Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Living in the time of Oprah

This is embarrassing for me, a former literary scholar, the holder of two masters degrees, a community leader, to admit, but I enjoy Oprah. I also watch Dr. Phil and Nanny 911 and The Apprentice and The Cut. I used to watch Jerry Springer until it got so extreme that it went to pay-per-view, and I won’t pay to see it. Particularly in the age of digital video recording, when one can skip right over the annoying parts, it is mesmerizing to see the eternal struggles of humanity played out in variations.

I read murder mysteries for the same reason. I put a lot of time and energy into trying to untangle human motivation by observing activity, listening to spoken and unspoken intention, and exploring how different people’s realities collide.

I relate to Oprah, too, because we are almost the same age. And like Oprah, I am healthier, stronger, happier and more beautiful now than I was five years ago. Yesterday’s show focused on women who were dramatically more beautiful than they were a decade before, and the physical transformations were indeed dramatic and inspiring. That extra thirty pounds lost. The intent to keep a strong and healthy body. The conscious presentation of self to world by choosing clothing, hair and makeup. The personal tricks and tips ranged from the unsavory (putting Preparation H on your face every night) to the athletic (a woman who could stand on folding chairs and do a backbend to pick up a glass of juice in her teeth, then drink it down). Overall, Oprah had a good time with the show and with almost no mention of cosmetic surgery avoided drifting into the desperate territory of a Swan, which I do not watch.

There were mind games to try—put your alarm clock across the room and your sneakers next to it. The idea is that if you were standing up, the sight of your sneakers would guilt you into activity. Personally, I have become immune to guilt rays delivered by inanimate objects, so I would make a personal rule to put my shoes on before I was allowed to turn off the alarm clock. But then, I used to sleep in my exercise clothes.

By far, my favorite tip was one I discovered last year—wear pretty underwear all the time. Get rid of the grannies. Who wants to see those? I can’t tell you how often the image of a wisp of magenta lace in the ladies room mirror has lifted my spirits. Or how deeply reassuring it is to face a board meeting knowing that you are wearing your best matched black frills. A difficult conversation seems so much easier when you wear that ridiculous pink thong with the rose on the back. I can’t explain it, but it is true.

It is the rare fifty-year-old who can get away with wearing miniskirts, and I am not one of them. After yesterday’show, I might go for the next level of bodily improvement, but discretion bids a certain degree of coverage. But my underwear is my own affair.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Our own worlds

I have just finished Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which has impressed me more than any novel I have read in years. It seemed on every page there was some line about which I could write a whole essay. One of them was this concept (somewhere around page 197 in the edition I was reading):

Every single one of us is a little civizilation build on the ruins of any number of preceding civizilations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable—which I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because thos around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.

I have had thoughts somewhat like this before, though not expressed so elegantly. When I get annoyed at colleagues who routinely ignore messages, who prefer to remain ignorant of points of view other than their own, who walk into an emotional firestorm rather than unwind the tangled strands of motivation and passion—and this is in the professional world!—then sometimes I am able to see that I operate by a different set of rules than they do.

Professionally speaking, I was raised in a world that prized both conflict and courtesy. It is conflict that gives rise to new ideas, to advancement of group thinking in service of whatever ideal we may wish to serve. It is courtesy that allows for the fact that someone else’s idea may have more value than we see at first. And it is courtesy that keeps us from killing each other. Recognizing that I may be operating by unconscious rules that the other players don’t even know has made it possible for me to learn better negotiation skills.

In the personal world, too, I have recently come to recognize the need to explain the rules of my world. Most member of my immediate family (that is to say mom and siblings) are on maintenance contact right now. A variety of perfectly reasonable other issues in life—divorce, illness, joblessness, moving, and just living with small children—have caused family relationships—at least the ones with me—to fall away until there is really not a lot of interaction.

Do I believe they care about me? I guess. At least they would show up at my funeral. But like my colleagues, they don’t answer e-mails. My mother reads my blog, but I don’t think anyone else does. And the truth is that the blog was started, as was the group e-mail that preceded the blog, as a way to reach out, to help them know me a little better.

