On the Page

Book reviews

Fortytuity: Chance Encounters with Life, the Universe, and Everything

Spoiler Alert: For those of you who do not already know this, there is a very, very simple answer to the question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. Remarkably, mind-bogglingly simple.

In The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams wrote about Deep Thought, a computer designed solely to answer just that question. And after running its complex program for seven and a half million years, it announced, “with infinite majesty and calm,” that the answer was indeed very, very simple. The answer was 42.

Don’t you feel better now?

“Forty-two!” yelled Loonquawl. “Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years’ work?”

“I checked it very thoroughly,” said the computer, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”

If you don’t feel better after hearing that, don’t worry. No one else there did either.

I’m not going to take the time to tell you how much I love HHG2G. It’s been my favorite book since 1996 and never seems to lose its charm. (You find another book that clarifies the problems of materialism, capitalism, and organized religion on the first page and doesn’t make anyone angry. Well, very angry, anyway… )

Anyway, as there seems to be no other such succinct answer that makes more sense in light of the human condition, 42 works just fine for me. (Though I did recently read a completely plausible and rational explanation for it, I’m grateful to have spent almost 20 years not knowing it.) So here we are, the human race, continuing to ask, “What is this whole thing about anyway?” and trying our best to cope without exterminating ourselves in the process (though sometimes I wonder about that).

I tend to ask a lot of questions. And my own personal delight is that 42 keeps popping up all over the place, peeking its little pointy-serifed face around corners and grinning at me when I least expect it, hinting at what that unknown question actually is, what this “Life, the Universe, and Everything” is all about anyway. Sometime I think it’s flirting with me. It wants to be noticed, and I try to pay attention.

And so I thought, from time to time, it might be fun to share these things as they pop up. Here’s one:

By somewhat sideways means several years ago, I came across a passage by Florida Scott-Maxwell, a woman I’d previously never heard of, but loved instantly, because of this:

“You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done, which may take some time, you are fierce with reality.”

“Fierce with reality.” Oh, how I love that phrase. Not that you are overly aggressive with some forceful agenda, but just that you are so fully yourself, so aware of who you are, that you are fully alive. I read those words and wrote them down, and they’ve popped back up into my life in a couple of different places over the years. Finally, I managed to track her book down at the library. (It’s called The Measure of My Days—it’s a good book). And I knew it was coming, but when I came to that passage in the book, it struck me again, passionate and fresh. Fierce.

fiercewithreality42And guess what page it was on?

This happens to me all the time. It’s like the universe is giving me clues, like we’re playing a game.

How fortuitous.

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Hope Springs a Turtle

It’s called an eggcorn—a substitution of a word in a phrase that changes it in some way, but still seems oddly right. (They’re a lot of fun—NPR has a great short article and accompanying list here.) At it’s core, I suppose an eggcorn is something you don’t expect that makes you look at things a little differently. Hope does not always spring eternal. Sometimes it springs something else. Like this week.

A few days ago, I finished reading this biography on Dr. Seuss. I couldn’t believe it had taken this long for me to pick one up. In addition to his classics, I’d already known about his advertising work and his war cartoons, but when I got to the part where he met his wife Helen at Oxford, I was sort of enthralled—fully and completely hoping a fairy tale for them. She would watch him doodle in class and finally told him he would be wasted as a professor. “That’s a very fine flying cow,” she said. And she became his inspiration and his support and his encouragement and his rock and pretty much organized his/their life. Until forty years later, when, from the one book I’ve read, it sounds like when she got very ill, he eventually distanced himself from her mortality and “adopted” another family—a still-married woman with two daughters of her own. Physically unwell and deeply unhappy, Helen realized she had made her whole life about him and hardly knew who she was herself any more without being his active partner. She committed suicide.

I’d started the above paragraph saying I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read a biography about Dr. Seuss yet because he was one of my heroes. But then I saw the problem. Dr. Seuss books were and are still some of my all-time favorite books—but I never met or knew the real person. And it doesn’t mean that he wasn’t greatly loveable, or amazingly creative, or a completely worthwhile human being.

It just makes him a human being. But I was still feeling really, really low after I read that. You have these ideas about people from the work they create, and it’s not always what you expect.

And then, there was this morning… in which I picked up a magazine I’d almost instantly thrown away (Rolling Stone), with a story I didn’t intend to read (the cover), about a band I have little personal interest in (Rush)—and my hope sprung a turtle.

