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.

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.

Letting Go of What No Longer Serves Me

In the fall, I often attempt to bring a flowering garden plant indoors. I can’t quite let go of the joy of abundant, bright blooms. This rarely works. Nonetheless, I brought in a small fuchsia this year. I will fuss over it—move it to a sunny spot, water and fertilize it, but in a few weeks, it will be half-dead and I’ll throw it out. Letting go of summer is hard, but this gradual goodbye makes it easier.

In similar fashion, I age my correspondence. Mail piles up unread for a few days. Or a week. Or two. Then I realize I’m really not going to donate to all of those people. My email inbox is full of emails with links to newsletters or articles that sound interesting, like something I want to read. Except . . .  not right now. After a week, I feel guilty (or is it, more realistic?) Then weeding out my mail and email is easy.

There are also the shoes I’ve stored because I might wear those flats again. Or the yoga pants that never fit but I thought I might fix.

A meditation I recently read described fall as a time of weeding out and letting go. Trees drop their leaves, fields are bare, and people turn inward as it gets colder. But to me, fall is a time of abundance, harvest, and storing up. The conflicting ideas puzzled me until I thought about how discarding is easier when I allow a little time to pass.

Then I can let go of what no longer serves me, just as the meditation suggests. That’s how I’ve reconciled the paradox of abundance and paring back.

7 Things That Surprised Me about France

My recent trip to Paris, Chartres, Bayeux (near D-Day landings), and Versailles was wonderful. A lot has changed since I visited decades ago—much of it in good ways.

Building across from cafe where I journaled one afternoon.

1Parisiennes don’t mind speaking English.

When I visited France years ago, I would attempt my poorly accented high school French, and whomever I was speaking to would wince and reply in heavily accented, rudimentary English. Some people would shake their heads and speak rapid French in a scolding tone, which didn’t improve my understanding. Consequently, I downloaded several phone apps, including one that would say phrases in perfectly accented French, before this trip.

During our recent visit, my “bonjour” was met with a smile, and the person I was speaking to would offer to speak English. Young people, who often staff hotels, restaurants, shops, and tourist sites like museums, were particularly fluent and gracious. Some wanted to practice their English and make sure they were speaking correctly. Wow. I never used my French app.

2. American fashion was widespread.

I expected to be surrounded by stylish Parisiennes who wore the height of fashion. Instead, I blended in, especially on the days I wore my skinny jeans. My clunky walking shoes were also mainstream. Most women wore comfortable shoes like sneakers on the metro. Maybe they had dressy office shoes in their bags? The guys wearing t-shirts branded Levi’s or U.S.A. were native French speakers, not Americans.

The small hotel where we first stayed was quite a distance from popular tourist areas, so the people I saw on streets and in the metro were natives, not tourists. It was a little dispiriting to realize how pervasive American fashion is.

3. The scale and craftsmanship of “neighborhood” parish churches was astonishing.

St. Sulpice, one of the “neighborhood” churches we saw

We made brief visits to several neighborhood Catholic churches (my husband loves architecture). Inside were soaring Gothic spaces filled with intricate mosaics and stained glass windows, elaborately carved pulpits and choir stalls, along with altars and candelabra trimmed with gold. Some dated from the 1400’s. Many took several hundred years to complete. Along with the gilt-edged art and stained glass were announcements about parish activities—in other words, these are parish churches, not just historical sites.

4. Order and geometry reign in many French gardens and parks.

We wanted to spendlots of time outdoors enjoying the September sunshine so we visited several gardens and parks, and a distinct French gardening philosophy emerged. Nature is meant to be tamed and organized, preferably into geometric shapes. I expected that in famous formal gardens like Jardin des Tuileries and at Versailles. There, short, narrow boxwood hedges enclose long strips of flower gardens. Gardens are laid out in severe, straight lines, contrary to what’s natural. There’s grass between flower beds, but walking on it is forbidden!

At Versailles, even the trees are squared off.

However, that philosophy was also apparent in Paris’ ordinary city parks like Jardins des Plantes and Jardin du Luxembourg. A vegetable garden displayed espaliered gourds trained over arches to form a green tunnel. Trees were trimmed into rectangular boxes! Perhaps in Provence gardens are looser and more natural looking.

Shrub tortured into vase shape at Versailles

Espaliered gourds and cucumbers at Jardin des Plantes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. Traditional French cooking was harder to find in cafes and bistros than I expected.

When I’d visited before, every meal I ate consisted of traditional French cooking—interesting sauces, tender meat or fish, and creative sides.

This time I was surprised at how often burgers with pommes frites appeared on menus, even when we weren’t in tourist areas. Whoa, I didn’t come to Paris for a burger! Or smoked salmon on a bagel. Perhaps Parisiennes get bored with traditional cooking and want something different. We did find several classic restaurants and ate wonderful meals there. No matter where we went, the bread, pastries, coffee, wine, and cheese were excellent.

6. My high school French resurfaced.

I expected to know food words like “poulet” for chicken and “fromage” for cheese. But after a few days, I began thinking long-forgotten words and phrases: “maintenant” (now), aujourd’hui (today), dejeuner (lunch), “moi aussi” (me too). I grew comfortable smiling and saying, “Je ma-appelle Ellen” (Myname is Ellen) to waitstaff who tried to hand credit card receipts to my husband for a signature. We were using my card since it waives fees on foreign transactions. And there’s all those miles, baby!

7. Apparently, there’s no end to the number of photos of stained glass I can take.

Well, that really wasn’t a surprise. Despite my limited faith, I love churches’ stained glass windows.

Bayeux Cathedral

 

Bayeux Cathedral