The truth is that they don’t know me as a person, and apparently don’t care to. I get birthday cards and Christmas presents and an occasional visit from one or another. I feel obligated to send Christmas presents and the occasional birthday card and—for some reason I have been the one to visit, more often than not. I send recipes from time to time, or a quick e-mail to say “I saw this and thought of you.” Most do not get replies.

I am careful to be as positive as I can be about each and every interaction, sending thank yous and reinforcing invitations. I even went on a group trip to Disney World, which was about as far from my idea of a dream vacation as it is possible to go. But I did it for the sake of growing connections.

What I get back from most of these relationships, most of the time, is slim pickings. I don’t get thank yous for Christmas presents. And last year one sibling sent me What Not to Wear, with a long and flowery note explaining that this was not a comment on my dress sense, just something to enjoy. It would have made a fine Christmas present if not for the fact that the previous year’s present was the identical book with an almost identical note.

Maybe it is time I get more explicit about my rules for dealing with family members. None of this represents any threat in any sense. How can you threaten people with the withdrawal of your attention and affection when those very things have so little value to them? And I know that as life happens, what we each need, every one of us, is more opportunities to continue to connect, not lines drawn in the sand. Still, almost everyone—there is an exception or maybe two—is on the maintenance plan right now.

To my family. Not to worry. You will still get Christmas presents, the occasional birthday card (somehow I have trouble remembering those), e-mails from time to time, and so on. At least you will get them as long as I have addresses for you.

Every year one sibling—whose sole idea for maintaining contact is to have children scrawl their names on a card—almost goes off the Christmas list completely. And every year, at the last minute, I can’t do it. Because I do value my family. And because no matter how serious the parent’s neglect of the gentle obligation to keep in touch, I want there to be options for the children.

I want the door always to be open. Open for what? Well might you ask. If the price of greater interaction with family members is that I need to take sides against other family members, that is simply not on. If the price is settling in for a cozy chat about how awful somebody’s spouse or ex-spouse is, I am not interested. I will not trade one family member for another. And if the price is giving up my own needs for a little quiet time during a visit, that won’t work, either. I am an introvert, you know! Or maybe you don’t.

I will still make the effort to visit down South once a year or maybe once every two years, if I am invited. But having noticed that the total of all the visits I have received over the last thirty years since I left the South is some fraction of all the visits I have made—for a lot of perfectly sound reasons, but still we are all adults now and all have engaging lives—I am unlikely to make more of an effort. I have come to realize that no matter how often I visit or how many ways I come up with to maintain contact, there simply is not much interest.

I suspect that if anyone in my family does read this, the first reaction will be to call and explain that I got it all wrong. Please don't. I know all about the press of daily life; I have one, too. I believe that people vote with their feet, not with their intentions. If you want the situation to be different, just act differently.

This state of affairs no longer offends, no longer hurts my feelings, but it does baffle. I think I am a pretty interesting person. The blog I started in part as a way to reach out to geographically and socially distant family members has blessed me with a new surprise. Apparently there are many people in the world who do find me interesting. In this day of internet and e-mail, we find our opportunities to connect no longer limited by distance. What a blessing that is!

Saturday, June 25, 2005


Life in the city is easy. If you need something done, there are phalanxes of service providers clamoring for your money. And all it really takes is money, maybe a little oversight of the project, and quick like a rabbit your world is back in order.

Living alone in the country is different. Any illusion of self-reliance vanishes with the first big snowfall or the first downed tree limb. Here in rural America, we need each other, and we know it.

Musing today, my friend wasn’t entirely sure what makes her so grumpy with in-migrants, but she thinks it might be the lack of understanding of basic country courtesies, particularly of reciprocity. Of all the people that her husband had plowed out, of all the bundles of wood delivered as welcome presents, of all the gifts of time and heavy equipment, too few have been recognized as worthy of gratitude, far fewer of reciprocity. One returned brownies for firewood, and is held up as model of the rare in-comer who gets it. Vermonters are not happy, witless folk looking for opportunities to show off their tractors; rather they are over-obligated hard-working people who nevertheless make the time for those in need of help, however hapless the appeal. And however ungrateful the response.