Evidently, Rush has been together for 40 years at this point with little internal group drama (“We’re never mean to each other,” says [Geddy] Lee, “so if we disagree, we pout.”), stable relationships with each other, and also long-term faithful marriages—Geddy married his wife, Nancy Young, in 1976.

I read about their relentless rehearsing (still practicing by themselves before they start working together, and then playing on their own even after three-hour rehearsals, that last part “… a pure exercise of joy,” according to Alex Lifeson), their insistence on creativity and craft, and how they drive each other and respect each other, even after all this time together.

“If any of us were the slightest bit less stable,” says [Neil] Peart, “the slightest bit less disciplined or less humorous or more mean, or in any way different, it wouldn’t have worked. So there’s a miracle there.”

And this from a famous rock band from which, in any stereotypical situation, you’d expect chaos, rivalry, animosity, possibly less creativity, and a fair bit, after 40 years, of resting on their laurels. (Though evidently there is still a fair amount of responsibly-ventilated drugs and a lot of very, very impressive sports cars.)

But I was impressed and not just a little inspired. You just never know.

You’ve got to be careful with words. After reading just one book and one article, I still know pretty much next to nothing about the real Dr. Seuss or the real Rush. But it reminds me that things aren’t always what I expect them to be, which is what I loved—and still love—about what I learned from Dr. Seuss.

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The Department of Self-Doubt

For today, a small “What if?” story…

So. Imagine you’re the head of a company called YOU. It’s a pretty complex place, lots of stuff going on, and your job, you’ve always thought, is to make sure everything at YOU runs smoothly. But you’ve always had a hard time making decisions, not sure what’s right, what’s best for YOU, and so you’ve been cautious. But lately there’s been a lot of excitement, a lot of hope, but there’s also been a growing dread, more overwhelming than you’ve ever experienced. And you’re not sure YOU is up to the task of whatever is coming.

You feel out of touch with YOU. Disconnected. You wonder what’s going on down on the ground levels of YOU. You think maybe you should leave the office for a while. Head downstairs. Take a tour. See how things are really going.

You pass all the usual departments—Organization, Coordination, Digestion, Circulation. Breathing. All of that stuff is humming with no problems. Creativity is going strong—you can hear them laughing as you pass by. A little nutty, that crew, but they’re having a lot of fun and you could sense that joy even up in your office. But still, something is jarring…

As you near the end of the ground floor, there’s this horrendous noise growing louder. Getting closer, you see it’s the door marked Self-Doubt. You’d practically forgotten it was there—they’ve been there forever, a small department, behind the scenes. But what the hell are they doing in there now?

You walk inside and floor to ceiling there’s this great contraption cobbled together from miscellaneous ancient parts—office furniture, old computers, adding machines, reel-to-reel tape, light switches, knobs—an old vacuum cleaner? And these two guys are pulling levers and adjusting some array of sensors, completely intense, lost in their work. You remember hiring them mainly to be fact-checkers, desk men, pretty much just to make sure YOU didn’t ever do anything really stupid. What was all this?

“Guys!” you wave and yell over at them. They finally see you, cut the noise down, and come over, grinning. Wiping grease off their hands, they shake yours. “Hi Boss!”

You look around. “Uh, guys? What is all this? I don’t remember all this ever being here.”

They look slightly sheepish and one of them grins and says, “Well, Boss? We were just doing our jobs, you know, but the other departments were running a pretty tight ship—no really weird requests were coming through that anyone thought we needed to look at. We got bored. Really bored. And those guys over in Creativity—they get to make stuff! And they’re having so much fun, so we thought, ‘Hey! We can make stuff too!’ Our job is to keep YOU safe—so we started thinking of all these scenarios and options for things that could be scary or dangerous or pretty much just what could go wrong in any situation in general and then we built a machine that could generate the possibility of all those things based on predictive mathematical formulas! It’s been a huge challenge, but we’ve worked really hard on it, and we think by next year we’ll have figured out everything that could ever possibly go wrong so that YOU will never be disappointed or embarrassed or afraid or hurt ever again. So don’t worry about us, boss. We’ve got YOU covered.”

At this point, you’re rubbing the back of your neck with your hands, massaging the muscles that have gotten so strained over the last few months while you were sitting at your desk worrying, and you finally realize what’s been happening.

