Pharmaceutical Grade Solitude

The Value of a Good Time Out

December was a nightmare. It always is. Thus, the complete lack of postings here. We have been musicians our whole adult lives and December is busy season for anyone who sings or plays with any kind of skill. I only took one playing gig. Hot Swede more than made up for it with his (slightly insane) choir schedule and ad hoc gigs at church. I stupidly

8203770426_e3a7382ed5_nvolunteered to do the costumes for our church’s live Nativity. (It is so easy to say yes in October.) I had to make 6 adult angel costumes, in addition to finishing the gifts I was making for my own giving. I attended the children’s “winter concerts,” (If we‘re not going to do a Christmas concert, I humbly ask the public schools to save their “winter concerts” for January. Please.) did the daily everything, and solo parented while Hot Swede was singing all evening. I have never wanted Christmas to be over so badly. The weekend before the big day, Hot Swede got home from singing out of state (!), and I crumbled into about 289 pieces. I was completely used up, empty. I had a lot of work left to do and people to be kind to and I had no idea how I was going to manage it.  I needed to restock and repack my mental toolbox. I needed serious alone time.

I use pharmaceutical grade solitude, 100%pure, to calm my nerves and smooth my feathers. This isn’t a break from the people driving me nuts. It isn’t watching a movie by myself, or even going to the bathroom without someone knocking at the door and asking for something (although that would be nice.) Therapeutic solitude is free of other human input- no books, music, talk, art, conversation, people watching. It is a time to just be with myself, reconnect with who I am, find my balance and ground.  Lucky for me, I learned the value of purposeful solitude early.

In 10th grade, the experiential education department at my school sent a handful of us on a solo trip. We hiked into the mountains where we were given our boundaries and rules:

3400140191_9b165fe386_nNo contact, even visual, with other soloists, no fires, books, writing, no yelling except in case of bears. Our leader handed each of us a tarp, length of rope, and a Ziploc with the following: 2 hard candies, 2 oz of cheese, 2 granola bars, and a tortilla.  We treated our creek filled water bottles with iodine and each of us set out to find a secluded campsite where we would spend at least the next 24 hours completely alone.

Beforehand, I was curious as to how I would react to the experience. Would it be uncomfortable? Would I like being so alone? Would I spend it talking to myself or to God? It turned out that, as I couldn’t go anywhere, I had no other purpose except to be, and that’s what I did. I listened to the air, studied all the mosses and lichens in my little camp. It was so different from anything else I’d ever experienced. I took naps in patches of sunlight, delighted in the sun-warmed rock.  I was asleep when the sun went down and rose when it did.

The experience didn’t change my life. There was no mountain top experience, just an opportunity to commune with the quiet inner voice that can be heard only when the loud outer voices, the ones that communicate with others, are not coming in or going out. I kept company with myself, listening and observing, and realized that I liked this girl and wanted to be kind to this person who is me. If that isn’t an important realization for a 16 year-old girl to come to, I don’t know what is.

Some people use solitude for prayer and meditation, and that has its own value, but there is something sweet and nutritive about listening to my own soul and body. It’s self-5712953278_9986cfe40e_ndating and therapy all in one- getting to know myself, listening, watching, not trying to change or solve problems- just understanding. It’s a chance to let mental knots loosen and unravel, a chance to stop reacting to outside demands, a chance to sort and restock the mental stores.

20 years later, my daily life is never free of other humans, and I take solitude very seriously, if infrequently.  The weekend before Christmas, with about 24 things on my to-do list, my husband, whom I had essentially not seen in two weeks, kicked me out of the house for some alone time. He is sweet and knew I needed it. He is also not an idiot; He knew his life would be better if I got some solitude.

Hear no people. See no people. Speak to no people.

Hear no people. See no people. Speak to no people.