It is reciprocity that is the name of the game here where winter really can kill and where people have lived in such close relation for so many years that they have come at last to recognize that different persons harbor different gifts.

I shared with my friend the technique I use here. In comparison to these people who have all manner of knowledge of the practicalities of country life, I know nothing. I have skills to offer, certainly, but it seems skimpy to offer an apple pie or a computer spreadsheet in exchange for the gifts I have received. And so, when I ask for and receive the gift of help hauling old carpet to the dump or even last minute dogsitting, I am wary that I need to reciprocate. Often I try to pay, and I have found the following phrase sometimes cuts through shyness and pride: “Hon, I really have to pay you. You know I can’t afford what you are worth, but if I can’t pay you something then I can never ask you again for a favor.” Pride meets pride, we agree to set it aside, and we are human together.

It is a humble thing to need to ask for help. I have good friends here, not people who invite me to dinner parties and chatter about the latest latest, but people to whom I can turn when a tree limb falls to ask who do I call? People who help without hesitation or question when I appear in tears over some small or not so small threat to my tiny treasure of a world.

Miracles have occurred in my life over the past few days. A confrontation that left me in tears was met by good friends who said, don’t worry…if we have to, we can build you a fence in a day or so. Ignoring the in-laws in the hospital, the daily demands of a small business. Here, they said, is what you do. But don’t worry.

I’m sorry, from another friend, the one who meant to build my fence sooner. Working for pay, his time is fractured in this halcyon season, but in hours he was in my yard full of apologies and re-engineered schedules. I thought I was waiting for you, but don’t worry. We can make it happen. Whatever happens, don’t worry.

Don’t worry, said my musing friend. It won’t be today or even this week, but we can bring the chain saw and take care of that tree that fell in your yard. Sure, you could call someone, but they will charge you, and we will take care of you. Because you belong here.

Did you want help with that? Another friend, my neighbor. Could you use the wood, I ask, or could I pay you? Definitively no. You kept our dog a really long time. I had forgotten the dog that came with my house, the dog who stayed on for a few months after we came to take over her family's former home. I had forgotten that I had reciprocity banked.

I am rich indeed.


“Four girls and four boys he had, robustious little heathens, every one of them, as he said himself. But good fortune is not only good fortune, and over the years things happened in that family that caused some terrible regret. Still for years, it seemed to me to be blindingly beautiful. And it was.”

Doesn’t that just say everything about families? Blindingly beautiful. And terrible regret. Inescapable.

I am reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and having the unaccustomed experience of savoring every page. I don’t usually have the patience even to read every page, so eager am I to get on with plot and life. But the woman has a gift. She understands what it is like to be alive, what it is like to live simultaneously knowing the blessing of your own life and the dismay when others judge.

“I don’t think it was resentment I felt then. It was some sort of loyalty to my own life, as if I wanted to say, I have a wife, too, I have a child, too. It was as if the price of having them was losing them, and I couldn’t bear the implication that even that price could be too high.”

People think I have chosen my life, and in many ways I have. I have chosen not to be whipsawed by others’ judgments, no matter how close to me they are, no matter how well-intentioned. But did I choose to be alone? Not really. Still, it has been a blessing to me to learn to love solitude.

I love my mother, my sister, my brothers, their families. I would like to know them better, as people rather than as the figurehead roles they prefer to play in my life. It is a source of unending sadness to me that they see me only as the one who left, the one who does not behave properly, the one who is to be judged and found wanting. I am expected to behave in certain ways because….well, just because.

I have definitively opted out of that game. But should anyone want to start a new way of relating, I would be all over that. Like white on rice, like a duck on a June bug, as they say down South, where I come from. And where I can never return.

Monday, June 20, 2005


The world and I have each done our share this weekend. I pulled out the knee-high weeds, carving out new garden vistas by what is no longer there, then mowed herb garden paths in more creative destruction. Finally, I put in a round of new plants, though this morning early I had to rescue one that Toby dug up to bury his morning milkbone.