But you look back at them. They’re so eager, so earnest. They just wanted to do their jobs. You see their care, their concern, their love, and this crazy contraption they’d built just trying to keep YOU safe. They’d just wanted to help. To make something useful. And you hadn’t been paying attention.

“Uh, guys?” you say, smiling at them. “Would you consider a transfer? You’re both just completely wasted here. Just go on over to Creativity. No paperwork necessary.”

“But what about…?” one trailed off, pointing at the machine.

“Just leave it on low. And maybe just pop over from time to time, just to make sure no one’s doing anything really stupid?”

“Will do, Boss.” they saluted and headed down the hallway. Grinning.

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Asking, Telling, and Making

I’m falling in love with Amanda Palmer a little backwards.

Over the holidays, some people overeat a little. I over-read a little (assuming there is such a thing). But I had a chance to read a lot of books. Good books. And the best of them, hands-down, and a complete surprise to me, was Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting, and it blew me away.

The reason I say I’m falling in love a little backwards is because Amanda Palmer isn’t primarily a book writer—she’s a song writer. And to be honest, I really hadn’t been a huge fan of her music. But reading her book made her a real person to me, and now I see a bravery and a beauty in her music that I really hadn’t seen before. And even now, some of her music is still pretty hit-and-miss with me, but that’s really okay.

I’d thought the book was going to be about her record-breaking Kickstarter campaign—which it was, but that was only the tip of the iceberg. What it was really about was relationships—the art of connecting with people as an artist, about sharing the excitement of stories and ideas and the interplay between any artist and their audience. It was about intimacy. About being seen. About inviting people into an experience where everyone is a willing participant.

Ever since I finished her book, the nature of asking has been on my mind. When we discover that we want something that involves another person, it’s kind of amazing, really, how vulnerable we make ourselves when we really, truly ask for it. Because there are other ways to get it.

Say you meet someone you like. You want to spend more time with them. Here’s a sampling of your options:

Asking: (Looks like: “Will you hang out with me?”) You’re acknowledging your desire with no guarantee you’ll receive what you want. You’re also making it clear that the decision isn’t yours. The power is theirs—they have the freedom to choose their own response. This makes you vulnerable.

Telling: (Looks like: “You should hang out with me.”) You’re implying you’re the one with the power, influencing their choice. But in any situation, people always have a choice. It can be a hard choice, but there’s always a choice. But in telling, you’re making them think they’re the vulnerable one. This is manipulation.

Making: (Looks like: “You will hang out with me.”) It’s not always so bluntly stated (it would be easier to deal with if it was), but in effect, you’re taking away their option to choose and taking what you want by force. You’re telling them they’re powerless, not just vulnerable. This is control.

Now granted, making is not always wrong. If parents only used the option of asking with their kids, I wonder how many kids would ever eat peas? Or try new things? In my own life, years of forced-march piano lessons (which I loathed passionately and complained about constantly) turned out to be the thing that allowed me to skip a year of music theory in college and let me hang out with more of my musician friends, one of whom had a roommate who turned out to be my husband who is hands-down my favorite person ever. So “making” in some relationships? Not always inappropriate. However, “making” doesn’t always have a silver lining like that, so you have to be really careful with it.

But in truly loving relationships, telling and making are never the best options. Because in the best relationships, asking is the only thing that ever winds up with people willingly spending time with each other, quietly watching a movie together, hiking ridiculously hard mountain trails together, laughing hysterically, hugging fiercely, and losing track of vast quantities of time together because they both want to be exactly there, and nowhere else, right then. Because they both chose. Because one of them asked. And the other said yes.

Now granted, sometimes we didn’t know exactly what we were saying yes to, especially in the case of crazy hard mountain hikes. But we did it anyway. And we’re pretty sure it was worth it.

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You Are Who You Meet

I read Su Meck’s “I Forgot to Remember: A Memoir of Amnesia” awhile ago. It’s her own story of having her life vanish at 22 years old, after being hit in the head by the blade of their kitchen ceiling fan. Something’s been bothering me about it—but it wasn’t what I thought it was.

Su’s story is about more than just textbook memory loss of detail, where she couldn’t remember her name, her husband, her children, or her house. She couldn’t remember what those things even were. She didn’t know what it meant to be a woman, or a wife, or a mother. And because no one realized or accepted the extent of her injury, after a very short time in rehab, she was sent back into her normal existence and expected to perform life as an adult, except she was as uncomprehending as a newborn.

