Saturday, January 29, 2011

Worth Reading: Knuth & De Rossi

I returned two books to the library today, both of which were worthwhile reads.

The first was Thrift Store Saints: Meeting Jesus 25 Cents at a Time, by Jane Knuth. Knuth lives in the Kalamazoo area and is an eighth-grade math teacher. Fifteen years ago, she stopped into the St Vincent de Paul thrift store, to buy a rosary, and somehow came away as a new volunteer.

At her first meeting with the others who ran the store, she suggested that she could organize the paperwork with a computer system, to use "for inventory control, paying bills, client files, and make it possible for customers to use credit cards for purchases" (She had been shocked to learn that she couldn't pay for the rosary with her credit card). The other volunteers rolled their eyes, and one octogenarian said "What we could really use is someone who would take out the trash every night and clean the bathroom."

The stories in "Thrift Store Saints" illustrate Knuth's changing perspective, as she focuses on the people who come into the store, listens to them, and learns from them about Jesus, and about serving others.

The second book was Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain, by Portia De Rossi. I don't remember where I heard about this book, and when I picked it up at the library, I didn't even remember reserving it. It turned out to be an astonishing read.

The WebMD internet site says "Anorexia affects both the body and the mind. It may start as dieting, but it gets out of control. You think about food, dieting, and weight all the time. You have a distorted body image. Other people say you are too thin, but when you look in the mirror, you see a fat person."

This is exactly what De Rossi relates in her book, in blunt, straightforward detail. She describes her career, beginning as a teen model, and progressing to a role in Ally McBeal. The thread that runs throughout is her attention to her weight. Success is measured by her scale, and by whether the studio tailor has to take in or let out her costumes.

For me, one of the most chilling episodes in her book occurred when she was visiting her family during the Christmas holiday. Her family and friends were all horrified at her appearance; her brother cried as he expressed his fear that she was going to die.

Christmas morning, she was weighing herself, ever so carefully, so that she would have an "accurate" reading. She describes how precisely she steps on the scale, at just the right moment. She writes,
I was ready to receive my Christmas present, the gift of health and self-love that I'd given myself this year. With complete calmness and acceptance, I looked down at my feet.
"Merry Christmas, Portia"
It is scary that she was so pleased, that she believed she was in such good health, while all around her could clearly see that just the opposite was true. 

De Rossi weighed just 82 pounds when she collapsed on a movie set. Subsequent tests revealed just how physically ill she had become - and this finally gave her "permission" to stop focusing on her weight.

We need to teach our girls to obsess about life, not weight...!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Last Saturday: A Day in the Life

Although I have no fixed rules for my blogging, I did have in mind to blog at least once a week - so what happened last week? Hmmmm. Well, in at effort to share something, let me just walk through last Saturday - it was a pretty nice day, all in all.

I started the day early - 5:30 am - no small accomplishment for me. Getting up is one of the hardest things I do all day. It was not always this way; after all, I attended early-morning seminary for four years! But things change, and although I love getting up early to see the day begin, I also love to dig deeper into my coccoon of blankets, for an extra snooze. Unfortunately, the two inclinations are not really compatible.

I was on the road by 6:30 am, heading to the Detroit Temple. As always, I thought about how easy travel is these days. I always think about early church members, traveling west some 20 miles a day, struggling with road conditions - or building the roads as they went - and subject to the elements. My trip was in the comfort of my car, with its protection from wind and snow, and its effective heater. I listened to my iPod and to the radio, and of course to Thelma (our GPS lady). (What is on my iPod? I listened to episodes of Never Not Knitting; Ready Set Knit; Stash and Burn; and The Writer's Almanac).

Leaving so early, I watched the day dawn: it was lovely. At one point, the sky was morning grey, with an open field stretching to the horizon, and bare trees lined along the background. Behind them, pink heralded the rising sun. In the foreground, one lone tree raised its branches. I thought, "What a beautiful scene." And that was the moment I realized I'd forgotten to bring the camera, notwithstanding my good intentions. (This would be the reason this blog post has no pictures...)

I arrived with plenty of time to spare, so I waited in the car a few minutes, and knit a few rows on another Hill Country Hat (don't you always have knitting in your car?). And then I very much enjoyed my time in the temple. Afterwards, I visited with Paul & Rachelle & kids. Rachelle served a delicious lunch (Jim would probably be happy if I occasionally cooked something as yummy as Rachelle's cooking), we chatted, we fussed over Molly (the Boston Terrier). She (Molly) is both a kisser and a jumper - an awkward, but endearing, combination.

Then we were off to the Plymouth Ice Festival.  We enjoyed the ice sculptures, but the weather was really really cold: 14 degrees, colder still with the wind chill. Paul kindly bought hot chocolate for all, which saved us. (My nose was so cold, I considered plunging it into the hot chocolate - but that seemed a bit extreme, and a waste of good cocoa...)

Back at their place, we visited some more while our fingers thawed, and then headed home (in my lovely, warm car, of course). More time with the iPod: conference talks, and The Writer's Almanac. Somewhere between Battle Creek & Kalamazoo, I realized it was snowing. By the time I got home, the flakes were large & fluffy & coming down steadily.

