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.

The Real Reward

I help teach English to adult immigrants. Recently, the teacher I work with asked what kind of gift card I’d prefer as a thank you gift for volunteering. I didn’t want to make a fuss—I know the gift card is well-intentioned—so I chose one. But the truthful answer was that I didn’t want a reward.

What’s weird is that if I were a volunteer coordinator, I would think it was very important to acknowledge and thank volunteers. Finding a suitable way to please a disparate group would be hard. I would probably land on gift cards, too. I’m not criticizing the gift options or the school’s impulse to thank me.

I think my discomfort has more to do with how I was raised. My parents set an example with their many volunteer activities—they did far more than I ever do. Their outlook was that you’re supposed to pitch in and help. It’s just what you do.

Another value that my parents conveyed was that it’s even better if you donate your time or money without any public acknowledgement. For years, they were secret angel donors for the parish grade school and the church choir. If kids didn’t have money for supplies or a field trip, or if the choir needed more funds for a tour, the principal and the choir director knew my parents would cover it. Hardly anybody knew my parents did this. My father mentioned it to me once, and the scope of their contributions only came to light when they died.

What I had trouble putting into words when asked about the gift card is that volunteering is as much about my needs as it is about theirs. The world at large can be dismissive of people who are 60 and beyond—assuming that we’re clueless, set in our ways, etc., etc. Volunteering is a way of reminding myself that I’m knowledgeable and have something valuable to contribute. I feel seen, useful, and appreciated. That’s what makes volunteering worthwhile.

I don’t think I deserve a medal (or a gift card) for putting in a few spare hours a week. Corny as it sounds, acknowledgement comes every week in the form of students who make a point to thank me at the end of class. Also gratifying are the students who return after completing the class to share their excitement about landing a better job—one requiring good English skills. Plus, the teacher often asks my opinion about her proposed lesson plans and always thanks me for coming. That’s good. That’s plenty.

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The Nature of Mother’s Day Gifts

Gifts I wrapped never looked this good–LOL!

This time of year, I recall standing in Herberger’s, a store that no longer exists, searching the clothes racks for something that would delight Mom. If I were on a roll, I’d buy several outfits and relieve my sister and one of my brothers of their anxious search (my other brother usually had his own plan). Not that Mom was so hard to delight, but more that we were striving so hard to convey a love that was too big to be contained by a gift.

My system was to try on the clothes in my size (several sizes larger than what Mom wore.) We had the same build, and if the clothes fit me, I’d buy them in her size and mail them (life before Amazon was a reflex). If they didn’t suit her, she could return them to Elder Beerman, the Ohio branch of Herberger’s.

I was curiously detached about the possibility of the clothes being returned. I’d tried my best and I knew that even if my gift didn’t work out, Mom saw the effort and recognized the love. She’d done the same anxious ritual for her mother and mother-in-law for years, too.

Mom has been gone nearly five years, a fact I still can hardly believe sometimes. When my sons ask me what gift I’d like, I often have no suggestions (none of us thinks purchasing clothes is realistic!) I suggest outings and time spent together, and that suits us. The real gift is that they care enough to ask, that they want to show their love.

Message received.

 

Procrastination—I haven’t lost my touch!

I used to be a pretty good procrastinator. Not a champion, but definitely a contender. My peak performance was from my undergraduate years into my early thirties.

Paper due Monday morning? I’d get jacked up on coffee and start work by 9 p.m., telling myself, “I work better under pressure.” More accurately, it was the only time I worked. But I’d better have a draft by 2 a.m., because after that my brain would fizz out and all the coffee in the world couldn’t bring back coherent thought. Unfortunately, that system worked well enough to regularly give me B+s, which only reinforced my procrastinating ways.

By the time I was in my 30’s, I was married, had two sons, and was working full-time. Way too many chores and too little time! If I didn’t attack a distasteful task like putting away holiday decorations, they would stay untouched for weeks, a constant depressing reminder. I learned to slog through scutwork more promptly because the alternative was worse.

Fear of failing my clients and losing business kept me from procrastinating too much when I had my communications business. I’d learned that I had to build in time to write a draft, let the piece cool off for days (or at least hours), and then revise it before sending it to the client. When I had a particularly tedious project, say catalog merchandise copy or highly technical training materials, I might suddenly feel an acute need to do something I never do like alphabetizing spices or organizing my sock drawer. At very least, I’d clean the kitchen and switch loads of laundry (something! anything!) to postpone the icky project.

When our sons were little, unwelcome tasks were constant: their toys were scattered everywhere, and they drizzled on their clothes so there was more laundry. Seeing two days’ worth of crusty sippy cups and soggy cereal bowls piling up made me want to run away from home. I realized that sometimes it’s better to tackle the work right away and get it over with. After all, I’m never going to wantto do dishes. They only get more gross the longer they sit.

These days, I’m more inclined to get chores out of the way. Sort of. For at least four weeks the special tile cleaner I bought sat in the bathroom while I put off using it. Today, there’s a tricky part of an essay I meant to revise. Instead, I cleaned out my file entitled, “Blog Ideas,” and decided to write this!

How Time Disappears in Retirement

To the uninitiated, retirement sounds like a vast stretch of free time with maybe a few minor chores like laundry thrown in. Theoretically, yes.

However, all of the retirees I know are as busy—if not even busier—than we were when we worked for pay. It’s a fundamental mystery of retirement that I have so little free time. Or perhaps I should say “unscheduled” time, because really, I have nothing but free time. But I’m using a lot of it. Having fun.

Now that I can choose whatever I want to do with my time, I’m like a kid in a candy store. There are so many choices: classes, writing, travel, volunteering, two book groups and the associated reading, hanging out with friends, family get-togethers, etc. Why not set a date to make sure it all happens? As a result, I regularly confound my sons and working friends with how booked up I can be.

Here’s how a lot of conversations go:

“You want to stop by on your day off? Great! Oh, wait, I’ve got pottery class that morning.”

Or

“Happy hour? I’d love to, but not that Wednesday—I’ve got Guthrie tickets. How about Thursday instead?

I get that this is annoying to people who have less flexibility than I do. But if another day works equally well, I’d rather do the original activity I planned and paid for.

Of course, I’ll drop everything when something comes up:

“My car is in the shop. Can you give me a ride?”

Or

“Can you pick me up at the clinic? I’m not supposed to drive after my outpatient procedure.”

For years, other people controlled my schedule. The magic of retirement is that now most of what I’m doing I’ve chosen to do. This time feels precious. It’s a gift—not empty hours while I’m waiting for someone to call or visit. Not too put too fine point on it, but I don’t know how much time I’ll have or how long I’ll be healthy.

I want to use my time well.

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.