With babies, we expect and understand that they don’t know any of life’s logistics. But Su was that blank slate as an adult, completely vulnerable. She had no idea of what was happening or had happened before, and the people around her (including doctors) either denied her condition, covered it up, or even took advantage of it. But she was forced to cope, even if it was all just rote repetition of doing what people had told her to do, or imitating what people around her did. In rehab, she had been taught how to make a tuna sandwich. So after she was sent home, all she ever made was tuna sandwiches, for every meal, because that is the only thing she knew how to make. Imagine what the next twenty years of life were like for her (including the logistics of marriage and pregnancy). She couldn’t string information together, couldn’t understand patterns or people or relationships. And because no one really believed this could be true, they didn’t discuss it with her. And she didn’t ask questions. Because all the while she didn’t understand that she understood nothing.

I got really upset reading her story, which isn’t surprising, since it’s full of unfairness and frustration and pain, but there was something more about it that just kept making my brain itch. What finally dawned on me is that how Su learned things and operated as an adult isn’t really much different from how most of us do it. We all start as blank slates and develop our operating systems, the way we see the world and ourselves, largely based on what we learn from the people around us. Then we take what we’ve learned and run with it—and just keep running.

if this is true, it makes sense that the kind of people you know are (generally) the kind of person you turn into. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s who you really are. Su, having nothing else to go on, became who she thought she should be based on what her family told her to be, and on what she saw the people around her doing. And she continued to make tuna sandwiches for a very long time. (The extent of her trauma did eventually come into the light, but there was no magic fix, and you should really just go read the book.)

Everything goes by so fast. For so much of life, we just keep running with what we’ve learned so far and don’t often stop to look around for ourselves—it’s always a bigger world than we think it is. Always be curious. Ask lots of questions. Tuna is great. But what do you think of peanut butter?

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Making It Up As I Go: The Six-Word Memoir

The myth is that the six-word story concept evolved from a challenge Ernest Hemingway once accepted. He came back with, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Stunning, right? It’s like the counterpoint to “a picture’s worth a thousand words.” Back in 2006, SMITH Magazine took up the idea of creating six-word memoirs and started collecting them. A couple of years later, they published, “Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Famous & Obscure Writers.” (And you can still follow their story experiments here.)

It’s a great book, and though there’s technically no plot (though you could count the hundreds of life stories as individual narratives), it’s extremely hard to put down. These are real people giving you a snapshot of how they view their own lives. Some of the entries are inspirational. “Open road, no map. Great scenery.” A lot are funny and good for a smile. “I fell out of the nest.” But every now and then there was one full of regret that just dropped into my heart with a thud . “Followed rules, not dreams. Never again.” or, “My life’s a bunch of almost’s.” True to reality, our lives are not all witty and amusing, and I was impressed by the bravery of people sharing the hard stuff.

It’s almost impossible not to start imagining what you’d write for your own life, so I started trying to think up my own. A few candidates so far:
• Jumped in pond. Made good ripples.
• Libraries saved me from total bankruptcy.
• Death’s great. No clocks. No clothes.
• Came to terms with snowflake speech.

Think about it. What’s your story?

Categories: From the Lips, On the Page, Uncategorized, Visual Books | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Happy New Year: And Now for Some Thoughts on Death

In what’s usually a time swept up in thinking about beginnings, I’ve been thinking about that other thing. You know, the part where you stop breathing before you start doing whatever comes after that. (We’re not really going to get into that “after” part.) But yes, that thing: death.

Over the holidays, I read a couple of really interesting life stories that involved their endings. One was the biography of Jim Henson (creator of all things Muppet and then some), and the other was Going the Distance, written by George Sheehan (doctor, writer, marathon runner, fitness believer) as he was dying of cancer. Both accounts, though about men with very different career venues, served large dishes of food for thought about the quality of life on a day-to-day basis. I won’t go into too much detail about their stories here, but they’re both good books about great-yet-greatly-flawed men that are well worth reading.

We know, at least intellectually, that we all have a limited shelf life. Sheehan, knowing very acutely that he was actively dying, offered a lot of interesting thoughts on what, if anything, he would/should have done differently (or not), and on what he felt was really important. He noted that:

“Obituaries are filled with achievements that mark those we think of as successful. But obituaries tend to conceal biographies, and those biographies tell us the deficiencies and defeats of even the great and near great… Each one of us is an experiment-of-one. Each is a unique, never-to-be-repeated event.”

