The Secret Life of Jewelry

Every morning, I indulge in a small ritual—choosing what jewelry to wear. What I reach for depends on my mood and what clothes I’m wearing. It’s an expression of my taste. But I’m also choosing talismans. The pieces I wear don’t offer magical protection, exactly, but they do offer a tiny bit of power—to keep people close to me.

Many of the earrings, rings, and necklaces I have were gifts. Slipping them on reminds me that I’m loved. Or if I wear something that belonged to my mother, grandmothers or aunts, I am drawing on memories of them to give me strength.

I’m not alone in assigning secret meanings to my jewelry.

When I visited the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Jewelry exhibit in London last fall, I learned that since ancient times, whether jewelry was made from bones and shells or wrought from gold and precious gems, it has had meanings that go beyond adornment and self-expression.

Seringapatam Jewels at the Victoria and Albert Museum in England.

Often the additional meanings are obvious—to show status and wealth (crown jewels), to express love and affection (wedding bands), as a sign of faith (the cross for Christians and the Star of David for Jews). Jewelry is also worn for protection or in remembrance.

The ancients thought certain stones and gems protected the wearer from illness and evil spirits. For example, rubies are supposed to confer health, strength and fearlessness. I didn’t know that when I chose a wedding band with rubies in it. I just liked rubies—I wasn’t hoping to feel more powerful.

Wearing jewelry as keepsakes is the meaning I most relate to.

After my mother died, I began to wear her wedding band on a chain as a way to keep her close. Not every day, but more intentionally, when I specifically want to think of her.

The opal ring my husband gave me, when I was depressed about turning 60, reminds me of his enduring love and how well he understands me.

An inexpensive craft fair ring with chips of peridot and garnet in it reminds me of my father and a sunny day when I visited Dad and Mom in Florida. Their health was still good and we were carefree.

The oval garnet ring my sister gave me when I became a mother brings to mind our strong bond.

garnet

So many of the pieces I love and wear often—the bracelet my sister-in-law made for me, the necklaces a friend has sent me over the years, and the earrings my sons have given me—remind me of some of the special people in my life. Wearing these gifts is a secret source of joy.

3 gifts

 

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Back To School Blues

For 22 years—first as a student and later as a college instructor—the school year framed my days. Consequently, the first day of school still evokes strong feelings.

red-plaid-lunch-boxWhen I was younger, heading back to school touched off a prowling anxiety. Worries stalked me at odd moments—What if I can’t find my room? What if none of my friends are in my class? What if the teacher is picky and mean? Once classes were underway, anxiety gave way to feeling trapped. Oh God, I’m stuck in school for months on end. Lectures, homework, tests. Somewhere between Day 1 and Day 2, I accepted my fate and began to acknowledge bright spots—a teacher who liked to joke, Oreos in my plaid lunchbox, or a book I didn’t mind reading.

 

When I began teaching college English, I discovered teachers often dread the start of school, too. For me, it was a sinking feeling that began several weeks before school started. Oh, God, I need to make a syllabus, which means I have to decide exactly what I’m covering: choose readings, dream up in-class exercises, and plan the assignments. What if I get a handful of surly students? They could completely undermine the class dynamic for 10 weeks. tan-brief-bag

My anxiety culminated in a night-before-the-first-day-of-class nightmare. Every quarter, I dreamed a variation of this dream: I’m 20 minutes late to class. I’m walking down an endless corridor and can’t find the room I’m supposed to be in. I finally arrive only to realize that I’m in my pink chenille bathrobe and the students have given up on me. Some of them are already in the English department office complaining about me. My stomach would be roiling when I woke up. As I stuffed my leather briefbag with mimeographed syllabi, lecture notes, and my grade book, I laughed at how ludicrous the nightmare was.

 

This fall, on the first day of class, I was surprised to again feel a frisson of nerves. What if I got lost or showed up late? Just to be sure, I double checked the transit routes and downloaded a campus map. What if the professor thinks retirees are cranky know-it-alls? Do I really want to show up twice a week and sit through lectures?

Wait. Yeah, I do. Anxiety about the first day of school may be deep-seated, but it no longer makes sense. I’m only auditing a history class at the University of Minnesota. There’s no pressure to perform as a teacher or as a student. In the rush of those habitual feelings, I’d nearly forgotten that the beginning of school also sparks an invigorating sense of a fresh start.

backpackI loaded up my backpack with the three heavy textbooks—ooof—and set off.