I made a little headway on the lawn. I had to have it brush hogged, you know, after a month of wet weekends had spawned hip-high meadow that choked and broke my modest power push mower. The front is cut back to ankle height, and the side yard, but there are wide swaths of the back that are rapidly going back to meadow. Rapidly.

All the time, I worked around an enormous (think the size of a medium size tree) branch that fell in the night. Jeezum. How could a branch that big fall? Good thing it wasn’t closer to the house. This will be a new test of my emerging network of helpers. Who you gonna call? It has leaves, so does that make it good for firewood? Or do I just have a major disposition bill to face?

After a long day in the herb garden—but most satisfying as I reclaimed my paths and put in several dozen plants—I took a quiet walk over the the vegetable garden. I weeded only yesterday! Biomass has exploded everywhere, weeds flexing their vigor, robbing my poor little emerging veggies of water and nutrient. Gardening is easy in Vermont this time of year—which lasts only a few short weeks before the light changes, second cut comes, and we start to get ready for the snow again—but ungardening is even easier.

Entropy! Our only hope is to go with it.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Instant gratification

Is there anything better than this?

I put the broccoli plants in last weekend, or was it the weekend before. Today I ate the pizza, lovely whole wheat pizza with thyme-roasted onions and grilled eggplant and red pepper flakes and oil-cured olives and the very first tiny broccoli flowers from those greenhouse-fostered plants.

Honestly, can you think of anything better?

Bookworm child

I do appreciate Jean passing the book meme to me. From childhood, I have found my best refuge in books. The summer I turned nine my house was a bookmobile stop. I remember the bookmobile ladies coming to my birthday party. It was the birthday that I remember hanging upside down on the neighbors’ monkey bars singing to myself, “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” in mute protest.

It was one of the few occasions when my mother’s attempts to create a perfect child-centered word went badly astray. And who can blame her from trying? If I was nine, then my sister was six, the older of my two brothers four and the other a baby or not even. I was so excited when the girls up the road invited me to play, devastated when I came to realize that it was a put-up job to arrange a surprise party for me. I don’t think anyone has given me a surprise party since. And that’s a good thing. I was not a child who enjoyed surprises, nor do I enjoy them now.

An introverted and intelligent child, I never so much as tasted the easy cameraderie I saw others enjoy. Partly it was a numbers game, that in the tiny rural towns where we lived, there were few children with whom I had much in common. Partly it was the usual childhood stuff, learning to deal with the schoolbus bully and coping when best friends move away. But a lot of it was about learning who I am—introverted, intuitive, quiet but intense. I have a boisterous mask, but that has been slowly acquired to allow me to operate with people who are mostly very different from me. Those decades in New York were priceless in this effort!

From rural Georgia to Boston to Philadelphia to New York to Chattanooga and back to New York to here, my home in rural Vermont, books have been my best friend. From childhood, I curled up Jane Aiken Hodge’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, with Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, with Jane Eyre and Jane Austen. Like Jean, I initially missed the satire, but I craved the social observation. All these books I read over and over, along with anything that came as a Reader’s Digest book and any murder mystery. I loved plot and I loved characterization. I loved being taken to a different world. I still do.

1. Total number of books I’ve owned: Like Jean, somewhere between 2 and 3 thousand, but I have cut back to around 500 now. After years of hauling too many books around, I came to prize space and simplicity over objects, and disposed of all but the ones I really, really needed. This ongoing struggle against accumulation has required that I develop rules for what I really, really need, but in the degree that I successfully implement my own rules, I am free.

I have rules for clothes. If too big or too frumpy, it goes away. If you haven’t worn it in the last year, it goes away—unless you really, really love it. My rules all have the escape hatch for what you really, really love.

I have rules for food. If it’s not good for you, it doesn’t come in the house. If you ought to be eating it (vegetables!) buy it, plan a recipe, cook it, so that you have the option to do the right thing. Any waste is readily justified on the basis of option creation and compost.

