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.

In Praise of Being Ordinary

Not such a special snowflake!

If anyone had ever asked me if I wanted to grow up to be ordinary, I would have said, “No, of course not!” Being “usual, of no exceptional ability, degree or quality; average,” doesn’t sound that great. Just like everyone else, I hoped to be extraordinary: “unique, one of a kind, without equal, unparalleled, unusual.” Who wouldn’t want to be that?

Ordinariness depends on your perspective. Up close, I’m a distinct person with dark blonde hair, fair skin, and a space between my teeth. I have a yearning to write well and a tendency to be intense that’s occasionally tempered by my sense of humor.

Step back one pace, and I am a middle-aged mom who writes memoir, essays, and blogs. My shape is trim, I dress in moderately attractive (but unoriginal) clothes, and I wear quirky jewelry . . . like a lot of middle-aged women.

Step back further, and I’m part of the well-educated middle class, a woman with a long marriage, and two grown children.

At each remove, I become more ordinary, more faceless, and more similar to others in my category. Some people may think that my similarities to others define me. Everything I’ve done someone else in the world has already done and probably better.

Time sands off the rough edges of individuality. Almost no one stays extraordinary if viewed through the filter of centuries or as one of the billions of people across the globe. Even Jesus had counterparts in other prophets and saviors like Moses, Buddha, and Mohammed.

Admitting that I’m ordinary does NOT mean that I have desperately low self-esteem. Most days, my self-esteem is fine.

No, it’s more that I’m rethinking what it means to be ordinary. I don’t believe being ‘ordinary’ should mean that I’m vaguely inferior, although today the word has that connotation. Being unique (one of a kind) is not the opposite of being ordinary.

I’m a distinct individual, but a part of a collection. I’m not a category unto myself. No one is. I have a lot of company, other travelers in the pursuit of a life I’m happy with. My version—marriage, family, and work that’s meaningful to me—is a life people have chosen for centuries, a life that’s very similar to other people’s lives. Ordinary people have dreams and hope to have a lasting impact—just like millions of other people. Having aspirations and accomplishments doesn’t make a person unique.

Being ordinary should be celebrated. Certainly ‘ordinary’ is what someone who’s seriously ill or from a dysfunctional family longs for. For them, ‘ordinary’ is a blessing, just out of reach.

Which brings me back to where I started. By owning my ordinariness, I’m not embracing complacency. Instead, I’m recognizing that most people have aspirations and accomplishments—in other words, striving is ordinary.

Being ordinary is fine with me.

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Looking for a Pretty Good Book?

The BookLittle Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

What attracted me? I loved her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You. Celeste Ng writes skillfully about troubled family dynamics and the subtleties of racial tension—themes that appeared in her first book. That book balances the central mystery (How and why did 16-year-old Lydia Lee die?) with character studies of her family members and boyfriend. Ng’s writing is insightful and poetic.

For me, there was the added bonus of learning about Shaker Heights, Ohio, a planned community in northeastern Ohio. Although I grew up in Toledo, Ohio, at the western edge of Lake Erie, I know very little about the Cleveland area.

The premise? Little Fires Everywhere also opens with a mystery. The Richardson house, home to well-to-do parents Elena and Bill Richardson and their four teenaged kids: Lexie, Trip, Moody, and Izzy, has been nearly demolished by fire, but no one was hurt. The family is fairly sure that rebellious Izzy set the fire, so the question is why. While Elena is watching her house smolder, her starving artist tenant, Mia Warren, and her teenaged daughter, Pearl, abruptly leave the small house Elena had rented to them.

What appealed to me? Ng does an excellent job of re-creating the idealistic, but claustrophobic, culture of Shaker Heights in the 1990s, a pre-digital age. Pagers were more common than cell phones and research was done the hard way—without the Internet—a fact that allows Mia to pull up stakes and move without a trace every 10-12 months in pursuit of Mia’s art.

Because she’s always lived a vagabond lifestyle, Pearl relishes being swept into the lives of the Richardson kids. None of the kids is aware of how Pearl interacts with the other siblings, which heightens family tensions.

Privilege and class undermine the relationships. Elena, intending to be generous, bullies Mia into cleaning house for the Richardsons, in addition to her job at a Chinese restaurant. Lexie gives Mia castoff clothes, which Pearl is happy to have, but Mia resents.

Race becomes a central issue when Mia’s friend and coworker Bebe, an impoverished Chinese immigrant, seeks to regain custody of her daughter Mei Ling, who has been adopted by the Richardson’s wealthy, childless white friends.

Much good material. But despite intriguing characters and set-up, the book strained credibility. Even allowing for being set in a pre-digital age, could Mia really disappear so completely every year or so? While the Richardson kids are more than character sketches, none of them feels fully realized. Interestingly, Izzy, who sets the novel in motion, is the least developed.