I ate breakfast that someone else cooked. I drove in silence. I’m a gal who likes to have music or talk on at all times, but not during therapeutic solitude. I ran one nightmare errand to the mall (barf) and got out of there as quickly as possible. Then, the best part- I went to the art institute because it’s beautiful and quiet and sat on the same bench for 1.5 hours. What piece of art took my attention for 1.5 hours? None. Art was too much of other humans. I sat looking out over a deserted snow-covered park, just breathing, just being. Stress sloughed off in big flakes and by the end, I was ready to go back to my life, picking up the gallon of milk that I knew we needed on the way home.

I am fortunate to have a healthy, inexpensive tool for renewal, and family who supports it. Massages are nice. Pedicures and manicures don’t appeal to me. Shopping is short-lived. Drinking, movies, and other escapes have their place, but they don’t make coming back to reality any easier. Medicinal grade solitude is it. It is what works for this woman who is never ever alone unless someone else helps make it happen.

Christmas Eve prep was done at 3 am; I was fine. Christmas day was fine; I even enjoyed it. My in-laws got everyone ice skates and we made good memories and better bruises. The day after was lovely. New Year’s Eve, hanging out with friends while our children watched a movie and fell asleep, was the top social event of the month.  And that day apart, given to me by Hot Swede, was the second best gift of the season.

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Grinching on Christmas Lists

Are written lists of material wants ever a good idea?

3094706012_4b4505805f_zHot Swede’s family is a Christmas list family. After Thanksgiving, my mother-in-law asks for gift ideas for everyone. This is the way it has always been, and her children have always handed over wish lists, often very specific lists. I know that lots of other families do this, and I honor that. I always provide her with ideas for her son and grandkids. I spend a lot of time collecting ideas and then deciding which ones to give her- considering what she might enjoy shopping for. However, I will not; I cannot provide her with a list for myself. It rubs me the wrong way. I can’t make myself do it.

I blame my parents, (as one does.) I grew up in a family where we might casually mention something we might like to receive, but the focus was on what we were going to give, or my mom ranting that she wished we could jettison all the presents and just spend time together. I can imagine the look on my mom’s face if I had presented her with an itemized written wish. (My Little Pony stable, rollerblades, a pogo ball, pocket knife, or spy jacket: the few things I remember wanting very much.) Um, no. Tell me your #1 want and go make a list of good ideas for other people.

We didn’t hang stockings on the fireplace until Christmas Eve because it looked selfish. (Hot Swede and I have skirted this argument. Currently, the stockings are up, much to my dismay.) I don’t remember nosing around under the tree to see what was for me, but that may have been because my parents were late wrappers and things didn’t appear under the tree until right before the big day.  But my distaste of wish lists expands beyond family eccentricity. I am philosophically and practically opposed to them.

Gift giving is never about what I want to get. It is about considering others’ needs and interests, and finding something they will like and I’d like to give. When I receive gifts this way, the love, time, and thought of the giver become part of the present. They are what make it meaningful. Otherwise, it is just another scarf, hat, or set of whiskey glasses. When gift exchanging is done well, it is the thought that counts.

The gifts I appreciate most are the unexpected ones- ones where someone has thought carefully about me, found something they were excited to give, and I get to enjoy something I never even had the chance to want. This goes back to my wedding and the first time I supplied the mother of all wish lists- the gift registry, to potential gift givers.  Yes, I appreciate my matching dishes, flatware, and set of pots. I think of my paternal family every time I pull out the china we picked out and they gave for us, but that doesn’t happen often. However, the handmade ceramic bowl given by a cousin and the cutting boards made by Hot Swede’s uncle delight me. They carry the additional boon of reminding me of the giver each time I use them.

There are good reasons for wedding gift registries. They are lifesavers when buying for someone I don’t know well, or looking to assess the tastes of the recipient. For newlyweds, it is nice to start out with matching sets of dishes, even though I broke all the bowls by my 10th anniversary, and we are on our 3rd set of daily glassware. (It’s like a Jewish Greek wedding every time I do dishes.) Lists are not necessary for the kind of personal giving I do at Christmas.

