Finding balance in the second half of life

Archive for the ‘Fulfillment’ Category

How to Say Goodbye to Your First True Love

In Fulfillment, Romance on February 16, 2017 at 4:41 pm

First, when a mutual friend calls you out of the blue and says it’s time, are you coming, say yes. Cancel all your meetings and appointments except your haircut. Hate yourself for caring about looks at a time like this. Cancel the haircut.

Tell your husband of 30 years where you’re going. Try to explain why. When he nods, mentally give him 100 points on the running tab you keep of your marriage.

Turn the house upside img_3946-2-1down looking for a specific photo—the black and white one you took from the audience when he was playing first chair in the orchestra. The one that shows off his cheekbones. Give up after two hours. Settle for the one you took of him cradling his dog like a baby. Hope it will make him smile.

Think about what you will say to him. Time will be short. He can’t focus for long. Never has it felt so important to be concise. Eloquence would be nice, but clarity is job one. You decide on “I came because I wanted to say thank you. You made a difference in my life.” Write it down. You will be nervous and might forget.

Think about what you will say to his young adult children. They likely have never heard your name until today. You decide on “I have to be honest. I feel awkward being here and I’m afraid I will say the wrong thing. Thank you for letting me come so I could tell your dad he made a difference in my life.” Write it down.

Forget to think about what you will say to his girlfriend.

Take food. It’s what people do. Bagels are good. They can be frozen for later. You buy a dozen bagels, fresh, and cream cheese.

On the drive to his house, get lost in the fog. Not just turned around, but so lost that you can’t find north. Think of how it’s a metaphor. Pull over and try to learn the car’s navigation system. Curse technology. Set the route. Get back on the road.

To calm yourself, take deep breaths and recite Nessun Dorma. When you get to the last two lines—“Until I say my real name on your mouth/Let all lights shine and no man sleep”—let yourself weep, but only for two miles. After two miles, allow for another 20 miles. Better to get the ugly stuff out of the way now. Wonder why, exactly, you are sobbing. For him? For your long-lost youth? For the loss of possibility?

Ignore the navigation system when, five miles from his house, it says, “You have reached the end of your charted route. No more information on your destination is available.” Acknowledge that you are off the map in more ways than one.

After you park, give yourself a pep talk. You can do this. It’s important. Forget to review your notes lying on the passenger seat.

Go inside. Introduce yourself—just your name. Don’t take off your coat. You’re not staying long. Thrust the plastic bag of bagels into his daughter’s arms. Silently berate yourself for not thinking to put them in a nicer container. Say, “Nice to meet you. Thank you for letting me come.” Forget everything else.

When things cannot possibly get any more awkward, make your way to the hospital bed set up in the living room. Find a fifth gear somewhere inside yourself. Do not show you are alarmed by how small he has become. Even though his eyes are closed, his children and girlfriend are watching. Be cool. By all means, do not think of the shape of his arms when you knew him, sculpted from wielding a planer all day. Touch his hand and say, “It’s me, Chris,” even though you go by Christine now, because that is what he called you back then.

Say, “I came to say thank you. You made a huge difference in my life.”

When he arches his eyebrows and answers with genuine surprise, “I have?” don’t panic as everything that was the you and the him together comes rushing back at the sound of his voice, which you had forgotten, the distinctive way he shapes his vowels. In a heartbeat, it will level you.

Regroup. Do not let all that is in you come pouring out. Do not tell him how often over the years he has shown up in your dreams, not as a lover but as a priest of creativity. Too complicated. Stick to the plan.

Smile so that even though his eyes are still closed, he can hear the smile in your voice. Say, “Yes. You showed me a different path—art and music—that a creative life was possible. You changed the direction of my life.”

Don’t be disappointed when he doesn’t respond. You have done what you came to do. Squeeze his hand. Say, “Rest well.”

Make small talk with his children. Say, “I knew him when I was just 18 and it changed everything.” Leave it at that. As you are walking out the door, remember the picture of him looking down at his dog. Hand it to his son. When it makes him smile, give yourself over to gratitude—for this, for everything.–Christine MacLean

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For Madeline, at 17

In Family, Fulfillment on April 20, 2013 at 11:19 am

Image

When I lifted you
at three
onto Keyline’s broad back,
you clasped the pommel
like a scepter
and eyed the reins
in my hand.
Leading him at a walk (nothing more),
me on one side,
the rail on the other,
I didn’t see
the flint strike
your steely core,
the spark of fear,
your own North Star,
that would guide you through
high school’s fun house—
not in a straight line, but still—
draw you toward the jump
into your two-point,
finding your balance,
eyes up, trained
beyond the oxer,
on the vertical,
hands soft on the reins,
already practiced in the art
of release.

