Erin's Everyday Thoughts

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Call Me Ma'am

I was in the grocery store. As the cashier swiped my bag of baby carrots across the scanner, from the end of the aisle came a question from the bagger, a high school punk with nose ring and wallet chain, “Would you like paper or plastic, ma’am?”

And just for a moment, my heart paused. Ma’am. Not Miss or even Hey you. But ma’am.

Throughout my early 20s, each time I was called ma’am, I took it as a reminder of the aging process. I was not in high school anymore. I was not even in college anymore. Each time I heard the word, I felt old. I knew I was not old, not by any stretch. (And what is “old”, anyway?) But still this word had the power to make me stand back and see what had passed, to mourn for those times gone by and the fact that I would never again be 8, or 18, or 21.

I felt as though I was in a war against “growing up.” I wanted to be young, unique, creative, enthusiastic, imaginative. I wanted the world to see me this way, not as the random 20-something that the word ma’am represented to me.

And, hidden behind everything else, I think I also did not want to take full responsibility for my life. I didn’t want to hold myself accountable to accomplish all those things I said I would accomplish when I “grew up.” I wanted some excuse to hold off, to delay that time when I would need to make whatever I wanted to happen, happen.

A few weeks ago, while I was driving home in the car that I own, from the job that I go to each day, to the house that I share with my roommate, it occurred to me: I am grown up. And it doesn’t mean losing any part of my creativity or imagination. It doesn’t mean being any less unique, any less important or vital or playful or adventurous or enthusiastic or eager to learn. (Those who tell you being a grown up means losing any these things, I think, are quite wrong.)

It does mean understanding myself more thoroughly than I ever have. It does mean having a greater base of knowledge—things I’ve learned from books but more importantly from life experience! It also does mean taking myself to task for everything I’d like to do with my life. Now is the time for creation. Now is the time for molding dreams into realities. There are no excuses left, because I’m all grown up. And it’s not so bad.

So go ahead, call me ma’am.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Rediscovering Walden

Photo: From the Walden Woods collection by Scot Miller.

Yesterday, on a happy day off of work, I took a trip to the Cincinnati Museum Center to explore the Cincinnati History Museum and the Museum of Natural History & Science. In the latter museum, they had a special display of photographs of Walden Pond, taken by photographer Scot Miller. These were part of a collection of photographs that were used in the 150th Anniversary Illustrated Edition of Walden. (Proceeds on the sale of this book go in part to the Walden Woods Project—I think I may pick up a copy!)

The photographs were beautiful. Walking through the gallery was like walking through present-day Walden (albeit with more rambunctious children racing across the room). Miller took the photographs over several years and was able to capture all seasons. My favorite was a photograph of pond life under a sheet of ice. The life below appeared just out of focus, but only if you looked closely could you see that this was because of ice. (Or if you looked at the title of the piece, which totally gave it away!)

Things in my life lately have seemed to take on a charming synchronicity. I’ll be thinking and writing about a topic, and then I’ll experience something that brings those ponderings together for me. In this case, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my fitness routine. For the past year, I’ve spent countless hours in the gym running on elliptical trainers, headphones on, listening to and watching the attached television screen. The physical exertion is satisfying, but only on one level. I get my blood pumping and my sweat glands working, and that’s all. I enjoy the TV, but it’s no more than a diversion that I’ll quickly forget as soon as I step away from it. And I do this in the name of “being in shape” or “being healthy.”

A few weeks ago, I started to re-evaluate this routine, and since then instead of going nowhere on an elliptical trainer, I’ve taken up walking (which I used to do extensively, before joining the gym) again. On colder days, I’m still walking indoors on a treadmill, but on days even slightly warmer, I take to the streets of my neighborhood to walk and explore. Last week, I took a particularly good walk. It was a Sunday morning. When I started out, the sky was clear but about 10 minutes in, it began to snow. As it snowed harder and harder, my black wool coat filled with snow flakes. Before I knew it, I looked like a Dalmatian, and then like a polar bear! With the snowflakes on my cheeks and coat, I was happy.

Movement or “exercise” that takes place out of doors, I think, is satisfying on so many more levels than indoor movement. I find that as I walk, I think, I observe, I dream, I wonder—all good things for a writer to do!