Sometimes I need ideas and direction. In that case, I ask the person directly if there’s anything they need or want. Even better, I’ll ask someone who knows them better than do I. In this way, I remain free to give what I can and would like to, and they still have a chance at being pleasantly surprised with my efforts.

Wish lists take the “thought that counts” out of the process. Getting something I’ve asked for is nice. The generosity of the giver is there, but it feels as if the giver has simply done my shopping for me, cheapening and limiting the role of the giver and tying up the gift with a little ribbon of guilt for me.

Okay, so this one I'll accept.

Okay, so this one I’ll accept.

It isn’t just guilt that cheapens the experience.  The writing of a wish list immediately creates expectation in the gift recipient, and nothing kills happiness like expectation. The fewer expectations we have for others to meet our needs, the happier we are. This truth extends all the way into expecting someone else to give you that Star Wars Millennium Falcon 7965 LEGO set that you’ve wanted since you were 28.

Such specific written requests limit the giver. If you give me a wish list, am I obligated to get something off the list, even if I find something else I think you’d enjoy? Will you be disappointed, or worse, irritated if I don’t purchase from your list? I much prefer the surprise and joy of receiving the thoughtfulness of the giver in a gift THEY’VE picked for me, even if it isn’t what I’d pick out for myself.

Writing a wish list manufactures want. Goody! Normally, when asked if there is anything I’d like for Christmas, I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. In an effort to make gift giving easier on my family, I started brainstorming gift ideas for myself and writing them down so I could refer to them up when asked. I looked around for things I didn’t have and decided that I wanted them. Do you see the problem? I created desires for trifles that I hadn’t wanted before! And then I was asking loved ones to fulfill them for me! Talk about killing satisfaction and gratitude. What an unhealthy and unhelpful practice. This is the first year I will not do it. I won’t. I’d rather get the same food scented candle from everyone than engage in manufacturing material voids for my loved ones to fill. Thumbs down.

There is only one kind of acceptable gift list: the list of gifts I want to GIVE. You may tell me about something you’d love to receive. I want to know if there’s something you really want. However, if you hand me an itemized shopping list of your material desires, I’m going to be irked and leave it where it lies until recycling day.

I love giving gifts. I start the gift giving brainstorm in September. I love the puzzle of matching people with gifts within my budget. I like the challenge and enjoy the process. I love offering up a beautifully wrapped package. I have every Christmas giving list since 1998, so I can keep track of past ideas and what books I’ve already given. I am no Scrooge. But a gift is about receiving the goodwill and love of others, and I like it best when the giver isn’t told exactly the color, model, and shape their goodwill should take.

One of my favorite things.

One of my favorite things.

If you write and give from wish lists, tell me how you use them and why you like them. I am genuinely curious. Lots of people use them without issue. And I fully accept that my hang ups with them are my own. However you manage your gift giving, I wish you all a fun and meaningful experience, whether you like detailed lists with ISBN codes, homemade gifts, or eschew it all together and make donations to charitable organizations, whatever works for you.

I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends.

I had a terrible morning with the children. The youngest is sick and cried. The eldest threw a full bore tantrum. The middle child, typically, said not a word and got ready for school. After dropping the older two at school, I came home and cried into a dishtowel for ten minutes. I was at a loss; I didn’t know how I should have handled the tantrum.  I was sure I was a terrible mother; no one knows how bad it really gets around here except me. My nerves were shot; a tornado of chaos and banshees knocked me over, and I had no idea why or what to do about it.

3609775194_df351a29b9Out of frustration and a touch of desperation, I posted something about the bad morning and feeling inept. I wasn’t fishing for compliments or platitudes; it was just something I had to say somewhere.  Within minutes, my phone rang. It was my friends, a couple I’ve known for years, asking if I was okay and what was going on. The concern expressed in their words and the act of calling comforted me greatly. They gave me a couple things to try. Mostly, they listened and confirmed that parenting is hard. It is hard for everyone, but lots of other people get through it and so will I, and so will they.

