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.

The WordSisters Celebrate 10 Years of Inviting You into Our Lives

In 2012, when Elizabeth and I launched WordSisters, we weren’t sure where this adventure would take us or if we could keep up the discipline of posting once a week. Our original motivation was attracting agents and publishers, but soon we were blogging for the pleasure of writing. We had things to say and stories to share. 10 years later we’re still writing!

Through the years, more sisters in writing joined us: Cynthia and Bev are regular contributors, while Brenda, Jill, Jean and Rosemary have occasionally posted. 

Our insights arise from our lives—mothering, working, aging, living through COVID, reacting to events in the news, planning our futures and setting goals. I’m proud of the breadth of topics we’ve covered and the connections we’ve made with strangers all over the world . 

Most of all I’m proud of us for persisting. For being here long after many bloggers have faded away. 

One of our strengths is the variety of voices, styles, and subject matter each of us brings. In that spirit, here is a collection of best-of posts. I hope you’ll enjoy sampling them. 

Thank you for being our readers.

Ellen

No More Guilt with Every Bite 

What Work Would I Do if I Were an Immigrant?

Elizabeth

I Didn’t Come This Far

Until It Becomes Personal

Cynthia

Shake the Marbles

Broken Dreams

Bev

Let the Hope Shine

When It Comes to Your Age, Do You Share? 

Brenda

Confessions of a Pandemic Parent

I’m (Not) Sorry

Jill

Opposing Thumbs

Three Books at Once

As a readaholic, I love getting lost in a story, whether fiction or memoir. A recent Strib article discussed reading two novels at once as a hedge against running out of books. Being without a book to read is terrible, but that’s not why I’ve begun reading several at once.

For years, I read one book at a time, diligently plowing through like the good English major I was. Not only did I read one at a time, but I also doggedly finished what I started. 

Now those rules don’t hold me. If I don’t enjoy a book I ditch it. Life’s too short to read books I don’t like. Especially since there are so many books I can’t wait to read (The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang, The Pages by Hugo Hamilton, Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenridge).

Several things changed my habits.

Thanks to my two books groups, I’ve read and enjoyed many books I might not have picked up on my own (e.g., We Have Always Lived in a Castle by Shirley Jackson, Grace by Paul Lynch). However, sometimes I’m lukewarm about the chosen book. I read it to be a good sport, but I start another book for fun. 

Occasionally, I choose difficult books because I want to be better informed about race, aging, Millennials, or whatever. I’m committed to reading them and I learn a lot, but they’re not plow-through-able. Weighty subjects need to be taken in smaller doses. In between, there’s the pleasure of fiction. 

I’ve also taken this approach with recent Nobel prize winners (The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Last Gift by Abdulrazak Gurnah) and classic literature I read so long ago I’ve forgotten it (Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte). I read a little and mull it over, read some more.

COVID and the heaviness of the world in the last six years have changed my habits. Being pinned in place away from my usual activities heightened my need for escape. The Pleasing Hour by Lily King and Perestroika in Paris by Jane Smiley took me away when I couldn’t travel.

Often my concentration has been undermined in COVID-times, so I alternated literary fiction with mysteries/thrillers (State of Terror by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny) or lighter stories (This Close to Okay by Leesa Cross-Smith, The Book That Matters Most by Ann Hood).

A more recent phenomenon also supports my changed reading habits. Some nights I’m inexplicably sleepless for an hour or more. Then having several books to choose from helps.

Now I’m unapologetic and unfussed about reading several books at once: (Hell of a Book by Jason Mott, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty, Emma by Jane Austen). 

How do you approach reading?

Renewal

On days when sun warms my shoulders and tiny green leaves push aside matted brown ones, the idea of spring’s renewal buoys me. 

I was raised Catholic and the celebration of Easter and spring have always been linked. But I’ve drifted away from the Catholic Church. The Easter rituals of my youth—the stations of the cross, Easter vigil, joyfully meeting the day in a new dress, hat, gloves and shiny shoes—are no longer relevant to me. 