Seeing the Walden display re-affirmed my decision to walk outdoors more. It helped me justify burning less calories in favor of experiencing more of my surroundings. My neighborhood, of course, has nothing close to the natural beauty of Walden. But there is a lot beauty, when I open my eyes to see it.

In addition to the beautiful photographs in the museum display, there were also Thoreau quotes posted in placards among the pictures. The one that touched me most said:

“Nature never makes haste; her systems revolve at an even pace. The bud swells imperceptibly, without hurry or confusion, as though the short spring days were an eternity… The wise man is restful, never restless or impatient. He each moment abides where he is …”

Again, the synchronicity comes into play! Just in my last blog entry, I was talking about how to balance time, and here is Thoreau's wisdom reminding me to take it slow, whatever I am doing. I do believe that living in the moment, and concentrating on whatever it is I’m doing right now will lead to a world of discovery and achievement. Of course, I’ll still have to pick and choose carefully where I’d like to direct that restful attention. But I’ll post this quote by my desk as a daily reminder to take things one step at a time.

My Walden experience was more beautiful than I can express in words. But I’ll certainly continue to see how close I can get …

Friday, February 10, 2006

A Question of Balance

I am a big fan of resolutions. My #1 New Year’s Resolution for 2006 is to “Incorporate writing more fully into my life.” One step in that process was starting this blog, and already I am glad that I did so. Thanks to everyone who has welcomed me into the blogging community. I look forward to a continued interaction and sharing of ideas with each and every one of you!

In addition to my “top” resolution, I also made about ten smaller resolutions, including, “Balancing time more effectively.” I made the resolution on a whim, with a vague idea of accomplishing more: seeing friends and family more, writing more, exercising more, crafting more, traveling more, and so on. Basically, more more more of everything!

At the end of January, when I was writing a quick evaluation in my journal on how my 2006 resolutions were coming along, I began to rethink the concept of “Balancing time more effectively.” The “balance” I’d achieved during January was lopsided. I spent the first two weeks of the month writing and reading extensively but accomplishing little else. I spent the last two weeks in a schizophrenic rampage of activity. I was trying to make up for those first two weeks when I’d neglected all of the other things I like to do. What I ended up feeling was a winnowing sense of my creative self. I had done X, Y, and Z, but I had not done much journaling, writing, or reading. I was losing touch with myself and my writing, as I’ve done so many times before. And as I’ve resolved NOT to do so many times before.

So the question of balance comes into play. How do I find a balance in my life that will make me feel content and accomplished? How do I decide how to spend my time? After thinking and journaling on this subject, I’ve decided it definitely does NOT have to do with doing more of everything. I have, however, come up with an idea for achieving balance that has three parts: 1.) setting priorities, 2.) blending secondary interests and obligations around these priorities, and 3.) maintaining realistic expectations.

First off, prioritization. My priorities become evident when I ask myself these questions: What are my long-term dreams? What are my short-term goals for achieving those dreams? At the end of this year when I look back, what will I be disappointed in having not done?

In my case, a writing career is what I dream of and smaller writing projects make up my short-term goals. The last question is a bit more tricky. I certainly would be disappointed if I looked back at 2006 and hadn’t written much. But I’d also be disappointed if I hadn’t spent time with my friends and family. And so, my main points of prioritization seem to be writing (and this also includes reading and journaling, which go hand in hand with my writing life and without which my writing life seems impossible), family, and friends.

On to the second consideration—blending secondary interests and obligations around my priorities. Obviously there are things I must do (i.e. going to work) and want to do (i.e. biking, crafting, dancing) in life besides writing and spending time with my loved ones. Indeed, outside activity is necessary to give me things to write about! I enjoy these secondary interests, and I wouldn’t want to do without them. But (and this is an all-important “but” in my life), I don’t have to do all of those things all of the time (okay, except go to work).

I have the silly tendency to want to be absolutely fabulous at way too many things. I think that if I am going to crochet, I should crochet a scarf a week. If I play piano, I must practice for an hour every day. In reality, I can have these things in my life without making them a set-in-stone routine in my life. I’m working to set these interests around my main priorities so they do not interfere with my main priorities.