I had forgotten what a powerful support it is to have someone show concern and listen, especially someone who is walking a similar path. When I was a newish parent, I was lucky to be part of a wonderful program through our public school system, ECFE. It is a program designed to support and help families navigate the baffling early years of parenting.

We met once a week for one hour with children, and then one without- the kids exploring their world, the parents exploring theirs. This group of wonderful, average, every day women saved my bacon. We saved each other’s bacon. Each week, we’d share our joys and bring our concerns to the group in uncommonly open, kind, and honest conversation. Everything was game: kids who wouldn’t stay in bed, kids who’d only eat cheese, disagreements with partners, divorce, illness, infidelity, our own weakness and frustrations. It may be the healthiest thing I did for myself and my young family.

We all need those places to unload, commiserate, re-direct, tell the truth, hear the truth, and offer support. This job is completely bananas. Almost any yahoo can make a baby and that’s where the easy part ends. Billions of people have raised children under all kinds of conditions, difficulties, and advantages. It is hard every time. If parents care about their children at all, it is hard. It’s the most intense challenge I will ever face.

I want to be the mother each of my children needs, but there are three of them, one of me, and I have my own soul trying to be the person she needs to be. Dealing with myself is hard enough, much less trying to be good for three children. Children come with their personalities, temperaments, weaknesses, and strengths intact and active. Grown humans must teach them how to make the most of what they’ve got. My children’s proclivities, talents, and issues may be widely disparate from my own, but it is still my job and I don’t get a pass because I feel ill suited to it. At some point, we all fall short of expectation, but we don’t get to quit.  Decent parenting (I’m not talking stellar, just decent) is utterly vital to the health of society and individuals.  So we pick ourselves up, open up a bottle of wine when the kids go to bed, and do the best we can.

A compatriots make difficulties easier to bear.

Compatriots make difficulties easier to bear.

Except sometimes, we can’t pick ourselves up quickly. Quickly is important, because the battle doesn’t stop because we’ve fallen down. Today I was overwhelmed. I no longer have that group of pre-school moms to lean on, strategize with, and encourage. My friends picked up the phone and were the support that I needed. I am so grateful. They may not even realize what it meant to me to have them reach out and pull me up. They patched me up and sent me back into the fray, reminded that I was not alone and that any parent worth her salt feels inadequate at times.

Let's go for coffee, I mean, cheap therapy.

Let’s go for coffee, I mean, cheap therapy.

I will look for places to do the same for others, when they hit a rough spot. It increases goodness and we all need help eventually. Ask for help when you need it, and be there when others need you. Both sides of the equation make this hard and vital job of raising people easier, kinder, and less harrowing. Be kind to each other. Kids, be kind to your old moms and dads. We’re actually working hard at this, even if it doesn’t look like it.

Mother’s Amnesia

How Second Children and Golden Nostalgia are Made

When you are pregnant with your first child, women of a grandmotherly age tell you to treasure each moment because it is the best time of your life. I have always been dubious of this gushy advice. Even before birthing my first, I took it with a chunk of salt. It couldn’t be true when every mother of young kids I saw looked tired, harried and in need of a nap. Now I understand. Nature programs selective amnesia into the minds of mothers. If she did not, she would find it difficult to convince any of us to have more than one child. But as soon as you deliver that grapefruit sized head from your body, you start to forget the sensation. It’s chemical fact.

Doux rêves- Firmin BaseYes, mothering is the most important thing I do. Yes, it has its moments of joy- hearing my daughter’s belly laugh, watching an older brother help a younger one without prompting.  I will be honest; those moments are precious and infrequent. They happen without warning, and I have to be ready to catch them. Often, they happen and I miss them because I’m busy burning dinner or digging in the mismatch bin for two socks that are in the same color family.

I don’t love the job, but I love my children and I am able and willing to take a stay-at-home position in service to their personhood and an immense sense of responsibility I feel for giving them the best tools I can and a sturdy foundation to build on.

