Finding balance in the second half of life

Archive for the ‘Fulfillment’ Category

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.


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

Fountain Pen Fetish

In Fulfillment on April 5, 2011 at 8:37 pm

I have been on a bender, a toot. I’ve been carousing stationers online and off, and have returned, a bit drunken and debauched to write about it. My newest fetish — fountain pens. I am so in love, in fact, and so thoroughly, that I feel the need to proselytize, with all the obnoxious energy of a new convert.

Let’s see if I can even be convincing, because, of course, there are very good reasons fountain pens fell out of fashion when new pen inventions came along. Inky fingers. Fussiness. Fountain pens require bathing and feeding. We have long lost the talent for encouraging our writing tools to work. But the reward, I have found, completely overshadows the effort. Writing with a fountain pen is a wholly separate writing experience.

Sometimes progress isn’t.

With the rise of the easy-to-use, easy-t0-care-for ballpoint pen, and then the disposable ballpoint, we have come to think of writing utensils as trash almost as soon as we pick them up. In the States alone, nearly 6 billion pens go into landfills every year. Plastics and metals alltogether in unrecoverable comingling. That number is a rough estimate that doesn’t even factor in the 2 billion pens that are even now clogging up the drawers in your kitchen.

Writing with ballpoints requires pressure and a firm grip. It might seem like a very little bit of pressure, and slight grip, but this static use of your muscles over long periods of time, hurts. If you are arthritic, that pressure is impossible to sustain for more than a signature here or there.

Fountain pens flow. They are all about achieving and controling the flow of ink as it meets paper. The experience of having and using them becomes something of a game. Something to think about. Lots of people simply won’t want to spend time thinking about their tools. Pencil users, for instance, claim to be avoiding the whole question.


New fountain pen users are very much on the scene. These are people who are come to these pens in droves through the art-journal craze, and the moleskine craze, and through cartooning, and because their favorite writer uses one.

How are they finding their way? Well, even as we in the Americas turned our backs on the old fountain pen, round about around the middle of the last century, our European and Asian family did not. They have continued to use them, to invent and reinvent them. In the United States, where I live, there is a healthy and entirely entertaining fountain pen holdout community participating in the worldwide Fountain Pen discussion where enthusiasts, and craftpersons and mad scientists keep the flame from guttering out completely in this part of the world.

My own path began with an illness that makes it hard for me to stare for too long at a computer screen. I am learning to write again with ink and paper, and when that happens, my ink (Noodlers Beaver) and paper (Miquelrius Graph notebook) and pen (Lamy — so far almost any Lamy) became very important. Procrastinating, the boon and bane of any writer, is easy to rationalize when you are procrastinating in search of the perfect points of what Fountain Pen people call The Trifecta of fountain pen happiness:

The Pen.

The Ink.

The Paper.

Change out any one of these elements, and the writing experience changes utterly. So you can see, can’t you, how finding your own Trifecta can take time, experimentation, consideration, and can be affected by purpose and mood, and change by season, or moon phase, or whim. Every fountain pen person you meet has her own preferences for pen smoothness or scratch, for paper silkiness or tooth, for ink characteristics too many to finish a nice parallel construction here.

Your Pen(s).

When you decide to dip into this well, you soon find tribes of users. Pen tribes take many forms. There are the gold-nib people and the steel-nib people. The vintage flex people and the Waterman-only-please-even-if-it-writes-like-a-toenail people. You can find incredibly inexpensive pens from China that work quite well straight out of the box for less than $10US, and a following for these instruments. You can find people who will happily pay thousands for pens that have to be babied and fussed over to deliver a single reliable line, but are limited-edition collectors’ items. Happy collectors abound.

Are you an obsessive hunter of a line so fine you’d use a single-bristle brush to get it? Look to Japan, where you will be ceaselessly reminded, when you fall for these pens, that a single Kanji character can take as many as 20 pen strokes to render. Of course they know how to make a fine-fine, so-fine fountain pen nib, and the ink to deliver it.

