Monday, February 28, 2011

letting go

Yesterday, on one of my breaks from the computer screen and the research/writing project that is absorbing much of my time, I went over to the old house to sort through file drawers.

We have three metal file cabinets, all of which are so badly rusted from decades of cats peeing on them, that we do not want to move them into the new house. We are replacing them with sturdy modular plastic files. But first I have to go through everything and make the appropriate disposition into "keep," "throw away," and "burn/shred" (for old financial documents, an option that was unnecessary before the age of identity theft).

Some of the decisions are easy. Financial records older than seven years get put in the "burn/shred" pile, those more recent get kept. Warranties and instructions for appliances and gadgets we no longer possess go into "throw away," those that are still relevant go in the "keep" pile.

Other decisions are agonizing. What should I do with the many drawers full of research articles, government documents, interviews, newspaper clippings, and other materials that are the raw data for the dissertation that was the primary focus of my life from 1980 to 1984? Or the later research I did on the National Environmental Policy Act in 1990-1992?

I kept everything, because I always assumed that someday I'd come back to that research, up-date it, extend it, publish it. But it's been twenty years since I've done work in the field of state theory. For twenty years, that field has passed me by. For twenty years, I've hauled all this pile of paper around with me, from one house to another.

The time to throw it away has finally come. If the day comes that I have more time for writing, I would rather spend my time writing fiction, essays and poetry, not trying to rebuild an academic writing career.

So yesterday, drawers of paper went into the big dumpster outside. Given that there was six inches of water standing in the bottom of the dumpster, and heavy rains this morning, that decision to trash all that material is now irrevocable.

An even harder decision centered around letters. I have drawers of folders, each labeled with a friends name, holding letters and cards going back forty-five years. Should I keep them? Throw them out?

There is, of course, the pull of sentiment. Every correspondent was at one time or still is, a loved one, friend, relative, lover. Moreover, as a person who has depending upon saved correspondence for sociological and historical research, I am sensitive to the possibility that some future historian might be looking for descriptive data about everyday life; descriptions at which some of my correspondents over the years have excelled, with humor and insight. On the other hand, I've seen the burden that a life of collecting stuff imposes on children, family and relatives when a person dies.

How to balance those two concerns and the tug of sentiment? Finally I compromised, going through each file, keeping only lengthy descriptive letters and photos, and throwing out all the years of accumulated brief notes, birthday and Christmas cards. Into the dumpster those bags of paper went as well. Also now irrevocable.

Life moves on. Some things have to be let go.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

the report of the "death of marriage" was an exaggeration

November 18, 2010 the Pew Research Center released a research study conducted in conjunction with TIME, that was provocatively, if inaccurately, titled "Decline of Marriage." The research was a survey of Americans' attitudes about marriage and family.

The headline finding of this survey was that 39 percent of respondents to the study agree that "marriage is obsolete." This is an increase from 1978 when only 28 percent thought marriage was obsolete.

The problem is, this is the perception of people, not reality. Moreover, it is the perception of people only 5 percent of whom can accurately describe societies divorce trends for the past twenty years. In other words 95 percent of the respondents to this survey did NOT know that divorce has been declining for the past 30 years.

Turns out that's not the only fact about marriage and the family the respondents got wrong. On seven key questions of fact about marriage and family trends, less than half of the respondents knew what the actual marriage and family trends are.

No wonder their perceptions of marriage and the family are so screwed - they lack the facts.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

pivotal people

I love Facebook. I know that not everyone does, but I do. I love that I have been able to build new ties and bonds with people I've met strictly through the Internet (initially by blogging). I also love that I have a richer connection with the people that I work with and the students that I teach, learning more about their families, their interests, their hopes and fears. But I especially love that I am able to reconnect with people from my past, all the way back to grade school.

Today, I received a friend request from a former student, from my years in Johnstown, Pennsylvania - my first full-time teaching position. We had not lost all touch, corresponding at irregularly for the past 24 years. But now I will finally get to see photos of her husband, her children, her cats, and share more frequently everyday thoughts. Eve mentioned telling her son - now almost college age himself - about me as a pivotal person at a pivotal time in her life. People often speak of teachers and advisers as pivotal, or influential. But as I think about Eve, I realized that she was a pivotal influence in my life at a pivotal time for me.

I was trying to figure out what kind of professor I was, what kind of teacher, what kind of advisor. Eve let me into her life in a way that influenced my ideas about myself as a person and as a professor. She made me feel like I was doing something valuable, because she let me know that I was helping her in her life and career path.

Eve is not the only student to have touched me and influenced me, but there has always been something special about her. Maybe it's because we shared a love of cats (she used to come to my house to visit with my Maine Coon cat Melvin), or because of how courageously she dealt with the internship from hell, or just because she's a wonderful, smart, caring, fun person. I'm so glad that Facebook is allowing us to reconnect on a more regular basis.