There are stay at home parents who adore the job. (I don’t know who they are, but I’m sure they exist.) On a day-to-day basis, it is mostly laundry, meals, and interruptions, and I never leave the office. When all three children were at home, I operated in stupefying chaos and nothing I cared about was under my control. I didn’t go to the bathroom on my own terms.  It’s getting better as they get older, but it is still a mess. I plan a nice dinner and someone drops/breaks/gets stuck in something and dinner goes unmade. A preschooler dumps a cup of milk into a basket of folded laundry. Order crumbles into disarray, like graham crackers in a car seat.

Sisyphus, artist unknownAll my tasks, except the long game of raising adults, are cyclical and eternal in nature: completing their tight little circle in a day and demanding to be done once again. Sisyphus didn’t have it so bad. He rolled that stone in peace and quiet and, as far as I know, no one vomited down the front of his tunic.

While this is all true, it is also true that the work is immensely significant and challenging. If I bring new humans into the world, I owe it to them and the world to do whatever I can to help them become a blessing and not a burden to the world. Doing so requires being honest with who they are  and I am.

Nothing cuts down your ego like parenting. Your children will embarrass you in Target. “Mom, that woman [pointing, of course] is so big! Do you think she’s a Bigfoot?” I bent down and said, “Oh, little girl, where is your mother? Let’s go find her.” and led the blabbermouth away as quickly as possible. Good times.

All pretense is stripped away as you rock a fussy baby at 2:00 am, or sit in a steamy bathroom at 4:30, trying to help your sick 5 year-old breathe. There are no breaks and the façade you keep up for others and yourself falls to pieces under the strain, leaving you facing your true self- all the good and ugly bits.

You make goals for your kids. You want them to eat kale, read Chinese, love baseball, be healthy and kind, but you have very little control over any of it. You are dealing with an autonomous being, and their free will and luck do a lot of thwarting your best intentions.

At the very least, parenting opens your eyes to what your parents did for you. You become aware of sacrifices to which you were blind. You forgive their faults because you realize that you have some of the same ones. Your parents taste a sweet little justice, sending sugared up kids home from their house, or watching you struggle with a mouthy teen. Grandparents should enjoy it; they earned it.

It is hard, long, and difficult. And darn it, if those old biddies weren’t right. The days drag, but the years fly. Before I know it, I will be teaching them to drive, and moving them into apartments. I will be wistful and weepy because Nature will have done her merciful kindness and I will carry the golden moments in my heart, the others, still there, but faded in the background.

"The Three Ages of Woman", detail, Klimt.

Perhaps I’ll remember myself as a very pale white woman.

How Can I Keep From Singing?

Piano_bokeh_by_NickKoutoulasEvery once in awhile, I get to witness a piece of performing art that really works. All the parts are there- the performer fully synthesizes the work and effectively conveys its beauty and purpose. Such performances stick with me and I always feel lucky to have been there, especially when they are unexpected.

No one goes to student recitals expecting great art. My reluctant pianists, Q and Bear, were slotted to play on the program, and that is the only reason I was there. (I do enjoy music school recitals- assuming they are not longer than one hour and the string players all have a general grasp of the difference between whole and half steps.)

A five-year old in a double-breasted suit and superhero sneakers started us off. His face was serious and his 8 bars were just what you’d expect. There were girls in flouncy dresses, boys in khakis and button downs. The young ones tend to be calm and matter of fact. The older children have nerves when they bow, but not when they play. It is the teenagers that I root for- fighting nerves through every measure, hands shaking whenever not engaged in playing. One of them made the sign of the cross over himself when he finished.

Halfway through the program was John, a singer. I’ve seen him at other recitals. He’s only studied voice for a year or two. He walked to the side of the piano, smiled at the audience, and waited for his accompanist. I saw him counting out the measures of introduction in his head. He sang. His is a soft voice, not powerful or lithe. There is a quiver in it. I don’t think it was because John was nervous. I think it’s because he is at least seventy.