Sometimes in her effort to contrast Elena and Mia, along with the life choices they’ve made, Ng drifts into stereotyping. The book is a pretty good read but not as believable or affecting as Everything I Never Told You.

What books do YOU recommend?

Dormant

Usually I’m philosophical about the below zero temperatures and snow we have every winter in Minnesota. The deep freeze is a time to stay indoors, be less social, and avoid unnecessary errands. Mother Nature pushes me to slow down, maybe be more introspective, read more. It can also be a time of creative planning (gardens, vacations, workouts), organizing or clearing out (closets, photos, files) and tackling household projects I wouldn’t bother with when the weather is nice.

For a little while that feels OK, maybe even good, as if I’m in tune with a natural rhythm, akin to a Circadian rhythm. This is what I’m supposed to be doing now. It feels good to wear wooly socks, make soups and stews, and settle in to watch movies or stream new TV series.

But with the persistent, longer-than-usual spell of extreme cold weather this winter, I feel as if I’ve shifted from slowing down in a pleasant, restorative way to being dormant. On pause. Hiding, like a tulip bulb buried deep in the ground. Waiting for enough time to pass so I can come back to life again. Hunkered down. I’ve been getting restless with so much reading and TV, and I’m trying hard not to register the waiting, which makes it worse.

I’ve lived in Minnesota long enough to know this spell will pass. The temperatures are already moderating. The days are getting longer. The torpor of these frozen days will dim so much that by August I’ll wonder if I imagined the feeling. But I didn’t.

Choosing Joy

For me, 2017 has been filled with genuine worry over the direction of our country. But when I think harder about the year, I realize that political angst has dominated my assessment. And that’s just one aspect. One that I’ve allowed to overshadow the many good things that occurred in 2017. So I want to consciously recall some joyful moments.

Women’s March – St. Paul

January – Women’s March in St. Paul

I marched with my husband, son, and 100,000 others. I was so proud of Greg who was on crutches and still in a leg brace, but determined to be there. I felt hopeful knowing that I was among the thousands of cheering, singing people who share my values. We still have power. It may take a while, but we can create change.

 

 

 

Cooled lava lake on Big Island of Hawai

February – Big Island of Hawaii

I was fascinated by the Kilauea Volcano and how alive the earth is beneath us. The volcano was erupting not far from this cooled lava lake. Even though most of it looks like a moonscape, within decades, nature will assert herself and vegetation will grow just as it has in the surrounding hillside.

 

 

 

 

 

 

March – Pottery Class

Years ago I was a passable potter. In March, I took a class to see if I could reclaim my skills. I’m pleased with these pieces, but I still have a lot to learn/remember.

 

 

 

March of Science – St. Paul

April – March for Science

It was so energizing to be among 20,000 others who were also distressed by the Trump administration’s refusal acknowledge climate change or participate in global accords.

 

 

 

 

Youngest niece’s high school graduation

May – Youngest Niece’s High School Graduation

I returned to my alma mater in Ohio to cheer my youngest niece, who graduated with honors and a full scholarship. She is accompanied by her accomplished sisters. I’m proud of all of them.

 

 

 

ShrinerFest 2017

June – ShrinerFest 2017

My siblings and I recently began this tradition to keep in touch with family members who are scattered around the Midwest. We converge in Chicago for a summer weekend.

 

 

 

 

It’s no secret that I love flowers and gardening.

July – Garden in Full Bloom

Annual zinnias, snapdragons and nicotiana are mixed with perennial yarrow, bee balm, balloon flower, and blackberry lily.

 

 

 

 

 

 

August – Rockin’ with The Patience Band

My husband (on left) jammin’ with a bandmate at a summer performance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hancock Shaker Village

September – Hancock Shaker Village

Our trip to the Hudson River Valley in New York included visits to many historic mansions, art galleries, and epic gardens. The Shaker Village, so different from the opulent homes we saw, was fascinating and appealing, but just as removed from my real life as the Rockefeller mansion.

October – New great niece (not pictured)

Our family welcomed a new niece in late October. I figure now that I have two great nieces, I qualify as a really great aunt!

 

 

Berkeley Rose Garden block from my son’s apartment

November – Berkeley Visit

We visited the Berkeley Rose Garden (Wait, what? Roses blooming in November?!?) just blocks from my oldest son’s apartment. As we climbed the hills, the air was sweet with eucalyptus.

 

 

 

 

 

December – Italian feast on Christmas Eve

This is turning into a tradition. Our sons request (no, insist) that we make calzones, fagotch, and some other Italian dish. This year it was Mike’s carbonara made with the pancetta Greg cured. Dee-licious!