And the final consideration—having realistic expectations. There are people who can be very good at a very large number of things. There are people who can get by on 6 hours of sleep per night. There are people who can wake up, be a flurry of activity and social interaction all day long, and end the day feeling peaceful and fulfilled. Unfortunately, I am not any of these people. What looks do-able on the pages of my calendar, and what may very well be do-able on the pages of someone else’s calendar, may simply not work for me, when I think realistically of who I am and how I operate. Since I know myself and my limitations better than anyone could, I feel that it’s important that I take care not to overwhelm myself. I know that I “refill” during my time alone, so when creating a healthy balance in my life, I’ve got to make room for this.

Here’s a quote I read by chance smack-dab in the middle of thinking about the question of balance. It served well to solidify my ideas:

"Success depends more on how you develop your talents than on how many talents you have."

--John Marks Templeton

So my “new” resolution is to “Balance time more effectively: by focusing on the things that matter most to me and letting myself slide a bit on everything else.”

Here’s to the development of the talents that matter most to you!

Monday, February 06, 2006

I Want to Know Why

I’ve noticed that as I grow older, I grow happier. I’m more comfortable with myself every year, I understand myself and others more completely, and I feel more focused and thoughtful. How could I be anything but progressively happier?

I have also noticed that as I grow older, I grow more disappointed. I am a predominantly optimistic person. I tend to imagine the best in people and situations, which I think is generally a good thing. It can be bad, however, when a person or situation falls short of what I expected. So I say, as I grow older, I also grow more disappointed in the world and in the darker parts of human nature. When I hear of something dishonest or underhanded that’s been done, I feel a hole in the middle of my stomach, a slow ache that’s a blend of discomfort, sadness, and regret. Why would someone do such a thing? And why did I have to find out about it?

I think the slow ache has less to do with my disapproval of someone’s actions and more to do with my mourning the loss of some piece of innocence or optimism within me. I’ve seen something or heard something that I would have rather done without, and I feel a lack because of that knowledge.

I’ve never been sure if others have this reaction, or if they feel it as strongly as I do. (Although I’ve always suspected that there are people who feel it much more strongly than I do.) I do know that I don’t like it but that I find it very interesting.

For years, I’ve wanted to write a story about this feeling—a story about disappointment, about learning things in life that you wish you’d never learned, about the world falling short of expectations.

On a trip to Half Price Books* a few weeks ago, I happened across a Dover Thrift Edition of Sherwood Anderson’s The Egg and Other Stories. I read Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio several years ago and absolutely adored it, so I was quick to pick this up and even quicker to purchase it when I found that the original price was just $1.50 and I’d get it (at half-price) for $.75. A few days later, I read the first story in the collection—“I Want to Know Why”. I was floored—Sherwood Anderson, in stunning prose, had written about the ache in my stomach!

The story is about a young man who goes to see a horse race and, after a series of events, is disillusioned. The experience affects him deeply and he, too, feels a bit of his childhood, and a bit of his enjoyment for life, slip away. To read the full story (because there’s no way I can do it justice), visit this Web site: (Warning: The language used in this story is not very PC.)

Unfortunately, the story offers no solution to this problem, no balm to soothe the young man’s wound. And really I don’t think there is one, short of completely shutting out the world. And if a person shuts out the world, he may miss out on the stomachaches, but he also misses out on all of the good knowledge and positive experience. I guess when you open yourself up, a few bad eggs are bound to slip in, and it’s simply part of the human experience to deal with that and keep searching for the good to keep everything in balance.

I’d still like to write a story about this feeling. Anderson’s story didn’t discourage me (as it sometimes would have—ack! my story’s already been written) but instead convinced me that this is something that can be expressed on paper. I hadn’t been so sure before. The story is also reassuring in the sense that now I know others have felt as I sometimes do. It gives that feeling of solidarity that I so love, as only a good story can do.

(*Half Price Books is an excellent used bookstore in Cincinnati—and Dayton and Columbus I think?—that sells many paperbacks at half price and an assortment of trade paperbacks and hardbacks at a great discount. I’ve picked up a number of like-new hardback books for just $2. I love it!)