4267059618_af54737fc0_z Effective music is not about showcasing technical perfection. Ultimately, it is about communicating the deepest emotions of the human experience. John emoted his song, transmitting it with his body language, as well as his voice. The poetry was in the combination of the lyrics and this performer, a man who has lived long enough to know the sorrows and difficulties of life, who’s age shows in his face and his walk. Yet he stood in front of a room of strangers and sang with such joy and gratitude that I was moved to tears and inspired to live that same way- to learn new things as long as I am able, to squeeze as much living as I can out of life, and to remain grateful for each day and every good thing.

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the sweet, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?
 
What though my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Savior liveth;
What though the darkness gather round?
Songs in the night he giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?
 
I lift my eyes; the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smooths,
Since first I learned to love it;
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing;
All things are mine since I am his—
How can I keep from singing?
                        -Robert Wadsworth Lowry

 

 

How to Lose Friends and Irritate People

I like social media. It connects me to people I would never see in person, but who enrich my life through our digital society. That said, I am sometimes made ill by the behavior I see online- the vile way people talk to and about each other. We behave abominably online in ways that, I hope to God, (I actually do; this is not a taking-name-in-vain violation.) we would never ever behave face to face. After years on Facebook and being witness to much keyboard ugliness, I’ve developed a rule for myself. If you are tired of rabid pedants, aggressive strangers, and other senseless bile, read on.

The Cocktail Party Rule

Old-Fashioned

Old-Fashioned.

Here’s the groundbreaking idea: If you wouldn’t do something at a cocktail party, don’t do it online. Mind blown? No? Good, then there is hope for us.

Before I flesh out this common sense, shouldn’t even have to mention it idea, let me say that all this assumes that the reader has basic adult social skills and is not a complete ninny.

Other People’s Houses

Pages, updates, editorials, etc.

When you arrive at a friend’s house/online space, you are on her turf, interacting with her life and her family/friends/co-workers. For goodness sake, be on good behavior. Assess the tone of conversation; watch your language; engage in charming and mindful small talk. Save complaining about your gouty toe until after dinner and a few glasses of wine. While the other guests there are strangers to you, you are all valued friends of the host.

If someone starts talking about a movie they hate and you love, do you call them a tasteless hack and curse at them? No, because that shows disrespect for your friend’s friend and, by extension, your friend. Also, you are an adult and understand that people have different opinions about every single thing in life.

There are a few types of individuals who damage good social interaction, in person or online. Here are a few of most odious.

The Blowhard

This individual operates under the false notion that passion and knowledge for a subject override common decency towards complete strangers. Even more confounding is when her passion overrides respect for people she does know and calls “friends.”

316350341_00239c8fc2The Blowhard typically sees herself as exceedingly correct in her opinions and feels the need to enlighten or shame everyone within range with her brilliant take on a given subject. She thinks she holds the monopoly on truth and that only misled, bad, or stupid people could have an opinion different from hers. It is a precariously high pedestal on which to balance, and if you rock it, even just a little bit, she will respond defensively with a hiss of vitriol and anger, instead of setting her feet on solid reason.

Don’t attack your friends’ friends, ever- in person or online. Learn to disagree on point without belittling the individual. No one was ever persuaded to change his mind on a subject by being called an idiot.

Changing opinions is a long process, unless the opinion under pressure is not well formed in the first place. We are far likelier to succeed at increasing the understanding of both parties. The best way is to welcome the examination of ideas. This requires both sides to remove their opinions from their person, lay them out and examine them together, as partners. This is far less emotionally satisfying because it requires us to control and scrutinize ourselves. Unfortunately, a lot of people seem incapable or unwilling to do this.

If you want to rant against the Republicans or excoriate the President, that’s fine; do it on your own wall. I don’t like this either because vitriol is poison, but at least don’t inject it into others’ space. I have seen countless good Facebook conversations hijacked or ended by a blowhard with an ax to grind. The great thing about social media is that you don’t have to get involved in a conversation if you are angry or can’t set aside your righteous indignation. Rest your fingers; you might get carpal tunnel.

