Today’s my birthday, so my coworkers decided to turn the tables on me by writing a story about me. . . Click the photo below to read the entire story.
Part of my job involves editing the quarterly alumni magazine for the University. This also means that for a few weeks after each issue hits mailboxes, I receive calls from all the people who want their names off the mailing list.
Usually, the people are polite and just inform me that the person on the mailing label no longer lives at that address or that their parent has passed away and no longer needs to be on the mailing list. I express my condolences or thanks, get the information, and pass it along to the person who manages the list.
Early last month, I got a call from a man who I assumed was calling for this reason after he introduced himself. I had my pen ready to take down his address.
Instead, his voice took on an angry tone and grew louder as he spoke. His ire wasn’t fueled by any content in the magazine. Instead, it was the mailing label that had angered him. Pause and consider that: the mailing label.
Addressed to both him and his wife, he was furious that we had addressed the magazine to his wife using the title “Mrs.” rather than a title that reflected her professional position.
A position we at the university were entirely unaware of.
(Note: people often assume that universities automatically receive address updates, death notices and promotion info. We don’t—not unless you tell us.)
I assured the man that using the title “Mrs.” was in no way meant to intentionally slight his wife, but it did little to calm him. He informed me that if we expected him or his wife to do anything for the university, we should give his wife her due. I explained again that there was no intention not to do that. It’s hard to address someone with a title you don’t know they have. I ended the conversation as amicably as I could and went on with my day, but I found myself thinking about it again and again.
I ended the conversation as amicably as I could and went on with my day, but I found myself thinking about it again and again.
In many ways, we’ve become a society that doesn’t give the benefit of the doubt. Like my caller, we assume that any discomfort, small mistake or slight that comes our way is intentional.
Not everything that seems like a slight or dig at you is intentional. That car that cut you off in the traffic on the way to work? Maybe she was late for a presentation and didn’t even see you. That email that seemed snarky and pointed? Maybe the writer was trying to be funny and didn’t realize that humor can be easily misconstrued when there aren’t facial or social cues to tip you off. That person who is being so hard to work with and seemingly making snide comments behind your back? Maybe he or she is going through something personally that you have no idea about.
Sure, sometimes we discover that some people are intentionally trying to be hurtful when their actions erase all doubt. But most of the time, do yourself and those around you a favor and give them the benefit of the doubt!
I’ll let that sink in.
I started the book sometime last year, but lacking the time and mental capacity, I wasn’t really able to engage with it until the end of February. I’m glad I did.
I get that I’m predisposed to like anything Anna Quindlen writes. For some reason, her novels and characters tend to resonate with me. And Miller’s Valley described a small, rural town, and the long slide toward irrelevance. Eventually, the valley is flooded and becomes a recreation area.
These characters somehow seemed like people I know. Recognizable in the familiar faces of my hometown, where family farmers work hard to provide for their families in the way they always have but that our culture is quickly phasing out. Mimi, the driven girl who becomes a doctor and eventually comes back home. Mimi’s brother who goes to Vietnam and comes back different. A family tied to the land that had been in their line for decades. Aunt Ruth who can’t or won’t leave her small house behind Mimi’s and the dark secret she hides.
As an adult, I’ve learned how much my hometown has shaped and formed me. This novel delves into that, the idea of home, the importance of the place and the people who shape the adults we become. It made me cry; it made me laugh; it made me long to visit my hometown and fall into the patterns of the place that built me.
Quindlen’s descriptions are beautiful and poetic at times and none of the characters feel false or undeveloped. Except maybe Eddie, Mimi’s oldest brother, but that gets resolved later in the book.
And maybe that’s also on purpose. The book is told through Mimi’s eyes, starting when she is a child and ending when she is a mother and grandmother herself. So often as kids, we see the adults in our lives as one dimensional and only as we grow older do we begin to discover the nuances of them, the struggles, hardships, desires, hopes and dreams that have fueled and shaped them. And they become three dimensional, flesh-and-blood characters fighting their own battles each and every day that we were blind to for so long.
I think every Anna Quindlen book is worth the read, but this one touched me in a way maybe the others haven’t. Maybe it’s because I read it at a time when I’m undeniably a little homesick—not for my hometown exactly, but for the idea and ideal of it.
It’s probably well documented on this blog that I like podcasts. More often than not, I fill my drive to work or survive Nashville traffic on the way home with a podcast as my sidekick. I listen to a wide variety of podcasts, from ones that are designed to help me grow in my profession to quiz and game shows to longer form stories.
But there’s one playlist in my podcast app (I use Overcast, we’ll talk about that sometime, too, probably) devoted entirely to history podcasts. I’m a longtime listener to “Stuff You Missed In History Class,” and last Friday I discussed my love of “Slow Burn.” But I was served an ad while listening to “Slow Burn” that led me to a new favorite, “Backstory.”
“Backstory” is a weekly podcast hosted by historians. The talk together for some of it, and there are interviews and guests. The hosts describe the podcast as going beyond the headlines to examine how today’s current events can be shaped by American history.