Sheehan talked a lot about getting up every day and starting fresh, living days with the goal of “eight hours of sleep and sixteen hours of being happy and productive.” And both his story and Henson’s include a deep belief that a person does the most good when they pursue what they love and are becoming fully themselves. After all, it was Henson, through Kermit the Frog, who said that he just, “wanted to make millions of people happy,” and both men went to great lengths to share joy and a fullness of life with the people around them by doing what they each loved—pursuing what brought them the most true joy in their own lives and letting it ripple out from there.

I like that a lot. There’s a lot of room for growth and joy in living like that, even while knowing we’ve got flaws and will make mistakes. Every day fresh. An experiment to explore with curiosity and joy.

Oh look, this turned out to be about beginnings after all.

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Appropriate Response: Thoughts on a Boring World

The great master Yunmen was once asked by a monk, “What was the Buddha teaching his entire lifetime?” Yunmen answered, “An appropriate response.” – from Reb Anderson’s Being Upright

When I came across this story, I wondered, “What would a world actually look like where everyone actually responded appropriately?” And before I even managed to go look up “appropriate” anywhere, my imagination quickly pulled up this drab, gray picture of a world where everyone was extremely well-behaved and emotionless—boring, unadventurous, unimaginative, and devoid of excitement or joy. It was a world filled with well-dressed people at afternoon tea served with all the “appropriate” silverware. Forever. (No offense to tea-drinkers. I really like tea.)

But oh, what a dull world that would be. Who would read stories about Appropriate Response World? And would anything interesting ever happen there? But I did go look the word up, just to check: appropriate: adj. suitable or proper in the circumstances. I did note the absence of the words “drab, dull, and lifeless,” though, and so I thought about it a little more.

Back to the beginning: what constitutes an appropriate response? In every situation, it’s different. As I shuffled through a deck of examples that came to mind, an idea generally started to emerge that any appropriate response would be made up of actions and/or words that are helpful to each particular situation and are given out of agenda-less caring. Someone’s excited? Be excited with them. Someone’s bruised? Hugs and band-aids. Someone’s hurt you? Don’t hurt back (not helpful)—but be patient, wait out your anger, and figure out what’s really going on. (So sometimes the appropriate response might even just be not responding.)

I began to realize I’d been confusing “appropriate” in Yunmen’s context with my idea of the word “proper.” So now this world is already seeming better. Helpful, supportive. Kind of a nice place. But what about passion, excitement, or adventure? And would anything be funny in Appropriate Response World?

And then I remembered a story about another very wise man…

“What my father figured out was if you can’t get out [of a joke], you just either blow something up, or you eat something, or you just throw penguins in the air.” – Brian Henson (son of Jim Henson, Muppet God)

And there it was—the “Eureka” moment where Appropriate Response World really came into view, and there were all these beautiful colors! I’d been selling it short, having a failure of imagination. Appropriate Response World is filled with options. Proper had been left on the side of the road, miles back where things had to follow conventional rules or fit in to status quo. Appropriate is different, hilarious and exciting. Find a beautiful mountain? Learn how to climb it, explore it, reach its summit. That can be one appropriate response of many. Love the wind in your face? Run a marathon. Try skydiving! (Not inappropriate if it works in your life.) Meet someone completely amazing? Choose to love! That’s definitely not boring and lifeless–and probably even more breathtaking than skydiving! Doing anything when it’s rooted in appropriate response just means that it’s coming from a place of helpfulness and courage a good chunk of wisdom. It has more than enough room to hold intensity, connection, and joy. Big and loud. Small and quiet. A caveat, though—Appropriate Response World isn’t free from pain or surprise or things not turning out as you expected. But in that world you would have learned how to deal with those things (that’s just life anywhere) in ways that were helpful, not destructive. Appropriate Response World would be full of wonder, whatever it involved. And, happily, sometimes it might even involve throwing penguins.

*(Note: While it is not entirely impossible that throwing real penguins would never be an appropriate response, it is more likely to be appropriate if using Muppet penguins.)

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What Makes the Muskrat Guard His Musk?

Courage.

It’s not exactly what I thought it was. It’s not what the Cowardly Lion thought it was. (And, for what it’s worth, it’s not even exactly what the Wizard said it was, either, when he implied that running away from danger was wisdom.)