And I have rules for books. Now I have my core books—probably no more than a hundred or so—and I have provisional books which are on their way through my home. Some of the provisional books are murder mysteries that I don’t need to own on literary merit, but it is handy to have a spare few just in case I hit a day when I have nothing to read and can’t get to the library. Some are home improvement or decorating or travel books that are handy, even if they aren’t—properly speaking—essential to my well-being. It got to be such a burden getting rid of books, that I have all but stopped acquiring them. Libraries fill the gap.

There are books I treasure because they bring me back to a part of my life. My foreign language dictionaries for college. Michael Porter’s Competitive Strategy for business school. A bond math handbook for those years at the bank. The Book of Common Prayer. Christopher Robin and Le Petit Prince. A strange little novel, not very good, called On the Marais des Cygnes written by my great-grandfather. My mother recently sent me some volumes of a children’s magazine called St Nicholas from the twenties that I pored through as a child, particularly the stories told around any three random objects: a spider, a bicycle and a bad boy, say.

There are books I keep because they said something to me once, or because I sense that they have something yet to say to me, although I cannot read them now. The former includes May Sarton’s books and James Hillman’s and almost all of Annie Dillard, although these days I find Dillard overly wordy and mostly unreadable. The latter group are the books I tried to get rid of but they would not let me: Isak Dinesen and George Eliot and my complete Shakespeare plays comprise a few examples.

Cookbooks, of course, have completely separate rules.

2. Last book I bought: Kay Redfield Jamison’s Exuberance, because I need to own it.

3. Last book I read: I just finished Margaret Drabble’s The Red Queen. Margaret Drabble is one of those writers whose work I will always read. Her books stay with me—literally and figuratively—for a long time. It took me about three weeks to read this book, which is quite unusual, since most books don’t last me three days. I don’t think it is her best work, but it is extremely interesting in the interplay of multiple plot lines and the blurring of one story into another. I particularly relate to the theme that we are each writing the story of our own lives—that the way we tell our own story is of supreme importance and that stories clash in the ether.

4. Five books that mean a lot to me: The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov. I wrote my master’s thesis on this book, which still speaks to me. Layers and layers and layers. If I had to pick only one book that meant the most to me, it would be this one with its echoes of Goethe’s Faust, its overlay of rose petal fragrance, and its exquisite rendering of the battle between light and darkness.

My favorite gardening book, Landscaping with Herbs by James Adams. Fragrance and flavor, wrapped up in beauty. And you can have it at home.

If I were able to pick something for the Christian tradition it would have to be Thomas Merton or CS Lewis or Thomas Moore or Henri Nouwen, but I don’t know how to pick. Maybe the Book of Common Prayer. The Bible seems an obvious pick, but somehow that is not so much a book to me as a more complex object, its impact both sharpened and blunted by how others have used it as an instrument of social conformity. Lately, I am branching into some Buddhist paths with Thich Nhat Han.

Heinrich von Kleist’s On the Puppet Theater is not so much a book as an essay, one that is so important to my world view that I quoted almost all of it elsewhere in this blog. http://vtdiary.blogspot.com/2005/01/end-times-in-garden.html

Among self-help books, I would have to pick Maggie Scarf’s Unfinished Business or Kay Redmond Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, or even Parallel Lives: A Study of Victorian Marriage, by Phylis Rose, because she gave me a way to think about what marriage is not. I agree with Jean’s pick of The Highly Sensitive Person, by Elaine Aron, and would add The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney. Who could ever suspect that extroverts think we are ignoring them on purpose? We introverts are simply not particularly interested in extroverts’ flapping and fluttering, but that, I suppose, is what offends them. And who could have imagined that extroverts routinely talk without thinking first? I am offended by that.

Murder mysteries and cookbooks—I can’t begin to pick. The truth is that despite an MA in comparative literature and an MBA to follow, these are the categories of my daily fare. Maybe another essay another day.

