About Ellen Shriner

I write short memoirs and personal essays. I have also completed a workplace coming-of-age story that takes place in 1979 and 1980 during my first year of college teaching. I write on topics of interest to working women, middle-aged mothers, Baby Boomers, people who love to read and write, and those who belong to writers' groups and book groups.

No More Guilt with Every Bite

At the pottery studio where I take classes, someone recently brought in a box of donuts to celebrate a Hallmark holiday. They were left on the counter with a note that said—Enjoy!

The conversation among women in the lunchroom that followed was depressingly familiar. “Ooooh, they look so good, but I shouldn’t be eating this,” said a woman who cut a chocolate frosted donut into quarters and took one. Another woman chose a whole plain donut, the smallest one she could find and said, “I worked out last night, so it’s OK.”

I’ve seen this behavior again and again—among young women as well as older ones and with thin women and heavier women. Interestingly, I’ve rarely seen men do this. Most of the time they help themselves to a treat. Or they don’t. But men don’t seem to participate in the chorus of guilt, denial, and shame about eating and enjoying anything that has fat, sugar, or salt in it—in other words, anything that is considered a treat.

Many people forego sweets or salty snacks because of concerns about diabetes or heart disease. I respect their need to abstain and recognize that the box of donuts—while meant to be a generous bit of fun—is a trial.

But what I’m referring to is the ingrained habit many women have of not allowing themselves to simply enjoy a treat. First, they must apologize for wanting it, then if they have some, they feel excessively guilty. Or if they take a portion, they feel compelled to justify it: “I had a salad for lunch, so I can have a piece of cheesecake for dessert.”

Why? Because in our culture, it seems like everyone feels they have the right to monitor or criticize a woman’s weight. We learn at an early age that what really matters is being thin and attractive, despite the many positive messages to the contrary.

I’ve made those same apologies and given the same justifications. But seeing how often this conversational pattern occurs makes me sad. And angry. I wish women felt they had the agency to eat whatever is appropriate for our own health and weight without defending or apologizing for our decisions.

I’d love to see a group of women savor a treat without guilty apologies. To refuse to characterize the moment as “pigging out.” To hear them exclaim, “This is so good!” and own their enjoyment.

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Three Keys . . . to What?

My key ring has a nice heft—it’s big enough that I can feel it in my down coat pocket even when I’m wearing puffy mittens.

Part of the bulk comes from a beat-up green aluminum bottle opener my son gave me when I admired his. I used to keep a miniature red Swiss Army knife in my purse because it had a bottle opener, which was handy on picnics for opening pop, and occasionally, beer. After I’d thrown away several forgotten knives at airport security, I wanted a different solution.

There’s my house key, of course. My car key is on a flimsier wire loop so I can easily give it to service managers at the dealer.

But what are those other three keys?

I think the small silvery rectangular key is for locking luggage. But what piece of luggage and why? I never lock my luggage. It’s fabric covered and would be easy to slit if someone wanted my stuff. A lock would be superfluous, a waste. Years ago, did one of my kids ask me to hang onto it? If so, why do I still have it? Maybe it’s a subconscious reminder of the joy of getting away. I love traveling, seeing new places and cultures, visiting my son in California, and seeing my siblings in Ohio.

Then there’s a slightly grubby round brass key. The numbers 293 are etched on one side. Hmmm. Does it open a padlock? The kind I might have used on a gym locker? But where’s the lock? It really doesn’t matter, because although I exercise, I rarely work out at a gym where I’d need to lock up my belongings. So it’s a crazy artifact of past good intentions.

The last key is to my parents’ house in Ohio, one they gave me so I could easily come and go when I visited. Or get in if something happened to them. So I’d always feel welcome. But now my parents are gone and the house belongs to my brother. He doesn’t mind that I have a key to use when I visit, but it isn’t really necessary. I’m only there when he’s there. But that key unlocks a place and time I wish I could still visit.

Can’t Do Kondo

At a recent gathering of women, I was impressed by how excited some of them felt about Marie Kondo (The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up). Her new Netflix show has boosted interest in the KonMari method. It is alluring—all those well-organized spaces. The simplicity of only keeping what sparks joy. The peacefulness of an orderly home that doesn’t contain random piles of junk. It all looks so virtuous. But I’m skeptical.