Monday, February 14, 2011

humble housewares

My aunt Mary Katherine Greer was 90 on July 4, 1994. Shortly after her birthday, she moved from the small apartment she'd had for nearly a decade to an assisted living facility to be with her younger sister Edith who was recently widowed.

I was recently engaged to my (now) husband John, and Aunt Mary decided to bequeath to me a number of things from her apartment. One was an extraordinary oak library table that John has used as his desk every day for nearly 17 years. She also gave us this huge (and I mean HUGE) box full of all the partially used boxes of aluminum foil, plastic wrap and wax paper she had accumulated. We actually did not have to buy any of those items for four years after we were married.

The final gift, however, was something that I've never actually used: a twenty piece set of stemware (ten large, ten small glasses), with matching serving dishes. At the time, John and I had our belongings crammed into a small two bedroom townhouse. When we moved to Kentucky, we moved into a much larger house, but it was a house with a tiny kitchen and with hardly any cupboards. There was only enough space to put the bare minimum of dishes and glassware for everyday use. No extras, no flourishes.

The stemware my Aunt Mary gave me was, as she explained, not expensive at all. Not crystal. Not hand cut. Just attractive, nicer than the every day tumblers for which we barely had room.

Our new house is smaller than our old house. BUT it has a much bigger kitchen. That was our one non-negotiable criteria in buying a new double-wide. The kitchen had to be huge, plenty of room for two adults to work at one time, for cats and a dog to wander through, and with lots of cupboards so that all the dishes, glasses, serving bowls, pots and pans would have a place so that we could use and enjoy them.

So today I finally, after almost 17 years, unpacked my Aunt Mary's stemware.

Valentine memories

In 1955, my family moved into the home where my mother still lives. It was at that time a working class, blue collar neighborhood almost entirely composed of young families with small children (the products of the Baby Boom). My mother would have been the only college educated woman in the neighborhood, a former school teacher. Unlike the other mothers who wanted their children out of the house so that they could clean and watch soaps, my mother encouraged the neighborhood children to gather at our (never very clean) house.

She taught all the children of the neighborhood games to play (Red Rover, Simon Says, Red light/Green light, Poor Pussy, Duck-Duck-Goose) and supervised the play; she encouraged arts and crafts and allowed children to run in and out of the house at will. At the time, I thought these were games she'd played growing up. It wasn't until decades later that I realized these were things she'd learned in her teaching courses in college or read about in novels, and that her own childhood had very few games (or other children) in it.

Our first year in the neighborhood, my mother started a Valentine's day tradition of exchanging Valentine's within the neighborhood, with children scurrying about before light, hiding from each other, to drop cards at each others front doors.

She did this by inviting the other children into our home for valentine-making craft activities, providing cut paper doilies, and red construction paper. While we cut and pasted she told about Valentine's traditions, which now I realize she had never practiced, only read about.

From 1956 to 1963 all the children in the neighborhood, exchanged Valentine's in this way. By 1964 the older girls in the neighborhood had reached high school, and were too "grown up" for the practice so it died out.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

a year of small stones - 015

orchestrated dance
of mechanical bucket,
scurrying workers
in fluorescent yellow,
and falling tree limbs,
artfully avoiding
passing vehicles
and electric lines.

Thursday February 3, 2011

"small stone 015" is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at
Part of the "river of stones" project

getting older

I am ridiculously pleased with myself about turning sixty this weekend, which is really absurd.

It's not as if the sheer fact of surviving 60 years is any kind of accomplishment in America today. Millions of us 1951 Baby Boomers are marking the big six-oh milestone. Literally hundreds of my personal acquaintances and friends from high school, college and graduate school are marking the same birthday this year. I have one friend here in Whitesburg, our former campus director Eugene, who had his sixtieth birthday last week.

So I can't quite figure out why I feel so smug and accomplished about this particular birthday.

Course, it was nice this morning, when I mentioned that I was turning 60 this weekend -- one of my traditional age students said "no way, I pegged your for not a day over 40." Now that's an ego boost to an old broad like me.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

pausing for a moment

Taking time to notice the small moments of beauty, wonder, intrigue, and humor in the world around me has become second nature, a habit I developed over the past 50 plus years. Not that I always remember every moment of every day to pause and notice, but I try.

The much harder thing is to find the time to record and communicate those observations. Decades ago, I realized that everything in life seemed more real if it was written down, and especially if it was communicated. Both seeing and telling were required.

That is what the January "river of stones" (aros) project challenged, to not only see, but also tell and share. I did not keep up with that challenge, observing much but writing little, and nothing since January 19. But I resolve to begin again, to continue my own year of "small stones."

foreshadows of spring

A tiny glimpse into the future -- potted irises I gave John for his birthday 10 days ago.