Even the dictionaries aren’t consistent on courage. Dictionary.com lists courage as “the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear; bravery,” while the OED’s version defines courage as “the ability to do something that frightens one; bravery.”

Notice the difference? In the first definition, courage is doing something “without fear.” In the second, it’s doing something despite being afraid.

I’ve been eyeball-deep in the findings of Brené Brown lately, a social worker and researcher who’s been spending years studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and wholeheartedness. It wasn’t initially what she started out to do, and she ended up completely changing her whole perspective on what courage really is. It’s definitely opened my eyes to a few things. Hint: real courage is about being open. Sound counterintuitive? You’re not the only one.

This exploration has had enough of an impact on me that I’m going to keep this post short, for fear of getting a little wordy with admiration, but I’ll point you to her two talks on TED.com, which she gave several years apart. You can find them here and here. They’re really quite stellar, and they are an entertaining, sincere and fascinating snapshot into how she learned (through bona fide research) that courage is inextricably linked with vulnerability—something that surprised (and terrified) her more than she expected. Her most recent book, Daring Greatly, is a great place to start if you’re looking for a good book to pick up. (Although I am also a huge fan of I Thought It Was Just Me (But it Isn’t), which is a fascinating and practical look into perfectionism—which is also an interesting counterpoint to the traditional definition.)

And so. What makes the muskrat guard his musk? It’s still courage—it’s just not what I thought it was.

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Mine

Mine (possessive pronoun): used to refer to a thing or things belonging to or associated with the speaker.

I’ve been thinking a lot today about the concept of ownership. What’s “mine.”

We learn the word “mine” early, usually as part and parcel of that beautiful phase of life known as “the terrible twos.” Hopefully we grow out of being that stubborn and demanding. But what makes something really mine?

With things, it seems pretty straightforward: “This pencil is mine.” But why is it mine? Because someone gave it to me? Because I exchanged money with someone to acquire it? In the world of Harry Potter, the goblins believe that when someone pays them for an object they crafted, the buyer merely “possesses” the object until their death, and then ownership reverts back to the goblin who made it. Or, for example, in our universe, the vast majority of songwriters write “their” songs, but through a contract, it’s likely the recording company that “owns” the rights. In my life, usually getting something as a gift or paying money for something is enough to make it mine—to do with what I like, until I lose it or tire of it and give ownership of it to someone else. “Ours” becomes a little more complicated, but as we grew up, we learned how to share, or at least that sharing is a good thing. And yet I know a man, the sole breadwinner for his family, who truly believes that because he paid for the house, the vehicle(s), the furniture, the clothes, etc. with his income from his job, that those things all actually belong to him, because he paid for them. The rest of the family may be using them, but in all actuality, all those things really belong to him. Mine.

With the people in normal, everyday life, “mine” is usually more of the “associated with the speaker” part. To pertly clarify that “no, my husband is the cute one over there.” But I think that in relationships it’s tempting to have the feeling of ownership creep in where it shouldn’t. Women do this. Men do this. We do it to feel secure. Or to feel power. Or maybe we feel just a little bit entitled. And there are a lot of traditions where it’s just perfectly normal to consider a wife or a child as the property of the family patriarch. Mine.

In one of my favorite parts of one of my favorite books (Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, which I just re-read for the umpteenth time), Anne, a woman in her sixties, tells a younger man about her marriage:

“Lemme tell ya something sweetface. I have been married at least four times, to four different men… They’ve all been named George Edwards but, believe me, the man who is waiting for me down the hall is a whole different animal from the boy I married, back before there was dirt… People change. Cultures change. Empires rise and fall. Shit. Geology changes! Every ten years or so, George and I have faced the fact that we have changed and we’ve had to decide if it makes sense to create a marriage between these two new people. Which is why vows are such a tricky business… Always and forever! Those aren’t human words, Jim. Not even stones are always and forever.”

I love this passage for so many reasons. And Anne’s character is one of my favorite “fictional” women ever—fictional in definition, but so wise, so real. She talks about choosing her husband again and again. Not about merely holding him to a legal contract, but repeatedly choosing him, who he is, in a new light, even as they both change. Sure, George is “her” husband, but through partnership and choice, not ownership. In what I’ve seen of the world, it feels like relationships start going south the moment when those two things get confused.

Mine.

I wonder, if it had a choice, would my pencil choose me?

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