The key step in her process looks exhausting. You make an enormous pile of your stuff and then make endless joy/no joy decisions. I flash back to sorting out my mother’s household goods after she died. And then doing the same with my Aunt Corinne’s things. Repeatedly deciding which items were too good to throw away but not good enough to keep took such an emotional toll. After a while I stopped caring. Soon everything looked like junk.

It appears that’s the point people come to as they engage in the KonMari process. You become overwhelmed and stop making decisions. Everything except absolute essentials goes. So that’s part one of the magic. You have less stuff and feel lighter.

The young couple featured in the first episode did need help. They were unhappy about how out of control their home and life with two toddlers had become. They stuck with Marie Kondo’s process and voilà! Eventually they brought order out of chaos.

Last fall I dabbled with doing a little KonMari on my clothes. Admittedly, I only watched a short video about it and didn’t read her book. I didn’t pile up everything in my closet and dresser. Instead, I considered how long it had been since I’d worn something. I evaluated each item’s fit, style, and level of shabbiness. As a result, I cleared out a lot of stuff. Then I had the hassle and expense of replacing essential items that no longer were up to par. I’m still looking for wonderful replacements that spark joy.

After you get rid of stuff and organize what remains, another step in her process is folding clothes differently. I like her idea about folding t-shirts so you can see all of the colors. However, it definitely is more time-consuming, so often my laundry sits for days before I put it away properly.

What will keep me (or any KonMari advocate) from backsliding? I suspect it’s the painful memory of sorting through the enormous pile. However, I didn’t make a big pile and I’m known to have amnesia when it comes to recalling how hard a project is. It seems very likely that three years from now my closet will be overburdened again. At some point, folding t-shirts her way may be too much trouble.

I don’t doubt that Marie Kondo’s approach truly helps some people. The couple featured during the first episode came away with a system and new habits that will make their lives easier and more filled with joy.

Perhaps I’d feel lighter and more joyful if I fully embraced Marie Kondo’s system. But I know for it to work I’d have to incorporate her philosophy as well as adopt new habits. I guess I’m not ready.

Resolved: Nothing

Resolutions past and present

This year I didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions. That’s odd, because they have always appealed to me. I cherish the idea of fresh starts, and I have an abiding belief in a person’s ability to change. And it’s not as if I’ve magically become a better person who doesn’t need to improve!

But I’m moving away from this familiar yearly cycle—Wanting to change –>making resolutions –> attacking my goals for a while –> losing energy and focus –> feeling bad –> re-resolving to incorporate the changes.

For example, year after year I have vowed to exercise regularly and to devote more time to writing. I’d start off full of zeal—this is the year! But establishing habits is a daily battle. Oops, I ran out of time. Something came up. Better luck tomorrow. Eventually, my enthusiasm would flag. Hmm. Maybe the fact that I had to renew those intentions yearly was a hint that my approach wasn’t working!

Early last year, I stumbled across a better way to incorporate new habits into my life. The insight came about as a side effect of writing out my weekly calendar. Instead of taking a work-before-pleasure approach, I began identifying blocks of time when I could do the things that matter most to me: writing, volunteering, exercising, connecting with friends and family, and pursuing other creative outlets (e.g., pottery, sewing, trying a new recipe). After I’ve made time for my priorities, I fit in necessary evils like cleaning, laundry, appointments, and shopping.

Writing a detailed calendar may sound fussy and restrictive, but for me, it’s energizing. It’s about scheduling fun. Fulfillment. I’m making time for what I like to do and what I think is important. And that’s a good thing. I rarely do everything I set out to do, but I get around to most of it. Consequently, I have fewer regrets about how I spend my time and less need for the same old resolutions spurred by what I wish I’d done.

I still plan to lose two pounds of cookies and do strength training more consistently. And I will. I still want to be kinder, more patient, less critical, and more grateful. I’ll work on that, too. But this year, I’m saying goodbye to the yearly cycle of regrets and resolutions.