No? You like  a line that is indelibly present, would take 200 generations to fade out, and can be got entirely fuss-free? The Germans still hand fountain pens to their children, and have engineered them into child-proof ease of use.

But just let’s say you have pulled out Granddad’s set. Have cleaned and inked every pen you can find, and can’t find a pen body (the look, the weight, the grip) that makes you perfectly happy, or if you did find the perfect pen body, you hated the line and feel of its nib.

Enter the nib-meister. These folks are the farriers of this world, replacing nibs, mending feed systems, rebuilding or refurbishing your vintage and new pens, or maybe grinding your boring old medium nib into flights of italic fancy, or left-handed friendliness or…. Well it’s kind of between you and your nib-meister, really. Think of these pen groomers as a cross between a priest and a valet for pen nuts. They come to understand you and your needs and preferences, and help to keep you and your instruments working and happy.

Your Ink.

When you do find your pen, you have to feed it.

Cartridges of ink make ink changes painless, and are always a great way to begin your fountain pen life. Cartridges allow you to adopt a fountain pen without getting fussy about inks by taking the ink manufactured for the pen and providing a mess-free method for refill.

Cartridges are, however, an expensive way to buy ink. Particularly if you write a great deal. But pens that take cartridges almost always also take converters. These are cartridges fitted with a piston mechanism for filling and refilling a pen without disposing of cartridges.

There are pens designed without cartridges, made to be filled from ink bottles. These might have bladders or barrels that are squeezed or levered for refilling. And there is a craze these days for hacking pens with o-rings and tweezers and patience, so you can fill the entire pen body with ink, using an eyedropper.

When you fall in love with inks other than those made by your pen company, consider yourself lost in this world. Ink is the wine of fountain pen existence: the choices endless, the qualities vary by the batch, the presentations often precious, the prices wildly differing. And as with wine, the price is not a reliable sign of quality. You have ink that shades, as my Noodlers Beaver does, and ink that lays down a serious, dead-weight color. (J. Herbin Perle Noir is just perfect for charts, graphs, nihilists, and industrial and graphic designers ever in search of a blacker black.) There are scented inks and inks for people who live in sub-freezing climates and want to use their pens in that fishing shanty/writing sheds. There are inks only visible under black light, and inks that won’t smudge on thermal paper or plastic. There are inks for glass and dry-erase boards. Recipes for making your own inks from iron gall and pokeberry abound.

Many ink collectors are in it not so much for performance characteristics as for the vast and rich colors offered. Fountain pen inks come in in many shades, and some are designed especially so that you can mix your own shades. The ink boards wax rhapsodic about these colors which stand on paper in vivid and moving tonalities that cannot be duplicated by any other substance.

The most important newbie lesson is that art inks — india inks, carbon inks, and dip-pen/calligraphy inks — are dangerous for your fountain pen. These inks have ingredients or additives that can corrode at worst, irretrievably clog at best, a fountain pen. A few nano-carbon inks have been developed that give artists the pigment-based inks they want for fountain pen use. But their performance has been uneven inside pens. People who want to use them for artwork do best to use inexpensive fountain pens with these inks, or pens with nibs that can be replaced without too much expense.  I use my Lamy Safari pen with Platinum Carbon ink for sketching that may receive water color later on. The Lamy nibs can be replaced easily without any expertise required, and the pen is light and groovy. Really a great first pen for anyone.

A single bottle of ink can feed even a prolific writer’s pen for years. Finding your preferred ink would be a wasteful act if it weren’t for ink vendors like the Goulet Pen Company and Pear Tree Pens. The Goulets themselves are great representatives of the fountain pen resurgence, offering a humongous selection of inks, very reasonably priced pens, sumptuous papers, and all the instruction a new pen user could use in media newly minted people love.

They have worked hard to develop color swatches of inks, and sell 2ml vials for sampling, enough ink to write dozens of journal pages, certainly enough to know how you feel about it before springing for an entire bottle, which will last… a long time. How long depends on your writing and drawing life.

