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.

Mental Whiplash

On February 19th, the snow was deep in our yard, and our alley was so rutted with thick ice that my car was forced to follow the deep track. Before my husband and I left for our three-week snowbird experiment in the Southwest, life seemed relatively predictable.

We are keenly interested in politics, so the Democratic primary in South Carolina on February 25 and Super Tuesday on March 3 (which included Minnesota) were on our minds. We voted before we left town.

We speculated about the outcomes as we hiked in the California desert among shaggy palms, Joshua trees, and giant boulders that are tumbled like toys in the foothills.

Less than 48 hours before Super Tuesday, the trailing presidential candidates ended their runs abruptly. Although the departures were inevitable, the timing was startling. The consolidation of candidates meant that my early vote was irrelevant. Like many, we were astonished by Joe Biden’s surge. When Elizabeth Warren exited a few days later, I was sad that there were no women candidates. The political landscape had changed dramatically, and the rapid change was jangling. However, COVID-19 felt remote.

In Tucson, our next destination, the desert was blooming. Clumps of yellow desert marigold dotted the hills that bristled with saguaro cactus. The sunny warmth of Sabino Canyon’s trails soothed me.

During the first week of March, concerns about COVID-19 came to the forefront for us. This was new terrain. Until then, sensible precautions seemed enough; our life hadn’t been disrupted. With each subsequent day, our understanding of the COVID-19 crisis increased as updates poured in faster than we could absorb them.

The Grand Princess cruise ship, which carried passengers ill with COVID-19, docked in Oakland. We worried about our son and his significant other, a physician in Oakland, who would be on the front lines.

The sky was overcast but the temps were still warm as we walked trails alongside the broad dry Rillito riverbed. I noticed spikes of pink penstemon, but our conversations centered around the looming pandemic and the conflicting national response. We worried about restrictions on flights from Europe where our niece was studying abroad and the pandemic’s impact on the economy.

By the time we flew home, the landscape was changing hourly with updates about cases and the CDC and NIH’s latest guidance. On our first day back, the president declared the overdue National Emergency. Comprehending the impact of the cascade of closings and event cancellations was hard. Is hard.

The pandemic is uncharted territory. Only a week ago, I wondered if I’d be able to fly to Chicago later this month for a wedding shower. Several days ago, meetings with my writer’s group and book group seemed possible. We’ve ruled out travel, in-person visits, and ordinary errands to help “flatten the curve.” The daily, even hourly, changes are like mental whiplash. No school. OK. Restaurants and stores with limited service. OK. Stay home. Got it.

March 18thIn the space of a month, so much has changed. The world looks very different. Socializing in person has been postponed. I no longer assume my travel plans for May and July will happen. We’ll see. We’re figuring it out, day by day, case by case, just like everyone else.

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At the moment, we’re healthy. The snow in our yard is nearly gone, and the alley is ice-free and dry. As I circle the yard, I note the early tulips and weeds pushing up in my gardens as they always have. Though much is unknown and I’m seeing the world with a new perspective, spring is coming, and for that, I’m grateful.

 

 

Still Winter (Don’t Read This Cranky Blog)

Let’s see. It’s still winter. I’m done with it, but it’s not done with us. No use complaining (but that’s not stopping me). Weather isn’t personal. The same rain/snow/slush falls on all of us. The same ice clumps chunk off our tires. We drive the same roads that are scabby with ice or as slippery as Crisco.

Impeachment rages on and on. We know how this will end but the players must follow the script anyway.

No wonder I obsess about clay. I revel in the small personal thrill of throwing porcelain for the first time in years. Voilà! A small vessel I hope to make into an old-fashioned perfume bottle. Not to hold perfume. Just because I like the idea of them.

Maybe I’ll make stoneware wine goblets next. The sturdy kind without stems. Or stoneware tumblers for iced tea and mojitos with fresh mint. Mint that I’ll pinch from a plant in next summer’s garden.

Why not stoneware flower pots? That’s genius! When I’m not a potter, I’m a gardener. I could bring together two of my passions.

What about platters and bowls with sayings? Hmmm. I hate art that exhorts me to Live! Love! Laugh! Shut up, I think, even though I do want to live, love, and laugh. Isn’t stamping Ellen-isms into clay at odds with that? Too bad. I’m doing it.

 

I’ve been holed up in the pottery studio with my potter’s wheel spinning fast. It corkscrews my focus tighter and tighter until all I see is the lump of clay that I’m forcing to be centered. Even though it resists, throwing off stray blobs and splashes of watery clay.

Hours pass. My back and shoulders ache.

Weeks pass.

Now when I leave the studio at 5:15, it’s light out. The big wheel of the seasons is also turning. Slowly, slowly, but turning. Bringing me back to center.

 

All those ecstatic exclamation points!!!

Recently, I exchanged a series of texts about possible places to have a celebratory dinner. Because I was hurrying, I didn’t choose my words carefully and typed, “X café sounds O.K.” Without meaning to I conveyed an underwhelmed reaction, which then required clarifying texts. I actually agreed with the suggested restaurant, but my reply didn’t sound like it. Sigh.

Electronic communication lacks the cues that tone of voice offers in a phone call or body language expresses in person. Emojis help, but not enough. Often the exact tone I’m looking for doesn’t come in an emoji.

These days, when I receive an ordinary text like, “I’ll pick you up at 6:00,” or “I sent the package,” I’m likely to reply, “Great!” There’s nothing extraordinary, wonderful, or truly great about the moment. I feel completely neutral—no excitement, no elevated enthusiasm—I’m just trying to acknowledge the message in a pleasant way.

