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.

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.

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Santa and the Spirit of Christmas (Spoiler Alert!)

We began an elaborate hoax when our sons were toddlers. Santa lived with his elves in a toy shop at the North Pole. He drove a sleigh pulled by magical reindeer. Somehow Santa brought presents for kids all over the world all in one night. Sometimes I wondered why I was perpetuating the myth, when I would just have to explain it away later.

As little guys, our sons couldn’t distinguish make believe from so-called reality. There was God, who they couldn’t see or understand, Power Rangers who got rid of bad guys, and Barney, a singing purple dinosaur. Why not Santa? Plus, the fiction was bolstered by family, at daycare, in stores, and by songs, movies, and books. The idea of Santa would have been hard to resist, especially since their friends and neighbors were also being indoctrinated. But when it came right down to it, we likedthe idea of magic and spreading joy.

So, we were committed. When the boys mentioned toys they liked, we took note and occasionally reset expectations (Santa brings presents to so many kids. He probably can’t give 160-piece Lego sets to everyone.) We hung stockings and filled them with never-seen-before candy on Christmas Eve after the guys were asleep. Along with the wrapped gifts from us, we set out unwrapped gifts from Santa. We encouraged the boys to leave cookies and milk for Santa. My husband and I enjoyed the cookies, but left one with a bite out of it along with a thank you note from Santa. Christmas felt magical.

Eventually, our sons grew older and began to wonder if Santa was real. Then I explained that Santa was make believe, but the spirit of Christmas isn’t. At Christmas, many people are more generous, more loving, and act better than they have to. Over the years, people have done incredible things in the name of Christmas, like the Christmas Truce of World War I in 1914. As part of my explanation, I also swore my guys to secrecy. They were under strict orders not to tell their friends what they had learned—they should let other kids’ parents explain it. Our sons understood the responsibility and wanted to help keep the magic alive.

I don’t know how our sons will handle the topic of Santa if they have children, but if they carry on the tradition, I’ll be a willing co-conspirator.

Changing Thanksgiving Traditions

When I was a girl, Thanksgiving dinner might occur on Thanksgiving itself or the day after—whichever day my father had off from the fire department.

The table was set for eight with an ironed tablecloth, Mom’s sterling silverware, and her good ivory china bordered with a band of light blue and a thinner band of gold. My father presided at one end of the table and my mother faced him at the opposite end in the chair closest to the kitchen—in case she needed to hop up to get something. My two grandmothers, my two older brothers, my younger sister, and I filled out the sides.

Mom masterminded the meal—getting up early to put the turkey in the oven, making the stuffing, the green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, gravy, and pie. One of my grandmas brought cranberries and the other brought rolls. My sister and I chopped onions and celery for the stuffing, stirred gravy, and set the table. We also helped clean up. But Mom bore the weight of making this holiday a success. Now that I’ve helped prepare many family holiday meals, I understand and appreciate how much work and pressure this labor of love can be. That we shifted days barely registered with me then. What I recall were the smiling faces and good food.

As is the way of things, our family grew and we expanded the Thanksgiving table.First came my brother’s wife and their kids. Later, my great aunt and my mother’s sister, both widowed and childless, joined us. When my sister and I married and had kids, we enlarged the table again.

At that point, there were too many of us for my parent’s small dining room. A dinner for 20-22 was getting to be too much for Mom, who was now in her mid-70’s. Thanksgiving dinner moved to my sister’s bigger house. My parents contributed pre-roasted turkeys from the deli, and Mom brought several pies. My siblings and I prepared the rest of the food. My sister set two adjoining tables with her sterling silverware, ivory china rimmed in gold, crystal goblets, and a flowery centerpiece. Wine flowed freely and we were a festive and rowdy bunch.

In the last several years, the family circled around the Thanksgiving table has grown smaller. My parents and two aunts are gone now. Our small family of four doesn’t always travel to Ohio for the holiday. Sometimes my sons’ girlfriends join us at our smaller table, but now my sons each need to be a part of their girlfriend’s family gatherings, too. That’s as it should be. Holiday traditions are supposed to flex with a family’s changing circumstances.

This year, the day of our Thanksgiving celebration shifted once again, because that’s what works best for our sons. Several days ago, I set out my good white china and sterling silverware, arranged flowers, cooked and baked, and gave thanks for the smiling faces at my table.

 

                We at the WordSisters wish you a Happy Thanksgiving and hope there are plenty of smiling faces at your table.

Kids and Keyboards–A Dilemma

I recently read that Silicon Valley parents are concerned about how using cell phones, tablets, and computers in the classroom affects children’s development. Wait, what?!? The creators of the screens and software don’t want their children using them? The  New York Times article described how families across the country are reconsidering the role of technology in the classroom.

Whoa. I recall fundraising with the PTO so students at my sons’ school would have computers in the classroom. We wanted our kids to be ready for the world they’d be joining. When my nieces attended a Catholic high school in Ohio, they were given laptops to use with their school work.

Truth be told, even then I had misgivings about the amount of screen time my kids had. A recent conversation with neighbors, whose children grew up with mine, confirmed that I wasn’t alone. The other mothers—an artist, a human resources manager, and a psychologist—have all seen the downsides of too much screen time.

The artist was the first to mention the impact on creativity, but all of us  expressed similar concern. When consumed by screen use, children don’t have the opportunity to daydream aimlessly or use their imagination to invent games. The other mothers and I remembered that as kids, we made up goofy games that required imagination but little equipment—building a fort out of sofa cushions or raking leaves into piles that framed “rooms” in the yard.

Another effect we’ve all seen is underdeveloped social skills. While plenty of young adults are socially adept, some of the young adults we know are awkward in face-to-face conversations. They struggle when talking with people—in job interviews and when dealing with older coworkers. For some, in-person discussions are mistaken for disagreement and conflict, instead of the normal give and take of conversation. Texting and IM’ing are more comfortable. It’s easier for them to express their opinions with the distancing filter of a screen.

None of us were suggesting that children shouldn’t use computers or cell phones. Personally, I love my phone, tablet, and laptop and recognize that using technology is a vital part of modern life. However, being selective about when, where, and how much children use technology is important. Although our kids hated it, the other mothers and I limited the amount of time our kids spent using screens.

Limiting screens is an even greater challenge for today’s parents and teachers. Teachers struggle with the disruption of cell phones in the classroom. Parents now have to contend with the potential dangers of social media and the content of their children’s Internet searches. I feel fortunate my kids were older by the time social media was widespread. That was one problem I didn’t have to face.

A younger mother I know locks up her teenagers’ phones and computers at bedtime so they aren’t online or texting into the wee hours—they need their sleep, and she needs some peace of mind. If her kids’ grades slip, they lose phone privileges.

It’s disconcerting to realize that the very screens that we sought for our kids years ago could both expand their horizons and limit their potential. But just as we did, I am confident today’s parents will figure out a way to handle the challenges of technology.