Add a Time Constraint

In Option B, Sheryl Sandberg gives a helpful piece of advice to the friends, family members, co-workers and acquaintances of a person who is facing some form of adversity, whether it be grieving the loss of a loved one, struggling with unemployment, or fighting a bad diagnosis. 

When you ask how the person is doing, add a time constraint.  How are you feeling, right now?  How are you coping, today?  How are you doing, this moment?

Sandberg explains that the time constraint acknowledges that a person is going through something hard and living from moment to moment.  “How are you doing today” is a less generic question (let’s face it, how many times a day to we say to people, from close friends to near strangers, “how are you?”) and therefore it doesn’t presuppose a generic answer (“I’m fine.”). It’s a more spacious question, inviting an honest response, which makes it a kinder question, too. 

I think “add a time constraint” is a really sound piece of advice, and one that stretches beyond interacting with grieving or otherwise struggling individuals.  It also helps me to consider my perennial quest for self-improvement, my preferences, my goals, and my ability to find joy in the present moment.

For an example, when I’m occasionally asked a question like “What are your career goals” or “What are you favorite books” I draw a complete and total blank.  These questions are overwhelming, and I don’t know where to begin answering them.  However, if someone asks me “What’s a goal that you have in your professional life right now,” or “What’s the best book you’ve read recently,” I leap on the opportunity to reflect on my current situation and I am able to provide a thoughtful answer. 

I firmly believe that examining our lives and reflecting on our experiences makes for a richer and more meaningful existence.  Reflecting helps us cultivate gratitude for what’s good in our lives and make change where change is needed to improve our lives.  It helps us grapple with our challenges and rejoice in our successes. 

I also firmly believe that we need to set ourselves up to do the things that are good for us — like reflecting.  If something is too hard, we’ll put it off.  If a task is too overwhelming, we won’t begin.  Adding time constraints to reflective questions can help us examine where we are, in the moment. 

Photo by Sonja Langford on Unsplash

3 Things I’ve Learned From Nora Ephron Recently

A high school friend got married the weekend before last, which was the perfect excuse for me to drive to my hometown of Shady Grove for a few days.  I love everything about going home, from sleeping in the twin bed of my childhood to eating my dad’s ever-perfecting sourdough toast for breakfast, to partaking in miscellaneous projects with my parents (and siblings, if they are home), to the now familiar drive from Providence to south-central Pennsylvania. 

There are many times when I wish I lived closer to Shady Grove because proximity would enable me to enjoy all the benefits of home – particularly quality time with my family of origin —more often than I currently do, but taken in and of itself, I don’t mind the driving distance.  It’s actually an aspect of going home to which I look forward.  With a thermos of coffee, a stack of audio books, the heat turned up, and a queue of podcasts, I find the drive comforting, cozy and entertaining. 

On this most recent drive, I listened to the second half of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and an episode of each of my favorite podcasts (Happier and Jesuitical) on the way to Shady Grove, and a few more podcast episodes and Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman on the way back to Providence. 

It would be an understatement to say that my return drive to Rhode Island was enjoyable.  I loved every single word of Ephron’s collection of essays.  She’s a witty and hysterical writer, one of the funniest I’ve encountered, and the audio version of her book was made even better by the fact that it was read by Queen Nora herself.  Naturally, she knew just which words to emphasize, where to whisper and when to pause dramatically.

I’m on a Nora Ephron kick, now, and I’m learning things in addition to laughing my head off.  Here are three lessons I’m taking away from her fantastic work:

1). The dinner party rule of four: in her essay “Serial Monogamy: A Memoir,” Ephron chronicles the cookbooks and chefs who influenced her personal cooking and hosting style, and she pays special tribute to Lee Bailey.  She writes:

The most important thing that I learned from Lee was something I call the Rule of Four. Most people serve three things for dinner — some sort of meat, some sort of starch, and some sort of vegetable — but Lee always served four. And the fourth thing was always unexpected, like those crab apples. A casserole of lima beans and pears cooked for hours with brown sugar and molasses. Peaches with cayenne pepper. Sliced tomatoes with honey. Biscuits. Savory bread pudding. Spoon bread. Whatever it was, that fourth thing seemed to have an almost magical effect on the eating process. You never got tired of the food because there was always another taste on the plate that seemed simultaneously to match it and contradict it. You could go from taste to taste; you could mix a little of this with a little of that. And when you finished eating, you always wanted more, so that you could go from taste to taste all over again.