Used to be, exclamation points signaled excitement or surprise. The writing professors I had urged caution—use exclamation points sparingly. I took their advice and rarely used them. Now, I regularly disregard those guidelines when I’m texting and emailing.

“Great!” has become the equivalent of “O.K.”—what I would have said by phone, because my warm tone would make my reaction clear.

Now that innocuous word can be freighted with an unintentionally cranky or passive-aggressive tone (Typing These Two Letters Will Scare Your Young Co-Workers: Everything was O.K. until you wrote “O.K.”)

“O.K.,” can be construed as flat and potentially unhappy. It seems similar to the irritated “Fine.” You know— “Fine” said in the tone which means sonot fine. “Fine” as in I won’t argue now, but we’re not done. Fighting words.

I wish texts were only used for simple, neutral messages like schedules, grocery lists, or where to meet. But I’ve bowed to the reality that for many people, texts are their default communication, even when the subject matter is emotion-laden and would be better handled in person or in a phone call. There would be less chance of confusion or hurt feelings. So in the interest of good communication, I’m inflating my word choice and punctuation.

And that’s O.K., er, Great!!!

The World of Holiday Greetings Has Changed

For the last several years, a friend and I have gotten together every December to address Christmas cards and catch up over tea. She still writes at least two dozen, while my output has dwindled to less than 10.

I used to love Christmas cards. I tended to indulge in the expensive ones printed on high quality paper, the ones with artistic designs or humorous sentiments. Sometimes I bogged down with signing them and getting them to the Post Office, but I always got them out before New Year’s.

While doing business as Ellen Shriner Communications, I began handcrafting holiday cards to send to ad agency and marketing clients. Instead of dropping off clever client gifts or food treats (a common practice in the communications world), I made a charitable donation in my clients’ honor and hoped the cards would remind clients about my creative work. I also sent the cards to close family and friends.

Every year, I wandered the aisles of the now-defunct Paper Depot and let the stamps, vellums, fine cotton card stock, and gorgeous imported papers inspire me. For a month, I holed up in my office planning, writing, printing, cutting, gluing, and assembling 50-60 cards. Many years, I made several versions because I was attracted to multiple ideas, and it was fun to experiment.

The card with red ribbon involved dried flowers from my garden. For the one on the far right, I drew ornaments in watercolor. For the one in the center, I hand cut starbursts with an Exacto knife so the gold vellum would show through.

By the end of 2010, I was winding down my business and had accepted a hospital marketing job. I could have continued making the cards for family and friends, but handcrafting cards no longer gave me as much pleasure, and the world of holiday greetings had changed.

For many people, sending Christmas cards had become just one more thing on a long To Do list. Friends and family were relieved to let go of the tradition. Often the cards I received seemed to be guilt-induced (Dang! She sent me one. Now I need to reciprocate), and I didn’t want to cause that discomfort.

For me, Christmas cards had been a way to stay connected with out-of-town family or friends I rarely saw. Often the cards summed up how the year had gone, and that ritual reflection felt worthwhile.

Now a yearly missive is less important. Calling is so cheap and immediate that the most important people in my life already know what’s going on. As a writer, I’m at the keyboard most days and can dash off a quick email to friends. Social media has made it easy to stay in touch with an extended group of people.

Maybe one day I’ll rediscover the creative fun of playing with fine papers, glue, and an Exacto knife. But this year, I’ll sign a few store-bought cards and write a handful of personal notes. Of course, nothing replaces visiting in person, especially over a cup of tea!

To all of our blog readers: the WordSisters send lots of affection and appreciation for our connection. Happy Holidays!

For the lady in the pink rain bonnet

I noticed you on a sunny, fiercely windy day outside of a Caribou coffee shop. In addition to your warm coat, you wore a plastic rain bonnet, which was covered with pink chiffon and tied under your chin. Under it, your white hair looked freshly styled, and the bonnet protected your hairdo from being blown to pieces. You had to be at least 85—rain bonnets like that were popular in my mother’s era, and she would be 98 if she were still alive.

My immediate reaction was, “Aww, how sweet!” Then I thought, “Wait a minute. I’d hate it if young people looked at me indulgently and thought, “Aww, isn’t she cute with her matching jewelry and sensible shoes!” while I was going about my ordinary day being my badass, 65-year-old self. So, I decided to spare her the stereotype that diminishes and infantilizes even though it’s kindly meant. I don’t know anything about her. She’d probably a badass, too.

While I was placing my order, she came in and looked around. She seemed uncertain and quickly returned to her car, which was parked near where I sat stirring my tea and waiting for my friend.

Later she came back in and sat at a table. “Uh oh,” I thought, “I wonder if she realizes that this isn’t the kind of place there they come over and wait on you?” I could imagine my mom being confused about how Caribou works. A few minutes later, two middle-aged guys with leather-covered notebooks joined the woman.

I told my friend why I was distracted. We watched the three of them for a minute.

“I hope they’re not scamming her,” my friend said, reading my mind.

“Maybe they’re just selling her car insurance. But why two guys?” I asked.

The lady didn’t look worried or out of it. She was probably perfectly capable of making her own decisions about whatever they were selling. I turned away, thinking, “It’s none of my business. I have an overactive imagination—the downside of being a writer.”

My friend and I resumed talking about her daughter’s upcoming wedding and my Thanksgiving travel plans.

Why did this stranger capture my imagination? She brought to mind how unsure my smart, confident mother became in her final years. The woman with the pink rain bonnet also made me contemplate how vulnerable I might be when I’m in my late 80’s or early 90’s.

I wish I felt certain the lady in the pink rain bonnet was OK.