Your Paper.

Your ballpoint ink, and much of your disposable-pen ink, congeals on top of most paper. That’s what it was engineered to do. The ballpont pen is built to lay down one amount of ink in a consistent line, and that ink to dry quickly in place without moving about at all.

Fountain pens work just a little differently, and very differently from one another, putting down ink in different ways depending on your nib’s design, your ink, the pressure you use when you write, your handwriting style, the weather, the altitude.  Some pen-and-ink combinations are very wet, putting down a thick line. And some run dry, scratching quill-like along the page. These nuances can be enhanced or arrested by the nature of the paper you choose to use.

Paper, the third point of the trifecta, is easily as complicated as the first two. Maybe moreso, because paper changes with occasion. Your journal is not your stationery is not your school essay is not your quarterly report or legal brief or thank you note or baby announcement.

Papers you like for all of these purposes can be inexpensive, absorbent, pulpy, or they can be highly bleached, or made of recycled fabrics or plastics. Some papers don’t play nicely with some inks, causing the ink to feather, and fray, or take too, too long to dry. Paper can be sized to deliver silk-smooth surface that holds ink above its surface, making it easier to use both sides of the paper, or made without additives to absorb inks and watercolors deep into its fabric.  Paper can be pressed to provide the tooth and consistency of old linen, or include the pulp or elements or petals or seeds of the plants used in its making. And, of course, papers may serve archival purposes, specially formulated without the acid content that will eat paper alive over time.

Your life, your work, your job, your influence on society large or small, your need to be remembered for all eternity, your concern about the resources that go into your paper, so many decisions feed your choice of paper that may go well beyond trend or fashion.

I have not scratched the surface. I work in a design firm that regularly works with paper people. A really informed paper person makes a great advisor if you have particular paper needs. My own need for paper is actually kind of basic. I need a good writing paper in book form, and that book of paper needs to play nicely with the pens and inks I use to write for long, long stretches.

Highly-sized, graph-paper journals work for all of my projects — drawing, writing, and knitting. I have found three favorites that vary a lot by cost and performance, but all of them work with all of my pens. My best writing friend is the Miquelrius Graph Paper Leather-Look notebook, which I find easily at my local B&N, where I wait to buy a bunch using a sale coupon, then plant them in my lovely Oberon cover. Faithful, cheap, chubby, a skillion pages sewn together so they can flatten reasonably. But also, huge, unwieldy. Exacompta and Rhodia are the more sophisticated and expensive cousins. But I think too much of them to just write or draw willy nilly in their pages. These kinds of distinctions matter. If you have paid more for any of your tools than your budget really allows, you might not use them, and what good is that?

The Trifecta at work.

So. Trifecta in place after a long lot of research, I was writing again, long-hand, after spending the past 35 or so years at a keyboard. What a strange experience that is all by itself. Trying to do that with any old pen soon crippled my hand, which is almost useless toward the end of the day even without speeding along the pain with the wrong tools.

But with the right tools? Bliss.

In this moment, a Lamy Nexx M loaded with Noodlers Beaver, looping shades of cedar bark along the smooth graph pages. A fountain pen requires absolutely no pressure. You learn to write all over again, the way you learn to draw, using fluid movements that might emanate from your shoulder or elbow rather than your fingers or wrist. The writing seems to flow not from your hand or arm at all but straight from your mind to the ink as it lays itself down without any effort at all.

And that’s the attraction for so many writers. Despite all the attention you put into it, the fountain pen has a way of disappearing under your hand, allowing you to write without fatigue, for hours and hours.

It’s an added bonus that the result is often quite beautiful, offering a kind of presence that no amount of typing can really give you.

You can see, can’t you, that these writing instruments present the possibility of several kinds of obsession, if not addiction. And while the first hit is not free, it can be very, very cheap. Are you convinced to consider the possibility of such a device in your life? If so, I commend to you the Lamy Safari. For very little investment, it will give you a terrific first pen that could easily be the only pen you ever need.

