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.

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.

Rethinking

During a recent trip to the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA), I was surprised by a curator’s note about a sculpture in the Native American art gallery.

She said she’d reconsidered what she’d written about the sculpture years before. I’d just begun to read the note when a friend called me away, so I don’t know the exact points the curator made. 

To me, the actual content of her note didn’t matter as much as the phenomenon it represented. I was struck by her admission—that an institution like a museum would acknowledge the need to reassess. I also appreciated her basic statement—she sees things differently now.

Since the late 1970s when I became an adult, many Americans’ views have evolved regarding race, gender identity, sexual harassment, and so much more. Marijuana use was flat-out illegal in the 1970s, but now recreational use is legal in 18 states, and a number of other states permit medical marijuana. Until 2015, same sex marriage was illegal in many states. 

A lot of widely held views from 40, 30, 20, and 10 years ago have caused immeasurable harm. 

Pain caused by ignorance is real even if the person or institution didn’t intend to be hurtful, but that’s a different category of wrong from meanness or a stubborn refusal to learn as new insights become available. Intention matters. 

Historical context also matters. I’ve abandoned many views that seemed mainstream years ago. I know better now. 

This is a small personal example, but when our sons were babies more than 30 years ago, we had bumper pads on the crib and covered the boys with blankets. They also had stuffed animals in the crib to keep them company. I wouldn’t do it now, given what we’ve learned about babies smothering and sudden infant death syndrome. I didn’t know better then, but I’ve learned and changed.

Sometime in the last 10 years I read that commenting on someone’s non-European name was ‘othering’. Until it was pointed out, I had no idea. I thought my remarks would be seen as taking an interest in the person. Now I understand those comments are offensive and I no longer say them.

I don’t know what the MIA curator learned—if her perspective about artistic merit broadened or if she gained an enhanced cultural awareness. I’m grateful she acknowledged the change and hope museum-goers don’t judge her on her past views without considering her evolved views.

People do learn, regret, try to improve, and change. I certainly have. I also realize what seems right and appropriate today may very well be judged harshly forty years from now. 

Then and Now–A Year in Review

As last winter closed in a year ago, so did my life. Because of COVID, going to the grocery store was my only excursion (whoopee). There was no need to get gas—I wasn’t going anywhere. Sometimes I’d go for a drive just for a change of scenery. Yoga classes, my book groups, and writers’ groups all went to Zoom. 

My husband and I rarely saw our sons in person. At best, we visited for a few minutes as they stood in the doorway. Across the room we shivered in the frosty breeze. All of us masked. Even more chilling than the air was the understanding we couldn’t touch.

At Thanksgiving and Christmas, my husband and I planned menus along with our sons and their fiancées. Our three households shared what we’d cooked. The food was good and we were outwardly cheerful, but inwardly, I felt our aloneness deeply. 

2020

For perspective, I watched shows about WWII and reminded myself that my life was way better than enduring the London bombing, the French occupation, or life on a naval destroyer as my father had. I was grateful we had healthcare and didn’t have to worry about being evicted. We were apart, but it wouldn’t last forever.

This year feels so much better. We are vaccinated and boosted. As long as I’m masked and keep some distance, I am free to work in the pottery studio, tutor, and shop in person. I am able to invite a few vaccinated friends over for a drink or dinner. We spread out and run the HEPA filter, but we can talk, laugh and interrupt each other in the natural conversational rhythms instead of the stilted stop-and-start of Zoom visits.

My life remains more restricted than it was pre-COVID. Dining in restaurants, watching movies in the theater, or flying are TBD. I avoid large gatherings and even assess the risks of events like indoor farmers’ markets.

But now we can do the most important things, like gathering for birthday dinners with our sons and their wives. We were able to be together at Thanksgiving. I’m so grateful the six of us can visit in person this Christmas. We’ll hug, laugh, and eat lots of good food. Pure joy.

2021

COVID rewired my thinking. These days, our plans are provisional. Maybe. If. We’ll see. I’m careful to temper my hopes and rein in my worries. Letting either get away from me doesn’t serve me. 

I have a different, more realistic view about my ability to control anything. Life never was in my control—I just thought it was.

COVID isn’t going away anytime soon. I’m learning to live with it. Going forward, there will be times when the Delta/Omicron/Whatever variant is raging, and I’ll have to limit my activities, and there will be times when I’m less restricted. For now, I’m taking sensible precautions, assessing each situation case by case. I don’t expect “we’ll get back to normal.” This is the new normal. It isn’t all I wish for, but being able to see family and friends in person means a lot.