*After Linda Pastan
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Secular Saints

In Community, Fulfillment on May 4, 2012 at 4:03 pm

Together, my good friend Louellyn and I make up the Smith College class of ‘76 Alain de Botton fan club. She started the group, but I, the more materialistic of the two, am the one who now owns a copy of everything our idol has published (in hard cover whenever possible: de Botton’s books are always exquisitely designed). This month I ignored her request to wait to read his latest until she could finish and send me the copy I Amazoned over for her birthday. I ordered one for myself so we could read it simultaneously (she lives in Massachusetts, I’m in Michigan).

Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, employs a strategy the author readily admits will “annoy” both religious and atheistic readers. In chapters stuffed with illustrations and photographs, he looks at the trappings of faith (“music, buildings, prayers, rituals, feasts, shrines, pilgrimages, communal meals, and illuminated manuscripts,”) for insights that might be useful in secular life.

In a Q & A on Amazon.com, de Botton outlines his thesis:

In the 20th century, capitalism has really solved (in the rich West) the material problems of a significant portion of mankind. But the spiritual needs are still in chaos, with religion ceasing to answer the need. This is why I wrote my book, to show that there remains a new way: a way of filling the modern world with so many important lessons from religion, and yet not needing to return to any kind of occult spirituality.

For example, in a section titled “Role Models,”  de Botton notes that the characters we encounter in sitcoms, video games, tabloids, and the daily news tend to include what he politely (and poetically!) refers to as a “paucity of paragons.” He admires the Catholic Church for offering believers “some two and a half thousand of the greatest, most virtuous human beings who, it feels, have ever lived,” and wonders if the rest of us might not be able to compile a similar list of secular paragons taken from our cultural history and literature.

Here’s Louellyn’s response (in an email she is letting me reproduce here):

The deeper I get into it, the more I love the book. My Catholic friends from childhood had saints they relied on. In the Greek Orthodox church, we had saints, but I knew nothing about them. They didn’t have the same importance, I guess. The only saint I had some affection for (and I never heard about him in my church) was the Italian from Assisi, Francisco, with his love of birds, animals, nature. My kind of guy!

But I did and still do have a patron saint from our culture, our literature, someone whose life was so exemplary that he has always shown me the way. Atticus Finch. You think of Atticus and immediately the thought of justice comes to mind, but he embodied so many virtues. Charity (toward the mentally limited neighbor), prudence, temperance, patience, courage, hope…  What virtue did he not embody?  If there were any doubt that this was a man worth emulating, that he was a saint on par with those whose statues are carried through the North End on a summer day, that doubt was dispelled when he walks out of the court room and every single person in the balcony rises to his feet, a scene that not only causes me to cry when I watch it, but a scene that causes me to cry when I think of it … like now.

And then who could forget the scene where Atticus is at Tom’s family’s home, and the father of women who said she was raped confronts Atticus and spits on him?  Atticus could have said, “Jeb, Scout, we are putting Alabama in the rear view mirror and heading for NY.” But did he? No. He takes out his handkerchief and wipes the spit off his face, and holds his ground and keeps working.  Which gave me the courage to wipe the spit off my face and hold my ground and keep working.

Chris Hedges, paraphrasing Aristotle, said that courage is the most important of the virtues, because without it, one is unlikely to practice any of the others. My patron saint is the embodiment of courage. He guides my daily life.

Beautiful, no? I doubt M. du Botton could have said it better.

Who is your personal patron saint?

I’ll tell you about mine in another post. For now, I leave you with a prayer written to be prayed to one of the two and a half thousand, St Expeditus, patron saint to procrastinators and “everyone who needs a quick solution for their problems”:

St. Expedite, witness of Faith to the point of martyrdom, in exercise of Good, you make tomorrow today.

You live in the fast time of the last minute, always projecting yourself toward the future.

Expedite and give strength to the heart of the man who doesn’t look back and who doesn’t postpone.

Amen

St Expeditus

–Debra Wierenga

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

Greater Depth of Field

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or so I thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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It’s About the Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.”

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

–Lois Maassen

Prophylactic Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congregating in Faith

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

I’m a churchgoer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Lois Maassen

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

No Story Here

In Community, Fulfillment on April 22, 2011 at 3:01 pm

 Photos courtesy of Mary Hilldore Photography

I bought fresh tulips ($7.99) at the grocery store the other day. They weren’t bad, but they are nothing like the 300,000 that will bloom in a few days here—20,000 in my neighborhood alone—courtesy of the City of Holland, Michigan. They’ll line my Historic District walking route, braving gale-force winds, withering heat, or snow, and sometimes all three in their short lives.