For example, for President’s Day, the hosts tackled the lives of presidents after they left office. I learned things about President Grant that I had never known.
I’m a big history nerd. I recognize that, but I’ve always been intrigued by the way the past informs the present and the future. This podcast delivers on that. It’s as if I’m sitting down with the hosts and having a conversation about history. Granted, they know way more than I do, but I feel smarter and entertained at the same time.
So, if you’re a fan of history, try it out. I’ve only listened to a few episodes, but it’s a refreshing take, and you’re sure to learn something along the way!
Check out their latest episode:
“Life After the Oval Office: Presidential Legacies.”
Truth be told, when I got up this morning, I didn’t really have any desire to write a blog post called “Good Things.” The school shooting in Florida, watching some friends try to help a child through a tough situation, not knowing how or exactly when to help people. . . it’s just been a heavy week. And I wondered if I even had any good things from the week to report.
Turns out, I do.
This blog series started as a way to practice thankfulness, and it turns out that sometimes thankfulness is something you have to continually do. It’s also sort of like a doctor practicing medicine—you have to do it when you feel like it and when you don’t.
And more than often, in those don’t-feel-like-it-times, He reveals even some of the smallest things you have to be thankful for. So here we go!
Hey, guys! It’s me, Mac!
I finally wrestled this computer away from Mandy so I could write a little on the blog. I mean, I have things to say, too, and she’s not very share-y when it comes to this blog.
Is share-y a word? Yeah, whatevs. I’m a dog. I’ll say what I want.
So I wanted to tell you about this thing I’ve been doing that really confuses Mandy. It’s kind of fun to confuse her, so maybe that’s why I do it, but anyway. I eat this special canned dog food. Canned because I refuse to eat anything else and special because I have all these allergies, and I have to have a limited ingredient diet. I also take a pill for that every day. Mandy seems really conflicted that she has to buy a prescription allergy med for her dog, but who cares?! I certainly feel better.
Anyway . . . Mandy feeds me my food twice a day on a small plate thing. My favorite thing in the world to do is to try to bury my food. Sure, I’m inside and I’m tossing imaginary dirt on top of that food, but still, it’s fun. When I want to take it up a level, I like to take my toys and flip them on top of the food so I don’t have to look at it.
Mandy finds it so annoying and weird that I’m pretty certain she Googled it. I’m going to check the history on this browser just to see. She thinks it’s some innate dog behavior, that when I’m not necessarily that hungry or don’t want my food right now, I try to hide it so I can eat it later. Kind of a doggy food bank of sorts.
Let her believe what she wants. All I know is that now she has to figure out how to wash all that limited ingredient dog food off my Santa Claus squeaky toy and that makes me laugh!
Last month, I introduced a monthly blog series that would follow my attempt to learn more about my family line. In particular, I’m interested in exploring my maternal line. Truth be told, so far, I haven’t been able to get back any further than my great great grandfather, Henry Bumgardaner.
So as we take this little trip through my family history, I wanted to introduce you to a few of the people we’ll meet along the way, starting with my maternal grandfather, Francis Marion Bumgardaner.
My grandfather, known by F.M. or Marion, was born on Sept. 2, 1922. He was born in a small town in Southeast Missouri called Painton. Whenever we would drive by there on my way to visit my grandparents, I would wonder exactly where that little house where he’d been born once stood. Census records confirm that by 1930, my grandpa, about 8 years old, was living in St. Louis with his family. Every time we go to St. Louis, my mom points out the exit for the street we’d always believed he lived on as a child.
But by 1935, the Bumgardaners had moved back to Southeast Missouri. His parents must have divorced sometime during this period, though I’m not exactly sure when. By 1936, my great grandmother had remarried, and my grandfather soon had two half sisters.
My grandfather left school around 10th grade. It wasn’t a choice he necessarily wanted to make; he would have like to continue his education, my mom always told me. But the family needed an extra income, and Grandpa left school to earn his way. By 1941, he and my grandmother, Pauline, were married and by 1943, he had enlisted at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis and was on his way to serve in World War II. He spent time in France, I know, but much of my knowledge of this time in his life comes from family stories rather than documented facts. Records list his enlistment date as 1943 and his release in 1946. My grandmother gave birth to their first child, my uncle, in 1944, and bought the house where they lived for the rest of their lives.
All of these things combine to form a historical record of my grandfather, but let me tell you a little about the man. My grandfather probably wasn’t the easiest person to love. He had a temper, and he was opinionated. His temper cost him a few jobs. Their home wasn’t always the happiest of places, either.
Not long ago, my mom and her cousin were talking about how they had been scared of him as children, and I listened in wonder. I never found my grandfather scary, but there is a difference in being a man’s child and his only granddaughter.
There was also another difference. My grandfather became a Christian when my mom was in high school. The grandfather I knew was a man who was by no means perfect, but he had been changed. To me, he was kind and loving. He was the hardworking man with calloused hands who got tears in his eyes when my mom had me sing a song for him, the first solo I’d ever sung at church.