The Honest Jerk

“I’m sorry, but I’m just being honest.” This is a common excuse for being rude, as if honesty and respect are mutually exclusive.  What exactly is the Jerk being honest about? It can’t be the facts of an argument because facts and logic stand on their merits and are not dependent on verbal muscle to be convincing.

This is an honesty of emotion. The Jerk is irritated/threatened/mad that others don’t share his view, so he expresses that to the detriment of his argument. Because the Jerk is ruled by his emotions, he will call you names and make wild, hysterical assumptions about the other. I recently saw a comment by a woman who said that she teaches her children that any man who is pro-life is a child-molester… – wild, hysterical assumption. Oh, her lucky, lucky children.

I’m not sure why people hold public emotional honesty in such high esteem. When children indulge in it, we call it a ‘tantrum.’ It must make Jerks feel better and they justify it by its being honest and natural. Body odor is also honest and natural, but I don’t particularly enjoy my own, why should I put up with yours?

If you are interested in a good exchange of ideas, a dance of minds- temper your temper. It takes self-control and effort to construct a disagreement around ideas and not emotions, but you will get your point across better. It will not be overshadowed by a tantrum. Yell your anger/fear/disdain at your screen, in the privacy of your own home where no one will see the ugliness.  Don’t put it on a public forum, where the outburst will live forever.

The Quoter

You know that guy you knew in your 20s, the one who communicated almost exclusively in movie quotes? While impressive in the sheer volume of minutia committed to memory, that guy is tedious. Don’t be his equal in digital society- the person who only posts third-party links and never has an original thought. If I’ve added you to my social circle, it is because of you, not because I need you to filter for me everything that Huffington posts.

All those memes are not funny either, not in aggregate. It’s like the drunk at a party who holds everyone hostage with a chain of knock-knock jokes. Share one or two, then give it a rest. Political memes are the digital equivalent of protest signs and are therefore obnoxious by default. Use them sparingly.

Tell me what you are thinking. Hell, show me what you’re eating for lunch. Show me your cute pets. Tell me about your kids. Give me a good book review. Express yourself directly because we are friends and I want to read about you.

The Competitor

Red Boxing Gloves Hanging on WallThis one is easily combined with the other social irritants. The Competitor sees any argument as a win or lose proposition. She does not let up. It is as if she wants her “opponent” to tap out and declare her the winner. Sorry, hon, that is not how the real world works. State your case as best you can, answer any resulting queries, and leave your brilliant rhetoric to simmer in the brains of your conversation partners. If you argument is convincing and you have not been a Jerk, they may come back for a second helping of your wisdom.

Be A Bouncer

It is so easy to fall into these patterns. We’ve all done it, but we need to control ourselves, like we do in real life. Because, in modern culture, digital society is real life. Unfortunately, social media is a terrible medium for dialectic. Only telegram could be worse. Good written arguments take a lot of time and words to construct, and even then, nuance is tricky and the recipient can’t interrupt and ask for clarification. A public space full of knee-jerk writing is simply not the place to discuss important and delicate issues. It is barely the place to take a stand on something as benign as feta vs. chèvre. There is always some troll lurking about.

We can encourage good behavior by practicing it ourselves, and reminding ourselves that a difference of opinion is just that. It does not lessen or threaten anyone’s validity or humanity.

Let’s be less tolerant of rabid pedants. Don’t engage with a name-calling jerk. Don’t respond to a blowhard. Tell them that you won’t continue the exchange because of their rude behavior and failure to control their emotions.  Then, stay away or unfollow the thread.  If the pedant is on your wall, insulting your friends, remind them to be civil and, if they persist, erase their comments and send them a private message explaining why. I would love to know how you respond to bad behavior in your online space.

Please, let’s hold ourselves to a higher standard. I will likely have to log out during the next election year. And then I will miss out on countless pictures of dinner and trifling cat memes.