Jim & I ate, I knit some on the baby blanket, and we watched Dogs 101. Check out the Kooikerhondje - a cute little dog, with an unusual skill. And so we ended a Fine Day.

Here's one of the poems I listened to on Saturday. I like its description of feelings in a marriage, the ups and down, the routine pleasures and challenges:
Wedlock Sunday
by Gerald Locklin

she is working in the garden,
facing away from me,
trimming the bougainvillea,
still trim herself and youthful,
relaxed and free of cares,
doing something she enjoys,
something that she always has enjoyed,
and having lost all conception of
the passing of the hours,

and i feel a tenderness for her
that i may never have felt during
the selfish passion of young manhood,

and i wish the bitterness that
have more than merely punctuated
our thirty years together
could be magically obliterated
(which will never happen-let's
not kid ourselves-but perhaps for the
rest of this afternoon and evening
they will be.

i resolve to do and say
only kindnesses to her
over dinner and in front of
the pbs mystery that we've been following

and not to react to
any sarcasms or schemes
she may slip into out of habit, hunger,
merlot, tiredness, or contemplation of
the work week's rattling hours
of third graders, parents, colleagues,
homework, grades, and art projects,

lying once again in wait for her.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Pondering Loneliness

I recently read Emily White's memoir, "Lonely." Her book was interesting, but definitely not a quick read. White explores loneliness from the perspective of her own experience, relates experiences from other lonely persons, and also cites extensively from research (and I confess, some of the research was a bit of a slog).

In today's world, we understand and accept depression. We know how to talk about it, and we sort of know how to treat it. Loneliness, on the other hand, is not spoken of, or, if it does come up, is brushed aside. White's goal, I think, is parity for loneliness: a societal understanding of the problem, a willingness to discuss instead of dismissing it. She writes
Studies suggest that close to 10 percent of North Americans struggle with persistent loneliness, but we don't want to think of what life is like for these millions of people. We don't want to imagine what it's like to feel lonely day after day and month after month. We don't want to dwell on the circumstances of a life marked by strong feelings of isolation, and by long stretches of aloneness. Telling ourselves that loneliness is just depression is a way of closing the door on the state. It means we don't have to hear from the lonely, we don't have to understand what their lives are like. We can say, "You were just depressed," and in this way completely shut out what the lonely might be trying to say.  (Page 30)
My mother once told me that her mother, my Nanny, felt she had no friends. Even so, my mother remembered that when Nanny died, so many people spoke of how much she meant to them. How could all those people have considered her a friend, and yet she felt alone? I thought of this when I read Adam's experience:
"I had a really interesting conversation last night," says Adam, the illustrator from Rhode Island, who was trying to explain his sense of social relations as too glancing and thin. "A friend asked why I wasn't coming to the gay running group anymore, and why I wasn't doing this and that, and I said, 'You know, I go to these things, and when I'm there, people pat me on the back and say, "Adam, it's so great to see you." But I don't know what it is. It doesn't feel like anybody, when I'm not there, is saying, "Where's Adam?"' And I was kind of struggling for words to describe it, and my friend said, 'Nothing sticks.' And I said, 'Yes, that's it exactly.' Nothing sticks."  (Page 81)
All these people were friendly with Nanny, probably even thought they were close friends, and yet for her, it didn't "stick." How can we help someone for whom friendship doesn't stick? How can we befriend them in a way that they can find believable?

Here's another incident that made me think of Mom & Nanny:
"At home the phone doesn't stop ringing," says Katherine, a thirty-year-old policy analyst from Nova Scotia. "My mother's always talking to someone or another." Comparing her mother's gregariousness to her own lack of a social circle, Katherine adds, with a bit of a laugh, "I was thinking, 'My mom has way more friends than I do.' But then we had this chat one night, and she said, 'I don't feel like I really have any real friends. People call, but they're just calling to get the gossip.' So my mom feels lonely too." (Page 103)
Recently, I was talking with a friend about another woman, who has been struggling with personal issues, and who lamented that she is lonely. My friend conjectured, and I agreed, that "she needs to make an effort to get to know people."

Things I read in White's book made me regret that judgment. For instance:
The notion that a life might feel chronically underpopulated, or that existing relationships might feel too loose and inconsequential, is something that many lonely people insist others fail to understand. "You don't know it unless you've been there," says James, the Quebec-based engineer, who's suffered from loneliness for over ten years. "I mean, most people define loneliness as, 'Oh, gosh. I haven't seen my boyfriend or girlfriend in a week, and I'm lonely, and I'm sitting here waiting for the phone to ring.' That's not what a long-term situation is. You can be functioning quite normally in society and still be unbearably lonely." The lack of awareness about loneliness means that trying to raise the issue with a health-care provider can lead exactly nowhere. "I've mentioned it to my doctor," says James, "and he's kind of brushed it off, saying, 'You should get out more. It will do you good.' Trying to explain it to him - it doesn't register." (Page 81)
Or this:
What seemed to bother lonely people was not that they lacked social skills, but rather that they had good skills but found themselves cut off from using them. Presented with social opportunities - opportunities they knew they needed in order to fend off their loneliness - they found themselves retreating, and becoming less likely to accept invitations or join group outings.

