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.

Rewind 11 Years

In the fall of 2007, our oldest son left for college. At 16, our younger son was still at home and a little dismayed about having our undivided attention. I had my marketing communications business (the Great Recession of 2008-2009 hadn’t dried up freelance work yet), but I was contemplating what the next stage might offer. Recently, while tossing old paper files, I found notes from 2007 about what I hoped my life would be like—a snapshot that surprised me.

Photo of Ireland I added to my life map — Rock of Cashel near Tipperary

 

 

 

 

 

Photo I took from the inside of the Rock of Cashel ruins

 

 

At 53, I figured I had 30 years of good health and maybe another 10 years of iffy health. It’s a little odd that I had signed up for a workshop centered around “What To Do with the Rest of Your Life” or some other dippy name. I’ve always made a lot of lists and had short-term goals like lose 5 pounds, exercise more, and write more, but my long-range goals have remained hazy. OK, the truth is that I’ve never had 5-year career plans or 5-year life plans. Mostly I’ve had vague directions and made up my life as I went along. However, with so many articles and books about the challenges of mid-life, empty nests, and retirement, I felt a pang of responsibility (like maybe I needed to act like a grownup and prepare a little), so I signed up.

The workshop focused on helping us identify our values, gifts, passions, and purpose so we could create “life maps.” The language of self-help tends to give me the vapors, but once I set aside my bad attitude, I saw that they were worthy questions, so I did my homework. Then I promptly forgot all about my life map until I recently rediscovered it.

In 2007, here’s what I envisioned—

  • Creativity – Keep writing, return to pottery and quilting, explore watercolors and stained glass. Writing, pottery, quilting—check. Watercolors and stained glass— still to come.
  • Travel – Visit Hawaii, Ireland, Paris and Provence, and return to Italy. Hawaii, Italy and Ireland – done. We plan to visit Paris next year. Provence is still to come and the list continues to grow.
  • Teaching – Instead of teaching a writing course at St. Thomas University, now I help teach immigrants English.
  • Stay close with family – Yes, definitely. However, in 2007, my parents were still in good health. I understood they were aging, but I spent no time imagining my father’s death in 2011 and my mother’s death in 2014.
  • Volunteer work – Ongoing.
  • Socializing – Continue book group – Now I participate in two of them. Have more dinner parties or start a gourmet group. Still hopeful.
  • Move to a smaller home – We have.

What surprises me is that I’ve actually done so much of what I’d envisioned, especially considering my lack of focused planning. Maybe writing out my goals helped make them more real. Maybe my goals were so modest that it wouldn’t be a stretch to complete them. Either way, I’m pleased that I’ve used my time well.

I haven’t prepared a new life map and probably won’t. However, if pressed, I would say that my long-range plans include more of the same activities and maybe some grandchildren.

Check back with me in 2029!

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Seen and Heard

Recently, I was reminded that seemingly small moments can have a lasting impact. My mother-in-law told me about her visit with a local librarian. They got to know each other, and now the librarian chooses books for her as part of a library outreach program for people who don’t drive. Although the librarian came only once, her visit meant a lot to my mother-in-law.

Every now and again, acquaintances tell me about a time when something I said or did came at exactly the right time. Often, I’m surprised because I don’t remember the moment and wasn’t aware that I’d had any special impact. With that in mind, I try to be gracious when someone I don’t know well wants to talk. Maybe they need to be heard.

I love good tomatoes and there’s one vendor I look for at the St. Paul Farmer’s Market, because his tomatoes are consistently good. We have a nodding acquaintance—we know each other’s faces, but not each other’s names.

The last time I saw him, he asked me if I liked the Tennessee Ernie Ford song that the market’s musical entertainer had just played. I agreed that it was a good oldie and recalled that a neighbor friend’s mother used to play it on the stereo.

Then the tomato vendor told me he loves to sing, and he sang a little of the song in a surprisingly rich bass. I complimented him, and he explained that when he was young, a voice teacher taught him to breathe properly. Now he shows the guys in his church choir how to breathe so they won’t strain their voices when they try to sing bass.

As I walked away, I realized that after our longer-than-expected conversation, I had a fuller sense of him as a person. I don’t know if the conversation meant anything to him or not. Maybe he needed to be seen, wanted someone to know that tomato farming was just one dimension of his life. Or maybe he was just bored and feeling chatty.

Either way, I’m glad I listened. There’s a gift to me in that.