Together, the tulips create a riot of color. Individually, each is a floral temptress dressed to kill and experienced in the art of the come-on. “Pick me.  No one will see,” whispers the Ollioules. “There are so very many of us! A few won’t be missed,” wheedles the Double Orange Emperor. “Go ahead and pick one,” coaxes the Black Parrot. “You know you want to.”

I do want to. I picture them in vases, gracing rooms throughout my house: on my back porch, on my nightstand and, most decadent of all, in my bathroom. But day after day I resist.

And so does everyone else.

In my town, with temptation at every turn, no one picks the city’s tulips—not the descendants of the Dutch who settled here, and not anyone who is a member of one of several ethnic groups that make up almost 30% of the population today.

Why?

You might think it’s because of the “per stem” fine imposed by the city, which, when I first moved here 20 years ago, I heard was $50/stem and recently heard was $150/stem. Except that the “per stem” fine is Holland’s own little urban legend, apparently. I checked the city ordinances and I didn’t see one that was tulip-specific. (The city can fine a tulip picker for violating Sec. 22-5: Mutilating, etc., public property; molesting etc., birds, animals, fish, etc.; all those etceteras offer quite a range of applicability.)

“It’s not that they are worried about the fine, anyway,” says my friend Debra, who lives near downtown. “It’s that they worry about what the neighbors will think.” It’s true.  My walking partner and I sometimes see a tulip that’s been downed by natural causes. Neither of us dares carry it home (although it must be a crime of a different sort to abandon beauty where it’s sure to be trampled). For better or for worse, the community’s norms are strong.

“A person would have to be a real low-life to pick someone else’s tulips,” says my neighbor David Myers, author of a bajillion psychology books, including the one you probably had to read in college. “And, although there are such low-lifes,” he adds, “they are usually not the ones doing flower-arranging in their homes. My additional conjecture is that flower-lovers are at low risk for misdemeanor criminality.”

Residents who don’t love flowers have to at least tolerate them. In Holland, tulips literally come with the territory. If you live on any of several designated “Tulip Lane”s, curb-side tulips are not optional. The city plants them as a matter of course.

Figuratively speaking, respect for them also comes with the territory. “When you grow up in Holland, you just know that you don’t pick the tulips,” says my teenage son. “You’re socialized that way.”

The annual Tulip Time Festival plays a key role in that, and the festival’s Kinder Parade—a seemingly endless stream of costumed elementary students from the area schools—is a good example. Students are expected to march with their schools in the parade, regardless of ethnicity (or enthusiasm, for that matter). Schools typically make sure the children have costumes and provide busing to the staging area where the parade begins. The students smile and wave through the first mile, but visibly start to wilt during the second, especially when it’s hot.

The students’ extended families, who get up at 5:30 a.m. to get a prime spot on the parade route (but dutifully wait until 6:00 a.m., at the request of the city, to actually spread out their blankets and set up their chairs) watch them with adoring eyes. But the children must feel eyes of the broader community are upon them, too, sending the message “This is an important part of who we—and you—are.”

Finally, most people understand the tulips’ importance to the local economy. Tulip Time brings about $10 million in business to the area every year and without tulips, there is no Tulip Time. “The fact that there’s considerable public funding going into the tulip planting and maintaining means that there are many folks who watch out for the well-being of the tulips,” says Don Luidens, professor of sociology at Hope College in Holland.

I spoke to the city’s former police captain, in case I was just not hearing about crimes against tulips. He easily recalled the times the tulips had been truly vandalized—all three of them. In 20 years. “There’s no story here,” he told me. “There’s nothing here to write about.”

It’s hard to find examples of integrity these days. Daily we read about CEOs and elected officials lying with abandon and athletes cheating on and off the field. It happens here, too, occasionally. But when it comes to tulips, we stay on the straight and narrow. The Dutch Calvinist settlers here believed in total depravity, which includes the idea that, because of original sin, “all are inclined by nature to serve their own will and desires.” But I think we also have an innate longing for beauty and  connection to nature, and to do the right thing. Maybe the real reason we don’t pick the tulips is that, for three weeks every spring, they satisfying those longings.

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that we don’t, and that’s remarkable to me. It doesn’t, however, seem to occur to residents that it could be any different.  Or maybe it occurs to them but, like the police captain, they think there’s no story here. And that may be the most remarkable thing of all. –Christine MacLean