Easter is meant to be about immortality. Rebirth. But what does Easter mean to me now? I have more years behind me than ahead of me. The idea of rebirth in an afterlife should be coming into sharper focus, but isn’t.

Without the religious underpinnings, Easter feels odd. But Easter is still about gathering my family, enjoying a good meal, hope, and renewal.

The midwestern world is coming alive again after a long harsh winter. That’s reason to celebrate. My life and nature go on with their seasons. 

On Giving

Recently, I became acquainted with a young Afghan refugee who has been resettled in the US. She’d only been in the US a few days when I met her on a bitterly cold day in February. I had no idea what she might have or need, so I brought a scarf and warm mittens, some toiletries, tea and snacks. The resettlement agency had given her appropriate winter clothes. Within a few weeks they’d found an apartment for her and given her basic furnishings.

Despite our age difference (she’s 24 and I’m in my sixties), we got on well. She had worked with the US embassy and her English is good. I’ve tutored immigrants learning English for years and am aware of some common cultural disconnects. So much of teaching English involves explaining American history and culture as well as grammar and punctuation. My intention is to be a friend, someone she can trust with questions about confusing customs.

When I mentioned meeting her, a number of women I knew immediately asked what household items she might need. Like me, they’ve accumulated a lot of stuff over the years and would be happy to give it to someone who can use it. We all have so much. We’d never miss an extra end table, coffeepot, or winter coat. I had the same impulse, but thought I’d wait to see what she wanted and needed. 

Her apartment’s furnishings seem sparse by American standards, but she was delighted by her things. She’s accustomed to sharing the kitchen with several families and told me she’s never had so many clothes. I recalibrated my instinct to offer her a bunch of stuff. Should I push my aesthetic on her? Maybe she prefers simplicity. Would the donations from my friends and me make her feel inadequate or signal that she seems poor by American standards? 

I’m aware I often overthink things. Maybe she’d love to have more for her apartment. The simple generous reaction friends have had—how can I help—is a good one. Why wouldn’t we help when we have so much? Shouldn’t we?

Yet I know the dynamic between givers and receivers can feel unbalanced. Uncomfortable for the recipient. I’ve already seen my new friend’s deep sense of hospitality. When I visited her and another Afghan family she’s friends with, they insisted on serving me a full meal. Although I wasn’t hungry, I knew it would be rude to refuse, so I ate with them. Similarly, when I gave her the handful of things culled from my closet and kitchen at our first meeting, she gave me a new pair of earrings she had, something I suspect she’d bought for herself.

I try to think how I’d feel if the roles were reversed. Would I simply be grateful, because I needed things and someone cared enough to help? Or would I feel awkward about the charity? In time would my pride be pricked so I became resentful? Trying to be sensitive, not stingy is confusing.

Cultivating Hope

Lately, I have been struggling to feel optimistic. The Ukraine invasion is heavy on my mind. In the big world, there are many other pressing problems (you know the list). Yet I want to be hopeful. In fact, I kind of insist on it. 

I have been heartened by the astonishing global reaction to the Russian invasion. 

I also remind myself that historically, when cataclysmic events have changed the world order, sometimes positive change happens too. It may be that having been through something terrible, people vow, “Never again,” as the Greatest Generation did after WWII. Their commitment to preventing more world wars held for decades, not perfectly, but mostly. Taking the long view gives me hope.

I strive for perspective and balance. I remind myself my own life is fine. But sometimes I backslide into overwhelm: How can we find lasting peace, address the climate crisis, shore up our democracy, and so much more? It all feels insoluble. What can one person do? 

What I finally come to is, what other choice do we have? We have to keep trying to change and improve the world. And that means hoping.

Howard Zinn, in “The Optimism of Uncertainty” expresses what I believe better than I can—

To be hopeful in bad times is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. 

If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. 

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. To live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.