About Ellen Shriner

I write short memoirs and personal essays 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.

What Image Do I Want to Present?

Recently, Lauren Griffiths went viral when she replaced her “professional” LinkedIn headshot with one that better reflects her current situation as a human resources consultant who’s working remotely. She proposed that looking authentic is powerful and ultimately more valuable than presenting a “perfect” image. The longstanding ideas about “looking professional” remain powerful, although many people resent and resist those guidelines. Her post led me to consider: What image do I want to project? 

When my career was still active, I was well aware of the need to look polished. Looking younger would be even better, since the working world can be disrespectful of older women. Young was no longer possible (!) but I could manage youthful, especially if I colored my hair and wore attractive clothes and jewelry. Most women my age did the same.

Now, as a 66-year-old woman who’s retired from paid work, I no longer need to present a professional image or look any particular way beyond what pleases me. Griffiths wanted to present a more authentic professional image; women my age confront a similar dilemma. How do we present an authentic image as older women?

When and how do you allow signs of aging to show? Should I try to meet the world’s expectations for “attractive older woman”? In other words, look 55-ish until I’m 75? Do I try to hold the line at all costs? Should I continue highlighting my hair but skip surgery or Botox? Stop coloring my hair? Let go of the anti-aging fuss? 

When Gloria Steinem turned 50, she threw a birthday party and declared, “This is what 50 looks like.” She looked good, which turned the idea being a crone at 50 on its head. 30 years later, she told the world, “This is what 80 looks like” while traveling in Africa—another example of aging well.

In transition: Blonde in front. Silver coming in in back.

My more modest version of her philosophy is to stop highlighting my hair. Pleasing myself will be the point, so I reserve the right to resume hair color if I prefer it. Either way, I will proudly say, “This is what 66 looks like.”

Keeping Track

I come from people who keep track of everything: groceries to get, bills to pay, upcoming events, the day’s experiences, and past events.

As a young woman, my mom kept a diary that noted what mattered in her days: starting a novena and that a guy she was dating was kind of full of himself (they were happily married for 67 years anyhow). WE’RE AT WAR! she wrote in December 1941. Later in life, she recorded the weather daily on small pads of paper she kept next to the sofa. At her funeral, my cousins told me my uncle (her brother) had also kept meticulous notes—some about his garden, others about the weather. We marveled at the shared habit.

When my mother-in-law recently moved, at least 20 years’ worth of journals turned up. I was aware of her habit because she often asked how to spell something we’d served for dinner. Cioppino or ratatouille. She enjoyed keeping notes about what we ate and did during visits.

I’ve gotten an extra measure of documenting genes. Off and on since high school, I’ve kept personal journals in which I work out confusing feelings. I also make entries in a gratitude journal to remind myself of what’s good and right in my world despite the pandemic and trying political times. I document garden plans—what’s planted where and ideas for next year’s garden. I have lists of books I want to read along with books I’ve already read and what I thought of them. When dieting, I keep track of my exercise and meals.

I’m not alone in those habits, but for me, it doesn’t stop there. I have a ridiculous number of notes in my phone app. Supposedly 194 of them, but that can’t be right! Poems I like, blog ideas, writing tips, ideas for pottery projects, a list of lawn chemicals that won’t harm birds and pollinators, the steps for starting the snow blower. The notes go on and on!

My reasons can be practical. I want to remember something or find it quickly, and my phone is always with me. I tell myself I’m being efficient and orderly . . . but maybe ‘obsessive’ would be more accurate! Other times, keeping track is an emotional impulse. My personal and gratitude journals help me maintain equilibrium.

The habit of keeping track intrigues me. I think there’s something universal, something beyond the practicality of grocery lists, receipts, and calendars. The same impulse that leads people to document their lives on Instagram or Facebook, keeps me writing extensive notes and ongoing journals. It’s what caused my relatives to make daily diary entries.

As far as I know, my mom didn’t consult her weather notes after the fact. My uncle might have looked up which kind of tomatoes did well. I don’t know if my mother-in-law refers to her notes to remind herself of a previous year’s Christmas dinner. I suspect she doesn’t.

I believe the impulse to keep track is a way of saying, “I was here. My life matters. To me.”

What do you keep track of?

Dear Dr. Rajender . . .

Dear Dr. Shyamala Rajender,

The University of Minnesota and the Rajender Consent Decree are probably far from your thoughts. Most of the time they are far from mine, too. However, recently I realized that it’s been 40 years since the decree bearing your name helped me.

I’m writing to thank you.