The Magic of Keeping a Journal

Recently, a request for volunteers to decorate personal journals caught my eye. The organization requesting help—The Family Partnership—says journaling is helpful to their counseling clients. I’ve kept a personal journal off and on since I was a teenager, and it certainly improves my mental health. Journaling also provides useful material for my writing projects.

Writers are always advised to keep journals. In high school, when I first realized I wanted to be a writer, I drafted poems and stories in spiral-bound stenographer’s notebooks. In graduate school, I made notes about some of the encounters I had as an ER clerk.

One of my early journals

One of my early journals

From the beginning, my journals also included impassioned blurts—here’s what’s bothering me and why. Finding words for my surging feelings made them concrete and more manageable. The process of writing calmed me. Often I felt like, “There. Now I understand what upset me and I feel better, so I can move on.” I thought the insights might be useful someday. If I ever feel so concerned about XYZ again, I can return to this hard-won insight and get feeling better, faster.

That’s funny now. I’m never going to be 19 again. Why would I need to look up the entry about fighting with my parents?

 

The journals became historical as well as therapeutic.

Journaling reminds me about how I got to this place in life, and that’s useful. I’m not still a heartbroken 24-year-old graduate student or an overwhelmed 34-year-old mother. Seeing that I’ve grown and changed is reassuring. I do figure things out. Things do get better.

Asking why and wondering about the meaning of certain events, comes naturally to me and is central to the essays, memoirs, and blogs that I write. I’m making sense of the big world as well as my own world.

A friend hand made this journal, which I used while teaching at UMM

A friend hand made this journal, which I used while teaching at UMM

When I was in my late 30’s and early 40’s, I began writing essays and memoir in earnest. Then the old journals offered valuable documentation about what happened when I was 24 or 27 and what I thought of it.

Rereading passages from old journals can be cringe-inducing. When skimming old journals, I understand why some people view them as the height of self-involved navel-gazing. Who is that whiny awful person? But that’s the magic of keeping a journal—within its pages, I can be my worst self on my worst day and spare the rest of the world a lot of my angst, anger, depression, and tedious analysis.

That’s also the danger of keeping a journal. The words and feelings included there would necessarily be taken out of context by anyone reading them. I journal when I’m confused or distressed. Good times don’t require explanation and analysis. I want to keep the journals for my use, but at some point I will need to get rid of them, since I won’t always be around to say, “I was having a bad day when I wrote that. I don’t still think that.”

My recent journals are much smaller-- 5x7, in this case

My recent journals are much smaller– 5×7, in this case

But the writer and philosopher in me resists. I’ve been writing about my life for 20 years. There might be some good material in there. I hate to dump it now!

If you keep a journal, how do you use it? Will you get rid of them at some point?

The Nature of Being an Aunt

As a child, I didn’t think deeply about my aunts and uncles. They were a kindly presence at family gatherings, people who smiled at me, asked me about school, sent birthday cards, and gave me first communion and graduation gifts.

I recently saw my 10-year-old grand nephew. If pressed, he might recall that we had fun exploring a nearby creek and that I gave him Halloween candy, but I wouldn’t expect him to know more about me than that. I didn’t know much about my aunts and uncles when I was 10 years old either.

When I was a child, all I knew about Aunt Corinne was that she didn’t have children of her own, but she was fond of her nieces and nephews. She and Uncle Bob always gave us treats when we visited—cookies or candy from the stock Uncle Bob used in his vending machine business.

When I became a mother, I suddenly got it—I saw how much my brothers and sister cared about my children and in turn how much I cared about theirs. The connections between us are strong.

Aunts and uncles are part of a whole circle of people standing behind a child. We’re interested our nieces and nephews’ activities. We know this one is a sprinter, that one is good at hockey, another one loves theater. We’re concerned about their problems—this one got laid off or that one is going through a breakup. We’re pleased about their accomplishments—this one won a prize at school and that one is getting promoted at work.

When things are going well, we’re more in the background, but if something happened to one of our siblings, we’d come forward to help out.