Yeah, right.

Battle Hymn of the Golden Retriever Mother

In Family, Fulfillment on March 21, 2011 at 3:19 pm

So I’ve been trying not to write about Amy Chua’s book, which I haven’t read and don’t intend to read. Which I no longer need to read because I have read 1400 reviews and essays and analyses and blog posts and angry letters to the editor that quote copiously from her book to: (1.) show what a heartless, humorless slave-driver of a mother she is, or (2.) hold her up as a smart, self-deprecating but determined role model for parents who want to raise their children to be all that they can be.

If you are a semi-conscious Western parent of the female persuasion (there’s a reason this book wasn’t written by a man or pilloried or defended by American fathers, but that’s the subject of a different debate) the Tiger Mother’s roar is impossible to ignore. She’s everywhere. Her book has even inspired an internet meme.

What could I possibly add?

But it’s been a fraught week, with parent/teacher conferences, band concerts, financial aid forms, and college acceptance and not-quite acceptance letters from the places my youngest son Eliot applied to last fall. And reading Caitlin Flanagan’s piece “The Ivy Delusion: The Real Reason the Good Mothers Are So Rattled by Amy Chua” in this month’s issue of The Atlantic has finally pushed me into the fray.

Because I have some things in common with those “good mothers” Flanagan makes not-so-gentle fun of —

“The good mothers believe that something is really wrong with the hypercompetitive world of professional-class child rearing, whose practices they have at once co-created and haplessly inherited. The good mothers e-blast each other New York Times articles about overscheduled kids and the importance of restructuring the AP curriculum so that it encourages more creative thinking. They think that the college-admissions process is “soul crushing.” One thing the good mothers love to do—something they undertake with the same “fierce urgency of now” with which my mom used to protest the Vietnam War—is organize viewings of a documentary called Race to Nowhere.”


And, yes, Amy Chua rattles me. Because I am a mother who has allowed her sons to quit pianos lessons, tennis lessons, trombone lessons, swimming lessons, T-Ball, Youth Orchestra, AP Chemistry — even intramural soccer. I have not required them to do their homework, go to bed, join National Honor Society, practice their instruments, or write five-paragraph essays. I have encouraged them to find their respective passions and follow their proverbial bliss (good mothers read too much Joseph Campbell in college, says Flanagan) to film school, art school, and (for Eliot) music school. I am also a mother who, unlike Amy Chua, has never been entirely sure she was doing the right thing.

I am not a Tiger Mother. I am not really even one of the good mothers Flanagan chastises for thinking that their kids should be able to “have it both ways” — “a fun, low-stress childhood and also an Ivy League education.” After my boys’ first years in elementary school, I stopped harboring any illusions of Harvard scholarships.

I am more of a Golden Retriever Mother.

If you’ve ever owned a golden, you know from unconditional love. A retriever finds her person perfect, fascinating, the source of all possible happiness in this world. She will chase and return a soggy tennis ball for as long as you care to throw it. She will listen with rapt attention to anything you want to discourse on, from Petrarchan sonnets to nationalized health care. She wants to go where you go, do what you do, eat what you eat, and sleep where you sleep. She’s ready to follow you following your bliss wherever it takes you. She doesn’t care if you don’t have a 4.0. In fact, she thinks that your 3.25 — because it is your 3.25 — is better than anyone else’s 4.0.

So, yeah, Eliot’s been wait-listed by his first-choice school, while Amy Chua’s daughter has already played Carnegie Hall and, according to Flanagan, has likely applied to many of the country’s top colleges: “Almost certainly, she will be admitted to all of them.”

Eliot’s passion is music, but he didn’t discover that until high school. And by the time he figured out which program of study excited him, and understood the school’s acceptance rates and requirements, he’d had only two years of private piano and trombone lessons and his GPA was beyond repair. What if I hadn’t let him quit piano at 7? What if I’d made him practice his trombone two hours a day when he was in middle school? What if I’d told him, like Tiger Mother told her cubs, that he was “never allowed to get any grade less than an A”?