Your courage fighting gender discrimination changed my perceptions of the world and set me on a feminist path that informed the rest of my life—how I see myself and thought about my career, how my marriage works, and how I raised my sons.

Forty years ago, I was a Freshman Composition instructor at the University of Minnesota-Morris, my first professional job. In the spring of 1980, I got in trouble with the all-male senior faculty in the English department, because I wanted to present a noncredit lecture about women’s literature for a Continuing Education series.

Several of the senior faculty reacted with a policy that stated, “. . . instructors in English should not participate in off-campus events, either formal instruction or informal presentations, which, in effect, call for a person who has been judged expert in the teaching of English literature.” In other words, I wasn’t supposed to talk about literature even though I had an M.A. in English Literature. The policy was odd and confusing. Several of the literature professors at UMM had been tenured with only a Master’s degree. But my credentials—which were the same as what some of them had—were suspect.

At first, I was more scared than angry (anger came later). The Continuing Education director and the EEOC officer knew I was afraid I’d damage my career by fighting the policy, so they informed the academic dean about my dilemma. The dean and others were aware of your gender bias case against the Chemistry department on the main campus. Consequently, the dean insisted the English department rescind their policy, and I was allowed to give the lecture.

Later that year, a number of faculty members, including me, received a $2,000 raise as a result of the Rajender Consent Decree. It’s hard to imagine now, but increasing my salary from $12,000 to $14,000 per year was a meaningful raise then. In general, it’s hard to convey to younger people just how crazy the late 1970s and early 1980s were for professional women.

Your decision to fight the University of Minnesota had a lasting impact on my life.

At 25, I learned gender discrimination was as real and insidious as the fatherly men in the English department, who didn’t see me as their equal and wanted to limit my opportunities. That experience didn’t drive me away from academia, but like you, I left the academic world several years later.

Your career was exemplary (first a Ph.D. in Chemistry, later a law degree). Mine was much more ordinary, but I was always aware of the example I set as a woman in the workplace. Your determination to fight gender bias had a far-reaching effect on me and so many other women. I want to acknowledge your heroic contributions.

Thank you again for your courage.

Sincerely,

Ellen Shriner

Avoca, Wisconsin – July 2019

The Avoca summer house backs into a hill on one side. On the other side, the deck juts into oak tree tops. A friend and I are eye level with squirrels. Equals. As if tree tops are our place as much as theirs. Given a chance though, Nature would push down the house and reclaim the landscape.

I don’t know the deep rhythms of the natural world, but for a few days, I’m immersed. Midwestern summers speak to me. Lush green cornfields exhaling. White daisies, purple crown vetch, and yellow bird’s foot trefoil cascading down hillsides and overflowing ditches. Ponds greening. Humming flies diving toward my head again and again. Gnats’ silent pestering.

At dusk, the day has barely cooled. Humidity blankets everything. The air is still. Near the edge of the gravel road, a doe startles then bounds off through a cornfield. Birds begin their call and response. When evening deepens to inky black, fireflies as bright as falling stars flash: Find me. Find me.

Nature’s abundance and persistence energizes and soothes. I know all is not right with the world, but for the moment it feels like it.

Celebrating the WordSisters

This month, the WordSisters celebrate eight years of blogging and sharing our love of words and stories.

Why a Blog?

The WordSisters name came from our longstanding writer’s group (Elizabeth, Jill, Brenda, Jean, Rosemary, Lisa, and me). Several of us were working on books and the first tagline, “In it together from inspiration to publication,” reflected the blog’s original purpose.

In 2012, Elizabeth and I had memoir manuscripts we hoped to publish. Experts recommended blogging as a way to attract agents and publishers. In 2016, North Star Press published Elizabeth’s memoir, House of Fire.

Create. Connect. Inspire.

Early on, Elizabeth and I were the primary bloggers. Attracting agents and publishers was our original motivation, but soon we were blogging for the pleasure of writing. We had things to say and stories to share. Plus, the discipline of contributing several blogs per month kept us writing. Some have been classic blogs; others are short personal essays. The blog’s tagline evolved to “Create. Connect. Inspire.”

 Since 2012, Our Circle Has Grown.

Through the years Jill, Brenda, and Jean have also contributed. Cynthia, author of five novels and coauthor of 40 Thieves on Saipan joined us in 2017. Bev, author of What Do You Really Want? How to Set a Goal and Go for It! A Guide for Teens added her voice this year. Now the WordSisters is a collection of voices—each with a distinct style.

The joy of writing brought us together under the banner of WordSisters. At eight years and counting, we’re still going strong.

Thank you to our followers (4,900 now). Your likes, comments, and support mean so much!