5. Which five bloggers am I passing this to? Since we have already established in the previous section that I either cannot count or cannot play by the rules—or perhaps this overly conforming child is finally learning that I don’t always have to—I am passing it to any of you who want to do it. Despite my blog-absence of the last few months, I confess to feeling a slight reprise of those childhood slights that I wasn’t asked earlier. I was always the last picked for kickball, too. But I would have done this particular meme eventually even if Jean had not asked, since I am grown up now and I write about what I like. If something in my piece speaks to you, please do respond, but many of my favorite bloggers have done this one already. It would, as always, be great to hear from Robert at Beginner’s Mind http://beginnermind.blogspot.com/ or from Susan at Visual Voice-Net http://www.visual-voice.net/ but if I have missed your booklist in my absence, please forgive me.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Simply irresistible

If you were a perfume, you'd be named Simply Irresistible. Something in the way you move is just drawing admirers by the score. It's not just your overall pulchritude -- although there is that, of course -- but the entire package. Learn to own your charms, even if you're normally a more shy and retiring type. It's true, being impossibly charming does have its drawbacks -- although actually, who can think of one?

This is my horoscope for today, or one of them. I read several, always hoping to find the message from the universe that speaks to the most gnawing worry buried in my subconscious. Whenever I can tease those anxieties to the surface, I am better prepared to deal with them.

Goodness! There are so many! How can a person in good health with happy living circumstances and a fulfilling job have so many anxieties? My daily practice to count my blessings and count them again, and my considerable discipline (not always obvious to the casual observer) are powerful weapons against anxiety, but still the little monsters burble up in dreams of both the day and night varieties.

My best tactic to bring calm and peace to my life these days is walking. Springtime in Vermont is my vista as I stretch long muscles and click into a nonverbal space in my mind. When I return to my daily anxieties, I am always—every day—astonished at how small and warped and gnarly and irrelevant they are.

The stuff I fuss about mostly falls away, or gets slotted into a spot where I can deal with it efficiently. That’s stuff like the random $400 fraudulent charges on a credit card that I closed three years ago, but the company didn’t, resulting in my credit being trashed—despite twenty years of outstanding credit—and a month of unsatisfactory exchanges with the credit card company. It is fixed now, but I still have reservations about Chase/BankOne credit cards, although they have not quite hit my personal boycott list. Dell is still leading that list, although I have found a workaround: never buy a Dell and make sure that whatever computer you buy, you are not dependent on the company warranty. Annoying, time-consuming, but really very small in the grand scheme of things.

The big things you can’t fix. Serious health problems of family members. The little company in my area that imploded this week. Imagine that you are a talented furniture maker and you have been working for someone else but thinking about going out on your own. Your newest baby is very new (weeks, not months) and the baby appears to have some serious health problems, so you have put off launching your own business. Then imagine one day you go to work and you discover that your boss dropped dead over the weekend. Your paycheck is not there, everything is tied up in probate, and you—with difficulty—extricate your own personal handtools from the building before the doors are padlocked. Working for a small company in Vermont, you are always no more than one step from this reality.

What can I do for this guy? I can fast-track him with the small business counselor. I can refer him to potential lenders. I can intervene to get a faster response from unemployment…maybe. I can possible come up with networking possibilities for him, but to his credit, he has already pursued most of them. I can refer him—as much as he does not want to go there—for food stamps and aid to families with dependent children. I can even prioritize a small repair job that I need done at home because a couple hundred dollars makes a huge difference to this guy at this time. But most important, I can listen. And I can recognize that this life is really, fundamentally no different from mine.

The big stuff is really big. People we love suffer from health problems, from relationship problems, from the pain of watching loved ones suffer. All we can do is listen, help sort the small stuff from the big stuff, encourage, suggest more options, and agree that the big stuff is really, really, …..really big. What we can do is so very small in the grand scheme of things. But it is everything that we can do, and faith requires that we hold fast that it will be enough.

Postscript: Now this is what I love about writing! When I read my horoscope and sat down to write, I intended to write about how I came to Vermont for sex (it’s not exactly how that sounds, but close) and found that there are a lot of amazing and wonderful men in Vermont who seem to find me (yes, me! 50-year-old me!) irresistible. And look what came out of my fingers. Maybe tomorrow you will get the other piece.