About Ellen Shriner

I write short memoirs and personal essays. I have also completed a book-length memoir called BRAVADO AND A SKETCHY VISION LED ME HERE. It's is 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.

Resisting Assumptions

The last time I gave blood, a tech named Dakota took care of me. When she introduced herself, I didn’t expect we’d have much in common. She was in her 20’s and had full sleeves of tattoos and several facial piercings, while I look like the middle-aged, mom-ish person I am. However, she surprised me.

She made a real effort to talk to me, which I appreciated because giving a pint of blood takes about half an hour and you’re tethered to a gurney the whole time. You can stare into space, listen to music and daydream or play with your phone, which is what I was doing when she tried for a second time to start a conversation. I apologized and set my phone aside. She sympathized and said she’d recently read an article about how involvement with cell phones can put a damper on actual conversations. Her comments sounded like something I would say, not something I expected of someone her age. It was a minor moment, but it reminded me how difficult it is to resist making assumptions.

Making assumptions is natural and necessary.

Every day we receive such an onslaught of information—online, at work, and during casual personal encounters at a coffee shop, gas station, or wherever—that our brains simplify and categorize it. We have to. Otherwise, we’d be paralyzed by making sense of the input. The downside of this tendency is stereotyping.

It’s a wonder people ever make genuine connections! And yet, I’m committed to trying.

Resisting stereotypes about age, race, gender, politics and so forth, takes a lot of energy. The situation is made doubly difficult because whomever I’m encountering has his or her own set of biases to overcome. But in a culture that’s rife with hateful stereotypes, I’m trying harder to see each person I meet as the individual she or he is.

At its most basic level, my efforts consist of looking strangers in the eyes and smiling. Just seeing them and looking friendly. Some people don’t return my smile, but a lot of them do. It occurs to me that I may look like a smiling idiot—a dotty lady on the loose—but I’m willing to take the risk.

In Dakota, I found an interesting woman who wants to be a nurse, while I’ve worked for hospitals off and on throughout my career. We’d both lived in Morris, Minnesota, although decades apart. As she described what her tattoos meant to her, it was clear her body is her canvas. I mentioned an ironic tattoo I like that’s in the shape of a tombstone and reads, “Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt,” a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Turns out we both like Vonnegut.

Next time I have a chance to make a casual acquaintance, I’ll try to be the one who initiates conversation.

Steering Out of the Doldrums

For the last two weeks, I’ve struggled with the late winter doldrums. I’m ready for spring, but Winter. Just. Won’t. Go. In sailing usage, “doldrums” refer to a low-pressure area around the equator where the winds disappear and sailing vessels could be trapped for days or weeks. That sums up my feeling: I’m becalmed, waiting for spring’s energy to blow my life back on course.

I’ve been listless and had trouble mustering enthusiasm for new projects. Consequently, I’ve elevated my knack for wasting time to new heights (that should probably be “new lows”)—

  • Sleeping longer than normal (my body resists getting up in the dark again)
  • Reading mysteries (my go-to escapist read) instead of more challenging literature
  • Researching facial moisturizers (Seriously?!? That might deserve half an hour of my time, not the two hours I actually gave it.)

This is familiar territory, so I go easy on myself when I recognize the pattern. In fact, that’s part of the cure—recognizing and accepting that I’m in the doldrums.

Dissatisfaction and restlessness prod me to analyze where my time actually goes (this is pretty geeky, but it works for me). At first, I neutrally list how I’ve spent my time recently.

That brings to mind a few things I ought to do (wash the kitchen floor, clean the bathrooms). I cross out those—they’re definitely not mood-lifters!

Soon, my mind shifts from chores to daydreaming about what would be fun to do. A fresh little breeze of possibilities stirs. I begin a new list.

For years, I’ve recalibrated my priorities by regularly asking myself: Am I living the life I want to lead? How can I tinker with my free time or refocus my efforts to be sure my work and family commitments are satisfying?

I’m taking a new tack and moving forward again.

The Secret Life of Jewelry

Every morning, I indulge in a small ritual—choosing what jewelry to wear. What I reach for depends on my mood and what clothes I’m wearing. It’s an expression of my taste. But I’m also choosing talismans. The pieces I wear don’t offer magical protection, exactly, but they do offer a tiny bit of power—to keep people close to me.

Many of the earrings, rings, and necklaces I have were gifts. Slipping them on reminds me that I’m loved. Or if I wear something that belonged to my mother, grandmothers or aunts, I am drawing on memories of them to give me strength.

I’m not alone in assigning secret meanings to my jewelry.

When I visited the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Jewelry exhibit in London last fall, I learned that since ancient times, whether jewelry was made from bones and shells or wrought from gold and precious gems, it has had meanings that go beyond adornment and self-expression.

Seringapatam Jewels at the Victoria and Albert Museum in England.

Often the additional meanings are obvious—to show status and wealth (crown jewels), to express love and affection (wedding bands), as a sign of faith (the cross for Christians and the Star of David for Jews). Jewelry is also worn for protection or in remembrance.

The ancients thought certain stones and gems protected the wearer from illness and evil spirits. For example, rubies are supposed to confer health, strength and fearlessness. I didn’t know that when I chose a wedding band with rubies in it. I just liked rubies—I wasn’t hoping to feel more powerful.

Wearing jewelry as keepsakes is the meaning I most relate to.