Aunt CorinneI gained new appreciation for my aunts and uncles, especially Aunt Corinne, who would have been 90 on her birthday a few weeks ago. As an adult, I understood more about her life. She had systems for running her household and was meticulous about details. For example, her address book was always up to date and she kept her coupons in an organizer. She worked full-time as an office manager. I can imagine her as an organized and competent worker. She was also a sympathetic listener and seems like the sort of person who would have brought baked treats for her coworkers.

I’m glad I got to know her well enough to discover what we had in common—she liked NPR and cared about politics. She was funloving and always willing to go out to lunch, to a show, or to travel. She was as particular about coffee as I am. If it’s warmed over, we would rather skip it. Only when I was middle-aged, was I able to talk to her woman to woman. Then I could ask about her health or we could share insights and concerns about family members.

Because I live hours away from my nieces and nephews and don’t see them often, they don’t know me very well. They would probably be surprised at how much I know about them. But I’m observant. And your parents talk about you! My nieces and nephews may never know how much love and support their aunts and uncles have invested in them, but being a secret supporter is a pleasure. If our relationships deepen as we get older, that will be a gift, too.

Who knows? Maybe twenty years from now at some family gathering, my grand nephew and I will discuss politics or the books we’re reading!

Will Our Grandchildren Even Need Bookcases?

How much longer will bookcases be prized as places where knowledge and inspiration reside? For hundreds of years people have built everything from simple pine shelves to the finest mahogany and oak bookcases to house their treasured books. But ebooks are replacing paper books. Instead of paging through a book, more of us turn to the Internet for information and open iPads or Kindles for the stories we love. I began pondering this cultural shift when I emptied my bookcases before moving to a smaller home last year.

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Deciding what to discard was difficult. I love my books. No, really. I love my books. When I picked up each one, I felt a tug of recognition and pleasure that quickly turned into a pang of sadness. As the afternoon wore on, I was knee-deep in books and accumulated nostalgia.

My books represented my intellectual history, and therefore, my own history. The philosophy textbooks and literary classics came from my undergraduate days. During graduate school I added feminist poetry, stories, essays, and novels. Because they were scarce in the late 1970s, my friends and I shared them like contraband. The ideas I found in those pages challenged me to reconsider many of my beliefs.

Some of my books are novels by authors I just love (Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Tim O’Brien, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Simon Mawer, Aravind Adiga—I could go on and on). Their stories transported me to other times and cultures and enriched me with insights that I wouldn’t have had any other way. How could I let go of these old friends?

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At least a dozen of the books are by authors I know personally. Pamela Gemin. Cynthia Kraack. George Rabasa. Sherry Roberts. The anthologies that published my essays are also stored there.

Essay collections by Marion Winik, Ellen Goodman, Barbara Kingsolver, Bailey White and others mark my ongoing effort to learn the craft of writing personal essays.

I have shelves of books on writing—from the grammar handbook I used in my first teaching job to books about the craft of writing memoir. I have books about how to get published and how to promote a book. P1040205

After a while, discarding the physical books became easier. I thought about how long it had been since I opened some of them and realized they meant something once, but no longer. I reminded myself that if I needed to reread a certain Wilfred Owen poem, I could find it online.

I needed to let go of the intellectual fantasy that one day a visiting friend would look at my books and say, “So what do you think of Kant’s The Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics?” or ask “How has Adrienne Rich’s On Lies, Secrets and Silence? influenced you?” When friends visit, we hang out in the kitchen—no one but family ever sees my office. And really? I know who I am and what ideas formed me—without these emblems to remind me.

Besides, there are plenty of books that I love but don’t own. Long ago I realized that I couldn’t possibly own every book I wanted to read. Many of my favorite books belong to the public library or to friends.

These days, I keep many of my books on my iPad—my own personal and very portable bookcase. So many books in such a small space! I can take them anywhere. I never have to be without a good book.

At Christmas, when I received hardcover books from my sons I was surprised—I assumed they would give me e-books. I’m delighted with their gifts, but I was startled to realize that my paradigm has shifted.

Today, I have one foot in the paper world and one foot in the digital world. I’ve pared down my collection of books, and it makes me happy to think of someone else enjoying the ones I gave away. There still are plenty of books I’m not prepared to part with. But going forward, I will have fewer paper books. My future grandchildren may view paper books and wooden bookcases as quaint artifacts and that’s OK.

I’ve come to realize that what I really love are stories and ideas. They can reside on the page or on the screen.