I like to think that my approach had its own benefits. Eliot found out for himself what he loves and learned how to find the teachers and resources that could help him achieve his goals. His latest progress report shows a D in AP English Language, but here’s what his teacher wrote next to the grade:

Eliot, I really enjoy working with you in AP Language. I appreciate your witty insights in class discussion, and wish that you would share even more. You possess an inherent gift for stringing words together creatively, and your sense of voice in your writing is strong and developed. The complexity of your sentence structures and your sense of humor is indicative of a writer far beyond your years!

Eliot’s D is better than most of my community college students’ As!

He didn’t get accepted into the University of Michigan’s highly competitive Performing Arts Technology program, and we feel sad about that. But Berklee College of Music wants him enough to offer him sizable merit scholarship. He hasn’t done Carnegie Hall (yet), but last month I watched him solo with his high school jazz band in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall.

That’s my boy! Son of a Golden Retriever Mother, perfect in every way.

–Debra Wierenga

Act Lit

In Fulfillment on March 14, 2011 at 3:13 am

One of the many things I worry about: Bedbugs. (Photo courtesy of

I once heard Lauren Winner suggest to a group of readers and writers that we give up reading for Lent. Inconceivable, I thought. Every Lent since then I’ve wondered if that’s precisely why I should give up reading.

I revisited it again this year, aloud, with Lois. She pointed me to, which suggests giving up “anything which most relates to behaviors that are particularly sticky for you.” Reading qualifies. It would take a Herculean effort for me not to read for 40 days and nights, but I could do it. It would be a dazzling display of my willpower. That’s what bothers me. I would make it into something that’s all about me and what I can do, once I set my mind to it. This is not my understanding of what  Lent is all about. As of last night, I still hadn’t settled on what to give up.

This morning I thought, We are five days into Lent. It may be a lost cause. I may be a lost cause.

I went to church because that is what I do on most Sunday mornings. The sermon was on trust, i.e., trusting that God knows what is best for us. And there it was–the thing more sticky for me than reading and more difficult to give up. Worry. I worry about everything with great skill. It takes up too much space in my life, crowding out other things, better things, like love, abundance, and joy. It was what I needed to give up for Lent. I basked in the peace that comes from making a good choice.

Thirty seconds later the worry set in.  How? Short of serious self-medicating, how does someone like me stop worrying? It’s not like I haven’t tried it in the past. At best, I’ve been able to keep it at bay for a while. But that’s not what I wanted this time. I wanted to let it go, not hold it back.

It was between the end of the sermon and the benediction that I remembered something that would be the beginning of a breadcrumb trail for me. A therapist friend recently told me about acceptance commitment therapy (ACT). One part of ACT is labeling a thought as a thought instead of seeing it as reality. For example, one worry I have is that I won’t have enough money to retire. Using ACT, I’d think “There’s a thought” and then I’d let the thought float away. Thinking something does not make the thought real or true.

The breadcrumb trail continued when I remembered a discussion Lois and I had about the difference between faith and denial (or delusion). This is the kind of thing that I can ponder for a long time without reaching any conclusions, but I made some progress this time. For me, denial is “Everything will be okay,” while faith is “No matter what happens, I will be okay.” I don’t need to worry about things; I need only to remember that, whatever comes my way, I will be able to deal with it, accept it, get past it. And I don’t have to do it alone. (Lois’s thoughtful conclusion was “love more.”)

Mary Karr’s Lit, which we discussed at length, is also part of the trail. On page 234, Karr recounts a schizophrenic friend’s advice to her when she was struggling with believing in God’s existence:

“Get on your knees and find some quiet space inside yourself…Let go…Surrender, Mary…Yield up what scares you. Yield up what makes you want to scream and cry. Enter into that quiet. It’s a cathedral. It’s an empty football stadium with all the lights on. And pray to be an instrument of peace.”