"There'll be a mixer announced for after work," says Katherine, the Nova Scotia policy analyst. "And I'll think to myself the whole day, 'I should go to this, I should go to this, I should really go and meet some poeple.' And then I don't go, because I feel weird about it." Katherine stresses that she knows how to socialize - on the phone, she's funny and cheery - but says that she's become inhibited, and more likely to withdraw than spend time with others. (Page 151)
Or this:
"[People giving advice] just say, 'Try to go out and meet new people,'" notes Ray, the fundraiser from Philadelphia, who's told a few family members about his loneliness. "And I've never really understood how that's exactly done, I guess," he adds with a quiet laugh. "It's almost like saying, 'Well, if you feel like playing baseball, why don't you go and join the major leagues?' It just seems like such a huge thing to do."

"It doesn't really get to the heart of the problem of being lonely," agrees Frances, the physiotherapist from Missouri, who told her mother about being lonely. "Her reaction was 'Well, if you just go out and meet some people, you'll be fine.' But it's not that you don't know people, it's that you don't feel connected to them." (Page 259)
How can I draw people out, encourage them to participate, help them to feel connected, and not to feel “weird?”
The solution, Starkey [a former social worker in northern England] emphasizes, is not to walk away, but to take active measures to try to help the lonely person. "It's a human right," says Starkey, passionately, referring to a sense of belonging. "And I think it should be a full society issue. This is an issue for everyone." (Page 277)
White concludes
I thought I could somehow subdue the state [of loneliness] myself. But I couldn't. I can't. What I need is the comfort that can be provided by someone else. I'm not, despite adequate skill or powerful desire, able to write an end to my own loneliness story. This ending has to come from outside, from someone else, from someone who takes me by the hand and leads me away from the state, away from the word, away from the feeling that's been mine for so long. (Page 332)
What to do? What active measures should I take? How do I take someone by the hand and lead them? What will help someone to find a sense of belonging?

For starters, I think I can be aware. I can invite and reach out to others, try to involve them, call them when I've missed them at a gathering. I can be patiently non-judgmental.

And because White’s book made me ponder these things, I'm glad I read it.

Monday, January 10, 2011

What's "In" for 2011: Relationships

It seems that a popular substitute for making New Year's Resolutions is to choose a word or theme for the year. I decided that my word for 2011 is 'relationships.' What does one do with a word-for-the-year? I suppose it starts with simply being aware of what that word implies and how it affects your life, and then being open to appropriate changes.

One obvious subset of relationships is family, and I do want to make family a priority this year. Given the number of extended family members that Jim and I have between us, that could be a full-time undertaking.

Here's the current census:
Siblings & their spouses: 8
Nieces & nephews & their spouses: 24
Grand-nieces & grand-nephews: 8 (with #9 arriving soon)
In keeping with this challenge, Jim & I drove over to Chicago on January 1, to finally meet the young lady who currently (but not for long) holds the title of 'youngest relative'. We enjoyed lunch with Dave & Joyce &
David P & Cassie, talked a good bit, did a bit of singing, and fell in love with Miss N. Jim was particularly captivated by her - although we have no photographic evidence to prove this.

Here are the photos we do have:

The inimitable Miss N herself
Proud Papa David P.

I knew I didn't have any pictures of Jim, but I thought we had one of Cassie. I'll have to speak with the photographer...!

Robin & Miss N

Thursday, January 6, 2011

It's Starting to Look Like Michigan

We haven't had much snow yet this winter. As of yesterday, our seasonal snowfall was 17.3 inches - just over half the normal amount by now. But we're under a lake effect snow warning through tomorrow, and the snow has been falling all day.

This is what the park looked like when Bonnie & I ventured out at lunch.

I'll add some more wintry pictures, but first - knitting!

Last Christmas (2009), Jim gave me some very nice yarn - 90% cashmere, 10% silk - and I used it to knit this scarf for him. It's nothing fancy. I cast on 26 stitches, started & ended with 5 rows of seed stitch, and in between used the "Squares 2" pattern from the stitch dictionary "400 Knitting Stitches."

And... I finished Echo the Elephant. I had such fun, knitting this pattern by Ysolda Teague. You start by knitting the head, then pick up stitches & knit the body, then pick up stitches & knit each leg, arm, & ear, stuffing as you go. When the last ear is finished, all that's left to do is embroider two eyes. That's the kind of knitting I love: minimal finishing work!

The yarn is 100% merino, and is pink at the request of a certain young lady who will, I am sure, give this elephant a loving home. The colorful scarf is knit out of sock yarn (45% bamboo, 40% wool, 15% nylon). (I got this sock yarn at our knitting guild's white elephant exchange, and thought it would be perfect for Echo.)

And now - more Pictures of Winter:

I think that something about snow causes it to trap smells; Bonnie is forever burying her nose in search of something - brrrr!

This scene is in the woods near Friendship Village. If you peer closely, you can see that Bonnie is licking snowflakes off her nose.

And here is a bench I would not want to sit on!