After my mother died, I began to wear her wedding band on a chain as a way to keep her close. Not every day, but more intentionally, when I specifically want to think of her.

The opal ring my husband gave me, when I was depressed about turning 60, reminds me of his enduring love and how well he understands me.

An inexpensive craft fair ring with chips of peridot and garnet in it reminds me of my father and a sunny day when I visited Dad and Mom in Florida. Their health was still good and we were carefree.

The oval garnet ring my sister gave me when I became a mother brings to mind our strong bond.

garnet

So many of the pieces I love and wear often—the bracelet my sister-in-law made for me, the necklaces a friend has sent me over the years, and the earrings my sons have given me—remind me of some of the special people in my life. Wearing these gifts is a secret source of joy.

3 gifts

 

Gaining Ground

“Feel the Earth beneath you. Draw on the Earth’s energy,” my Yin Yoga instructor often says during the opening meditation. I rarely think about the Earth this way. The Earth is something we walk on, build houses on, and drive cars over. Usually it feels inert. However, my perception of the Earth changed after I visited the big island of Hawai’i.

On the Hilo side of the Big Island, rain forts have overtaken the lava fields.

On the Hilo side of the Big Island, rainforests have overtaken the lava fields.

On the eastern and southern sides of the island, vast lava fields stretch to the horizon. The lava is crumbly, dark brown, and in some places, swaths of it intersperse grassy plains. To my Midwesterner’s eye, it resembled freshly plowed fields—as if some farmer had run amok turning over the soil. Up close, the lava looks like cindery gravel and boulders.

Lava filed on the Kona side of Hawaii.

Lava field on the Kona side of Hawai’i

I am fascinated by this enduring, unyielding evidence of Earth’s energy and power. The Earth erupted dozens, hundreds, or thousands of years ago, depending what part of the plain you’re viewing. Lava flowed down the side of the mountain to the sea. Where it flowed quickly, tumbling over itself, it looks crumbly like crunched up Oreos (a’a lava). Where it flowed more slowly, the lava lapped into thick swirls that resembles the crust of unfrosted brownies (pahoehoe lava).

On the Kona side, a’a lava (like crunched up Oreos) overlaps pahoehoe lava (resemble the crust of unfrosted brownies).

On the Kona side, a’a lava (like crunched up Oreos) overlaps pahoehoe lava (resembling the crust of unfrosted brownies).

Though it’s easy for me to forget it or ignore it, the Earth is still volatile. Today, lava is erupting from the summit of the Kīlauea Volcano in the center of the island and flowing south from the Puʻu ʻŌʻō vent to the ocean. As the lava cools and hardens, it makes new rock, essentially forming brand new ground. Because of the Earth’s incredible energy and force, the island is expanding, gaining ground—hardly inert.

Lava spouting from a crater in Volcano National park

Lava spouting from a crater in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

But it’s not the explosive force of molten magma I think of in yoga class. Sitting squarely on my mat in the Midwest, thousands of miles from the Hawaiian volcanoes, I now picture Earth’s energy humming beneath me. The energy that both destroys and creates. I visualize sending my irritations and fears down into the Earth to be burned away. Or drawing on the Earth’s creative force to energize me. I have gained a new connection to the Earth.

Enlarging My Circle

cactus-flower-2For years, my husband and sons visited relatives in Green Valley, a retirement community in Arizona. I loved seeing our family and experiencing spring in the desert. But I disliked the way some of the residents had become intolerant of young people and as prickly as the blooming cactus that surrounded us. I vowed that wouldn’t be me. While I was still working for pay, I didn’t have to think about how to make good on that promise. I had friends of all ages among my coworkers. Now that I’m retired, I want to be more intentional about connecting with younger people (younger than a Baby Boomer, that is).

Though older, I’ll be the seeker, not the sage.

I’ve learned so much from my sons, so I want to go further and invite more people of other generations into my life. I hope to learn from people who are at different stages of life from mine and understand how they see the world, what their challenges, reactions, and solutions are. To know what they know. To welcome their insights and wisdom.

Making connections is part of my personal style.

Networking is one way people connect with strangers and make friends of acquaintances. While I was a freelance writer, I networked for professional reasons. Often the connections I had with clients and colleagues sparked friendships that have lasted 5, 10, or 20 years.

My plan is more of an outlook than a highly systematic effort.

My current idea isn’t exactly “networking,” which implies a career emphasis. Instead, I hope to continue to do what I have always done—make and keep friends. The part that requires more focus is putting myself in settings where I will meet new people of all ages. Then, if we like the same things and have common interests, friendships will have the chance to blossom.

For example, a young woman I know manages communications for a nonprofit. We met when I started volunteering there, and since then, we have become friendly.

I recently reconnected with a younger writer who’s a friend’s daughter. The daughter is traveling in Europe and writing about her experiences. One of her blogs reminded me how I felt while traveling alone in Europe in my later 20’s, so I sent her a note. Currently, we are acquaintances, but I’m open to getting to know her better.

One of the women who styles my hair is at least 20 years younger than I am, but we have discovered that we have similar taste in movies and politics. Recently, her family experienced a crisis, and it was comforting to her to see that I really understood her reactions—our temperaments are similar too.

I value my longstanding friendships with people my age, but I hope to enlarge the circle to include friends of all ages.