Beyond the Bestseller–The Answer to a Book Lover’s Dilemma

My recent purchases

I’m always reading novels, memoirs, or essay collections, sometimes two books at once. Given my love of reading, it seems odd that in recent years I’ve had trouble finding books that I really enjoy.

My tastes have changed. Since 2016, I often have wanted to step back from the real world and put my brain on the rinse cycle for a few hours. Unfortunately for me, some of the books that attract critical acclaim often are challenging to read.

The stories may portray truly awful events (slavery, abuse, war crimes) so vividly that reading them leaves me drained, not recharged. Other stories feature antihero characters who are so unlikable that I don’t want to spend a week with them. Or the author may be experimenting with narrative techniques that are intellectually interesting but not emotionally satisfying.

I want escape, but not just any escape. I’m not looking for syrupy sweet, happily-ever-after novels. Instead, I prefer a believable, involving story, one in which the characters are likable or interesting enough that I can engage emotionally and care about their plight.

Finding good books has gotten harder. Zillions of books are published every year. Amazon has millions of them. The public library has thousands. So what’s the big deal?

I’ve realized that my habit of reading with Kindle (whether purchased books or books checked out from the library) has stunted my reading list. In both cases, the recommendation and search algorithms are pretty rudimentary. Just finished a novel about the Holocaust? The library’s app and Amazon’s will suggest three more Holocaust novels. Wait, noooo!

The problem is compounded by the way book marketing and promotion works. During any given month, only 20-30 books are being touted, and the same ones appear on everyone’s bestseller lists and in numerous articles with titles like, “Best Books of 2018” or “This Summer’s 10 Must-Read Books.” Obviously, there are way more than 30 new books out there!  So how can I find them?

An aha moment. Duh. At bookstores. Where they have actual books. Made of paper. Recently, I visited Magers & Quinn and quickly found several good books by award-winning writers and added more to my “Want to Read” list. The books I chose are considered to be “midlist” (which is publisher-speak for a well-written book that is not a bestseller), so none of them were mentioned in any of the reviews or blogs I consult.

What a relief! The books are out there, but I’ve been looking in the wrong places!

If you’re curious, here are three really enjoyable books I purchased recently–The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi, Day After Night by Anita Diamant, and I Will Send Rain by Rae Meadows.

 

After the Fireworks

We sat under the hazy sky in the cooling humid air, scented with bug spray. All around us were clusters of people: young parents taking family photos of their daughter in the near dark. A group of young women to our left talking loudly about their lives and shrieking with laughter. Two young couples sharing a blanket behind us, speaking Spanish and laughing about what a weird word “fireworks” is—why “works” one asked. An extended family in lawn chairs in front of us whose father was telling a lengthy story. To the right of us, a bored preteen plugged into his phone on a blanket with his family, who appeared to be of Indian descent. Each group was self-contained, distinct. Not unfriendly but joined only by clapping to hurry up the show and later in appreciation.

I wondered what the day meant for each of us.

For me, it was a more thoughtful day than usual. I love this country but also am deeply troubled by so much of what is going on. For the first time, I wondered if or how the America I believe in will survive. But I set my worries aside and immersed myself in the spectacle of fireworks and enjoyed the magic. I don’t know if the people surrounding me attended to express their patriotism and commitment to our country, or if like me, it was mostly something traditional and fun to do on a hot summer night. What was remarkable was the ordinariness—the fact our mingled heritages sitting together peacefully at the fireworks.

 

 

 

Time Traveling

toll road  Last week, I traveled back in time while driving to Ohio to visit my sister, brothers, and their families. The 12-hour road trip called for lots of tunes, and I found myself craving oldies that I could sing along to, even though I don’t usually like the oldies stations when I’m in Minneapolis.

Reeling in the Years” by Steely Dan sent me back to college, when I hung out with my wild boyfriend, partied with his buddies, and took midnight dips in borrow ponds on hot summer nights.

The Fifth Dimension brought back high school and sleepovers in a girlfriend’s basement rec room. We danced to the “Wedding Bell Blues” and sang it at the top of our lungs. At 14, we yearned for love and passion, but for most of us, that was still a ways off.

As I drove through the neighborhood where I grew up, Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” took me back to my best friend’s pool and her mother snapping off the radio when she heard his sexy growl. She thought it was unsuitable for our 10-year-old ears.

Several times I got lost while bumping along Toledo’s crumbly blacktop roads that are scribbled with tar. I’m no longer as sure of my way around—I’ve been gone 30 years—longer than I lived there.

But inside my sibling’s homes I found myself. I became the middle sister again, the one who loves Bruce Springsteen like my sister and the Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival like my brothers.