There’s something so charming about this Rule, isn’t there?  It’s both simple and playful, and – unlike a complicated recipe or an elegant environment – easy for someone like me to adopt. 

2). The worst possible thing could turn out not to be the worst possible thing:  In You’ve Got Mail, Meg Ryan’s character Kathleen is devastated when the corporate chain Fox Books drives her small children’s bookstore – The Shop Around the Corner – out of business.  Why wouldn’t she be?  Being forced to close doors is every small business owner’s worst nightmare.  But closing these doors ends up opening a different set of doors for Kathleen.  No, I’m not talking about the relationship she develops with Mr. Fox himself; she begins writing children’s books.  This turn of events might be high on the cheesiness scale, but I do think it illustrates a true point: we don’t know what life holds, and staying hopeful and open in the face of adversity could lead to new and exciting opportunities.

3). The familiar is funny and interesting: “Write what you know” is an age old piece of advice that probably anyone who has ever written anything has heard.  Cliche as the advice may be, Nora Ephron proves that it’s sound.  She writes about the contents of her purse, her apartment building, her love-hate relationship with beauty products, parenting and food.  There is nothing – absolutely nothing – exceptional about these topics, but Ephron succeeds in crafting superb essays about them because she pays close attention to the details, and because she is so honest and open.  This is a realization worth keeping in mind, for both writing endeavors and being a good conversationalist!

Photo by Daniela Cuevas on Unsplash

People I used to be

“I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.” – Joan Didion

I have an aunt who loves beautiful things — paintings and music and furniture and even well-plated food — in an exceptional kind of way.  Like my dad and their other eleven siblings, she has both an eye for art and an artistic streak herself, and this is evident in everything from the way she speaks to the flair with which she dresses to how she sips a glass of wine.  Time with my aunt is colorful, vivid, passion-filled and abounding with ideas and inspiration.  She seeks beauty whole-heartedly, and when she finds it, she reaches for it — to hold it, to relish it, and if at all possible, to take it home with her. 

In her love of beauty, my aunt has filled her home to overflowing with paintings and tiles and clothing and dishes and sculpture and art books.  And as her shelves, closets, counter tops and cupboards have runneth over, the elegance of each individual item has been lost to clutter and distraction. 

With her deep appreciation for exquisite design, color and texture, it is easy to understand my aunt’s longing to hold on to item after item.  But too much of a good thing is precisely that: too much.  This is true when regarding objects, and it’s true in other areas of life as well.

Personally, I have a hard time letting go of vocational aspirations.  I find working in Faith Formation at a church meaningful, enjoyable and life-giving, but I could also see myself returning to hospital chaplaincy at some point, or maybe Campus Ministry.  I hope to be a stay-at-home mom for some period, at least, and I envision a life as freelance writer.  Simultaneously, I have a pipe-dream of returning to school one day to become a therapist, and there’s a part of me that hasn’t let go of my once-held aspiration to become a social worker.  I also always wonder about my childhood ambitions of teaching at a middle or high school level, within a classroom instead of a church hall. 

There was a time when I might have pursued any of these paths, and there is a place for staying open to the twists and turns of life.  I truly believe that each of our lives hold possibilities that we can’t yet fathom.  But there is also a time and place for letting go, for losing touch with the people I used to be — including their dreams — in order to fully become the person I am now. 

Unlike the Spanish-tile coasters, buried, or the grey silk blouse, stuffed away, I don’t want my potential to positively impact the world and my ability to enjoy the present moment to be lost — overcrowded and, ultimately, trapped by too many other good things.  There’s a time for relinquishing the antique Delft bowl, and resisting the Moroccan silk curtains.  Alluring as they are, there’s no room for them, and they’ll take away from the beauty of what already is.