jewel Tea dishes I inherited from my grandmother to the ceramics my daughter and I painted at Paint-A-Pot. If I’d already disposed of all of that with the “sentimental clutter” step before the week began… well, then, I guess an evening might do it.

At least for me, I came to recognize, this “one week” to an uncluttered life is metaphorical more than literal, aligning with my understanding of the Creation story. I can only aspire to achieve my uncluttering in something less than an eon.

I’m glad I got the book, though, and spent the time reading it. There are good ideas in it that I can use sooner or later. What I like best is one of the questions Erin proposes one ask before buying something: “Does this item help me develop the remarkable life I want to live?”

I like that question. It reminds me of something I heard in a sermon in the weeks before Christmas. We tend to think of promises as something held in the future, like “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” But Christmas is a reminder that because of Emmanuel, “god with us,” every moment holds promise. That’s a notion that crosses many spiritual practices, it strikes me.

That’s as close as I’m coming to a New Year’s Resolution this year: Do my best to remember that every moment holds promise and that I can develop a remarkable life. Less clutter—both physical and psychological—may result from that mindfulness. We’ll see.

My spousish one wandered in while I was writing this piece, Erin’s book at my side.

“Are you uncluttering?” he asked.

“No, I’m writing about uncluttering,” I said.

Between reading and writing about it, I can probably keep my clutter intact for some time.

–Lois Maassen

Too Much of a Good Thing?

In Community on December 18, 2010 at 5:01 pm

An article in a recent Time magazine has me thinking. It reports on a study that shows that the pose you take–like leaning forward aggressively or sitting back with your arms and legs crossed–can affect the amount of testosterone in your system. A “powerful” posture can double the amount of testosterone in 15 minutes.

That can be a good thing, I suppose, if you’re needing to feel more assertive in a business setting or with your kids or a recalcitrant volunteer committee. As the article points out, it’s further evidence that “fake it until you make it” can really be true. That was demonstrated earlier with happiness research: People who smiled, or even gripped a pencil in their mouths in a way that uses the same muscles, were more likely to have positive feelings.

I’m just not sure that what the world needs now is more testosterone. A study at Harvard and Columbia showed that people with those posture-produced higher levels of testosterone were more willing to gamble and lose. Which reminds me of the New York Magazine article about what would have happened on Wall Street had women been in charge over the last few years.

They pointed to more research that confirms that hormones correlate with aggression and risk-taking but, helpfully, also caution against “being reductionist about hormones and gender,” since it’s a “sure way to misjudge a complicated individual.” Sheila Baer, chair of the FDIC, is both cautious about categorizing people and conscious of the need for balance. “… From a risk-management standpoint,” she says, “having diversity and different perspectives and attitudes is helpful.”

Which I certainly agree with. Collectively, we don’t want to be either bossy and reckless or retiring and inertia-prone. Just be careful of your posture, or you may accidentally skew your contribution to our diversity.

-Lois Maassen

Stay-at-Home Working Mother

In Survival on December 15, 2010 at 8:02 pm

Penelope Trunk blogged the other day about the difficulties of labeling herself. Is she a working mother? Well, yes: She works and she has children. Is she a stay-at-home mother? Well, yes, since her office these days is at home, although that’s not what the term is usually meant to describe. Is she full-time? Or part-time? How many hours, precisely, must she work with what regularity to qualify for one or the other?

I think she’s right about the meaninglessness of terms like these. I have similar problems when I fill out online surveys. Am I employed full-time? I think so. On a good week. Am I self-employed? Well, yes, that too. Somehow the research firm’s classification system isn’t happy with that combination.

I have problems with a short description of what I “am,” too. At different times, I’m a knitter, mother, writer, strategist, editor, planner, seamstress, chef, sister, friend, organizer, cat wrangler, and more. How should I summarize that? Must I summarize?

Penelope wants to “end the bullshit” of dividing mothers between those “who work” and those who “stay home” (acknowledging that both descriptors are wildly inaccurate). How about we go further and stop labeling altogether? I suspect there’s a role for categorizing in helping us make sense of our world and community. But as pressed for time as we all seem to be, as willing to generalize and assume, I also suspect it obscures as much as it clarifies.

–Lois Maassen

Cheer Me with Mozart

In Fulfillment, Survival on December 6, 2010 at 6:21 pm

My good friends (okay, they don’t know me, but I rely on them) at Utne Reader have pointed me to another interesting study. This one, conducted in Mexico, showed that listening to classical music had more anti-depressive effect than talk therapy.

I’ll put reading the whole study on my to-do list. I’m curious about whether it’s music in general or classical music specifically (Mozart is noted, in particular) that makes the difference. And I’m also curious about other listening habits.

I don’t often choose to listen to classical music, I’ll confess, in spite of (or perhaps because of) having grown up in a household where Bach was loud on the stereo. But I do notice that on days that I work to what Pandora serves up, I’m more cheerful (though less well-informed) than the days I’m tuned in to NPR all day. I’d like to understand that better: In some ways, it seems like hearing people’s conversations is more social. I realize, though, that unless I become a regular NPR caller, I’m eavesdropping on those conversations, not joining them. And, if you’ve been paying attention at all, you might know that discussions of current events are not entirely cheerful in tone.

I can always sing along with Pandora. Yet another advantage of the home office.

Ask and You Shall Receive?

In Family on November 29, 2010 at 5:23 pm

The Unclutterer’s recent post on giving gifts that are wanted or needed was timely–of course. We’ve been brainstorming about Christmas gifts for a while now, to come up with ideas we can make and afford. The Unclutterer recommends asking recipients what they want or need, though, and that’s a tender spot in our negotiation of the season.

My husband grew up on Christmas lists. The first few holidays we celebrated together, I misjudged the list dynamic: I assumed we were supplying ideas, thought-starters; when the holiday came, it looked like we had been placing an order.

If we made a list as kids, it was in the form of a letter to Santa, from which we might receive one or two items. We might give hints–leaving catalogs open to certain pages, even tearing out pictures. But we understood that there was a certain mystery and suspense to gift-receiving, and gift-giving required some imagination.

That’s still my orientation, although it’s sorely tested these days by nieces and nephews living far away and reaching those awkward teenage years. It seems to me it makes the gifts more special, less like an entitlement or a mail order delivery. It’s an intersection between the giver and the recipient. And the gifts that hit the mark–like the handknit black fingerless gloves for my niece–are a special unanticipated joy for both of us.

–Lois Maassen