To the Letter

An appreciation of the ancient pairing of pen and paper.
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I have carefully saved every single letter I’ve received since I was a child, and a rough draft for every letter I sent out before I was too busy to write rough drafts (about age 23.) The oldest are yellowing in an old square cookie tin in my childhood room. I’m sure my mother would love me to finally empty out that closet. The more recent are in a file cabinet, each in its envelope.  I burned and discarded my adolescent journals. (They practically burned themselves, so full of sap and crackling teenage angst.) But I will not willfully part with the letters. They are the souvenirs of affections and friendships, and the memories of the very best times. No one takes the time to write a trivial letter. They are all precious.

Poetry and power lie in the very physicality of letters, in holding the words of another. Letters reflect the time and place of the writing- postcards, stationary unique to locale, the age and type of paper. They bear witness to the state of the writer at the moment of composition- the way he shaped his letters, the speed and neatness of the writing, the strength of the pen strokes. They can carry the scent of a place and the markings of their place of origin.  They may be read over and over again without the aide of an electric screen. They can be kept in a pocket. They can be treasured.

Reading a letter in someone’s handwriting is like hearing her voice. I know the handwriting of my family members and letter writing friends by sight.  For the recipient, there is meaning in holding this thing that was created in the hands of a friend, lover, family member, honored or even unknown person. I love letters- short ones, long ones, ones with doodles, tear stains, or chocolate smudges.

(Not Hot Swede)

Hot Swede and I spent the summer before we were married apart. I was at the Chautauqua Institution for most of the summer. He was at home in Minnesota and on tour as a member of a nascent chamber music ensemble.  I received a letter from him every day but Sunday, when the mail was not delivered. Every day. They are written on proper stationary, with interesting stamps, in as neat a penmanship as his left-hand and our right-handed language allows. I treasure each one. Combined with all the letters I sent in reply, they make a stack just under a foot tall.

Nothing did more to convince me that this was a man worth combing my hair for than receiving and reading all those letters. Each one was a gift. Hot Swede had never written letters before but did so because he knew how much I value them. They are love letters, descriptions of the day, musings on music and friends, questions begging reply. I soaked them all up. (Since saying the old “I do” 13 years ago, he’s written me one letter…and it was an apology. Ha!)

A handwritten letter is always a gift- completely unique and created with only one reader in mind. The sender takes the time to craft a personal message and present it in a way that reflects not only her thoughts, but the very movement of her hand and the tactile imprint of her surroundings. A letter is a record of a moment of her thinking of someone else.

Of course, these memories can be recorded digitally. Social media makes it easier than ever to stay in touch. We share messages, photos, jokes, and have destructive ideological typing matches that only result in raised cortisol levels and people behaving like the very worst kind of pedants. We Skype family around the globe for less than the cost of a .44¢ stamp. People are doing plenty of writing. My 2nd grader has a blog. (We started ours at the same time, how cute.) Facebook et al are powerful tools- facile, ubiquitous, and cheap. I like Facebook. I’ve rekindled valuable relationships that enrich my inner life and significantly allay the loneliness of being a stay at home parent of young children. It is useful and I enjoy it.

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Twsbi 540, medium nib. It even makes writing checks less painful.

None of it replaces ink and paper for its ability to carry deep significance and leave its mark on the soul. Who doesn’t enjoy getting a real letter? I love writing them too- choosing my ink, pen and stationary, feeling the scratch of my nib on paper, enjoying the pleasing sight of a sheet filled with the lines and curls of the Latin alphabet in cursive. Each time I write a letter, thank you note, or sympathy card, I say, in the very action of taking the time to connect in this ancient way, “I value you. This is important. I mean what I say.”

I am resolved to write more letters. I am resolved to write to remaining influential pedagogues and family and thank them for their lessons. I am resolved to keep my promise of writing letters to my children each year.  I want my words and gratitude to be present in their lives, even when I cannot, and not as a memory, but actually there, in hand, in view.

Need more inspiration to write a letter? Check out the amazing collections of letters over at Letters of Note. (Yes, I know it’s run by a company who trades in online correspondence. The irony is not lost on me. Check it out anyway. You will be rewarded.)