In Praise of the Moderately Interesting Job

During recent conversations with a 22-year-old, a 30-year-old, and several mothers of millennial and Gen Z adults, I’ve become aware of a phenomenon affecting many young adults: dismay, disappointment, and a persistent sense of failure at not having a job they’re passionate about.

I’ve heard hints of this from the millennials in my life, but Anne Helen Peterson’s book, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, crystalized my understanding, especially her chapter, “Do What You Love and You’ll Still Work Every Day for the Rest of Your Life.” Her book discusses in depth how cultural definitions of success and workplace expectations have become impossible to achieve, which leads to burnout.

I’ve zeroed in on one of her observations—the fallacy that if you work hard, go to a good college, engage in lots of extracurriculars and internships, and are passionate about your work, you’ll land a wonderful satisfying job. What too many people are discovering is that fulfilling jobs you can be passionate about are rare. Unfortunately, American culture has made “being passionate about work” seem like a realistic goal. In short, young adults have been conned. 

When faced with the realization they aren’t passionate about their jobs and can’t even imagine a job they would be passionate about, they feel like losers. Hidden in the language of “passionate about work” is the warped premise that you are your job. This frustrates and saddens me. Why have we foisted ridiculous standards like “Do what you love and you’ll never work another day in your life” and “Don’t settle for less” on workers? 

I liked the work I did and occasionally I was passionate about a project, but most of the time my work as a marketing communications copywriter could be called a Moderately Interesting Job. My passions (insofar as I’d use the overblown word, “passion” to describe anything I do) lie elsewhere. Some people are passionate about their work and I applaud them, but far more people are not. Work is just work, and that’s a totally valid view.

I’m definitely NOT advocating that people should aspire to crummy jobs in which the pay is low, the schedule is erratic, there’s no opportunity to advance, and benefits are nonexistent. For decades, too many American employers have gotten away with treating employees poorly. I have a great deal of sympathy and respect for people who are walking away from that work.

But if I were queen of the world, I’d characterize work as one potentially fulfilling aspect of your life, a necessity, but not what defines a person’s worth. Often what people are passionate about exists away from the job. You can’t make a living being a sports fan, enjoying the outdoors, or spending time with family and friends. If those activities make you happy, they’re a success—they don’t have to be lucrative. 

If I could, I’d retool American culture’s expectations about work. To me, Moderately Interesting Work or Uninspiring Work with Fun Coworkers or The Job You Don’t Mind Doing are worthy goals. Achievable. Feel free to find your passion elsewhere!

Immortalized

I don’t know the women who crocheted this lace doily and antimacassar, but I think I understand something about them.

A century ago, maybe she saw a doily pattern with a wheat motif in a magazine and made it on a lark—the same impulse that has led me to make a quilted pin cushion, add a mosaic to a small box, decorate a shirt with reverse embroidery, and so many other projects. I was curious about the process and making stuff is fun. Most of the time I’m only trying to please myself, so it doesn’t matter if my creative ventures are one-and-done. 

Whoever made the antimacassar might have been more invested. Perhaps she spent weeks one winter, creating the elaborate design, a piece she’d be proud of. She could have spread a towel across the back of a chair to keep off her husband’s macassar hair oil when he leaned back for a snooze. Instead, she made something pretty. I understand the impulse—if you’re going to see it every day, why not have something pleasing? Maybe detailed crochet was her art form, like pottery and quilting are mine. 

When I told a friend about a minor project to machine embroider some muslin towels, she said, “You’re so creative.” I balked, “There are so many people who are wildly creative and talented. I’m a dabbler.” She insisted, “Say yes. And thank you.” My friend is right about me, but sometimes it’s hard to own this urge. Easy to downplay or dismiss creativity that’s expressed everyday things. 

I squint into the future and imagine someone picking up a quilt or ceramic bowl I’ve made. She or he might find a different purpose for it—cut the quilt into placemats, hammer the bowl into bits for a mosaic, or some other project I can’t even imagine. If my things get repurposed, I won’t feel disrespected at all. They were fun to make. They pleased me. They don’t have to last or be cherished like museum pieces. Maybe like me, this future creator will wonder about the person who originated it.

In the pottery studio, when I spread the doily and antimacassar onto clay and transfer the lacy patterns with a rolling pin, I’ll admire the craftsmanship, patience, and skill needed to make them. Those women and their work will be acknowledged and celebrated in mine. Immortalized.

A dish I made with another doily