Like Lauren Winner’s idea to not read during Lent and like my friend’s explanation of ACT, this passage stayed with me. That any of these things stayed with me is pretty amazing, considering about how much information skips across my brain without ever sinking in. That these ideas also lined themselves up and fell like dominoes this morning is remarkable.

Writing this post as a way of making sense of worrry and trust is the final crumb in the trail, or at least the final one for today. I might find another tomorrow. Maybe that’s how I can trust–by knowing that there will always be a breadcrumb trail left for me through friends, books, music, nature, and experience. Trust more. Worry less. “Act lit.” That’s my plan.

For the next 35 days (better late than never), I am yielding up what scares me—the Tea Party, global warming, texting drivers, my teenage son’s bathroom, bed bugs—and making room for something better. Come, Holy Spirit. –Christine MacLean

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

A Hole in the Heart

In Family, Fulfillment on January 29, 2011 at 1:55 am

“We’re all done here. I don’t want to see you again,” said the cardiologist to my daughter as we left his office this morning. “Goodbye. Have a good life.”

She’s been seeing him since she was diagnosed at about six months with a ventricular septum defect—a hole between the lower chambers of her heart.  From the very first visit, we knew it was small. It never affected her development. The doctor never limited her or restricted her physical activities. “I see football players who have this,” he said. And that’s what my husband and I said, too, to each other: “He sees football players who have this.” Still, the doctor wanted to see her, every year at first, then every two, then every three.

In the years between visits, she grew. She loved passionately and she hated passionately. She had no trouble expressing her emotions.

My daughter gave me this ransom-style note when she was about eight.

Around the same time, she gave me this heart-shaped rock she found. Later, when it broke, she was the one who thought to fix it with a band-aid.

“Weren’t your feelings hurt when I said I hated you?” she asked me recently.  Fourteen now, still passionate but better able to moderate her emotions, she sees her young self through eyes that are more adult than child. I told her I never believed her, not for a moment.

“I really believed it when I said it,” she said. “I believed I hated you.”

But I knew her heart. I knew its nature as well as the cardiologist, with all his EKGs and echocardiograms and pulse oximetry, knew its form.

And now the form of her heart has caught up to its nature. The hole has completely closed, which is why her cardiologist doesn’t want to see her again. We left with a printout of her electrocardiogram, a parting gift.

I drove her back to school and went to the office to sign her in. She let me hug her before she headed to history class.

I thought about the hole, now closed, about how her whole life lies ahead of her, wide open, and about how I will never be all done here. No parent ever is.

–Christine MacLean

Don’t Sweat the Shirt

In Fulfillment, Romance on January 6, 2011 at 7:54 pm

Tara Parker-Hope’s piece on sustainable love in The New York Times last week highlights recent research suggesting that what we really want from a romantic partner is someone who will help us become who we want to be.

As one of the researchers put it:

“People have a fundamental motivation to improve the self and add to who they are as a person. If your partner is helping you become a better person, you become happier and more satisfied in the relationship.”

TheMichelangelo Effect” — in which close partners “sculpt” each other’s skills and personality traits over the course of a long relationship — has been identified by a number of studies as an important ingredient in happy and stable partnerships.

The trick though, is that you can’t try to shape your partner into your notion of his ideal self. You’ve got to promote and affirm and cultivate his own vision of the person he wants to be. So the other day, when I attempted to sculpt My Loving Partner free from a certain gray sweatshirt, I was  contributing neither to his “self-expansion” nor the future happiness of our relationship.

Despite this slip-up, when MLP and I took the Sustainable Marriage Quiz designed to measure how much your partner “expands your knowledge and makes you feel good about yourself,” we each got scores in the “highly expansive range.”

But there’s room for improvement. I’m working on expanding my notion of my ideal self to include becoming a person who is okay with the sweatshirt.

–Debra Wierenga

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