He was a mechanic and a woodworker. He’d spent a lot of time remodeling that house my grandmother bought while he was “across the Pond” in World War II whenever they had scraped together the money to do it.
Soon after he retired from years of working as a mechanic, my grandfather was diagnosed with colon cancer. He died when I was 13.
I wish I’d had more time with him. Time to ask him questions about my family line, his time in Germany and France, his thoughts on a book he was reading (he, like me, loved to read). After he passed away, I learned that he’d also written some poetry. I’d like to talk to him about that, too.
I can trace the paper trail. I know where he was living in 1930 and 1950, when he died and where he’s buried (next to my grandmother at the foot of Perkins Hill, next to Perkins Missionary Baptist Church, across the street from my aunt and uncle’s house). But there are all those moments in between that I don’t know. How he felt when he first saw his children. What it was like to come back after those years abroad. What made him proud or sad or happy.
I got a glimpse at a few of the answers to some of those questions, though. Because I know, without a doubt, that when he looked at me, he was proud and he was happy. I never doubted that he loved me, and, that, I guess, is a gift in itself.
Here’s a post I wrote about my grandfather several years ago on what would have been his 89th birthday: September 2.
So it’s highly likely you’ve noticed my absence of late.
Despite my best-laid plans—and handwritten content calendar—Unfinished Business came to a screeching halt last month when life got a bit busy. I work at a university, and we’re in the home stretch of the semester, on that final, frantic march toward graduation. It’s a busy time, even for those like me who don’t teach. In addition, I took on a freelance project and it’s my month to teach kindergarten Sunday School at my church.
So many things, happening all at once!
A lot of my life is like that these days.
Work is busy.
Life is busy.
As an Achiever (StrengthsFinders), I seem to continually create lists: laundry to do, groceries to buy, how long to work on my freelance project, rehearsals, and what I’m making for dinner.
And I’m tired of being tired.
So for the next little while at the very least, I’ll be adding something else to my list: a commitment to take time each week to decompress and do something I enjoy. To recharge. To take care of myself.
To quote Frederick Buechner:
“Mind your own business” means butt out of other people’s lives because in the long run they must live their lives for themselves, but it also means pay mind to your own life, your own health and wholeness, both for your own sake and ultimately for the sake of those you love too. Take care of yourself so you can take care of them. A bleeding heart is of no help to anybody if it bleeds to death.
And hopefully, I’m back!
Well, guys, we made it through another week! It’s been a busy week full of lots of activities, but it’s still been good. Here are a few of the “good things” I’m celebrating this week:
If you’re interested in reading this book yourself, I’m giving one away! See the contest info at the end of this post.
First, a few admissions. I am one of those people who never took any sort of art appreciation or art history class in college. No memorizing paintings and sculptures and talking about the meanings behind the artist’s choices.
(Truth be told, I did have some sort of art appreciation requirement. To fulfill this requirement, I took a class called Jazz, Pop and Rock, and I have never regretted it.)
So while I may have a passing knowledge of artists, I don’t know a ton about art. When it comes to American artists, I can probably count the number I know anything about on one hand. But during my first year in grad school, when I was living in my first apartment and out on my own in the big world, I ran across Andrew Wyeth.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit how . . . but I was at that moment we all come to at
some point. When we want our home to have art but we don’t have the money for real art, so we turn to prints. I was a big fan of a website that sold framed art prints at the time and somehow, I wandered into a collection of Wyeth’s work. And it captivated me for reasons I could not explain. I didn’t necessarily want it hanging on the walls of my home, but I kept coming back to look at it again and again.
So when I read a description of this novel, a fictionalized but highly researched backstory of Wyeth’s most famous painting, “Christina’s World,” I couldn’t resist adding it to my reading list.
Christina Baker Kline’s book, like Wyeth’s art, leaves you a little unsettled. Maybe it’s because of the setting (the harsh winters of Maine play a big role) or the lead character (Christina, who has a debilitating chronic illness), but the novel left me a little unfulfilled. It’s a beautiful novel. Kline’s descriptions, dialogue and the insight into the narrator’s mind and thoughts are flawless, but it’s also bleak, a bit unforgiving and harsh.
But so was Wyeth’s work. And those Maine winters. And Christina’s life, in many ways.
But the character’s life—and in the turn, the novel—are also beautiful in their own ways. Wyeth’s paintings are arresting in their starkness, and so is this novel. Kline doesn’t go on for pages with anything that feels out of place or unnecessary. At the end of the book, you’re not left wondering why a certain scene or conversation was in the book. They all have a purpose, and they serve them well.
If you’re looking for a book that’s basically a Hallmark movie on paper, this isn’t the novel for you. If you’re looking for a book that explores the inner workings of a woman who feels in many ways trapped in her world, then read on. If you want to read something that won’t make you think, don’t pick this one up.
In some places, the book was a little hard to read. Christina is considered an old maid. She is lonely, and her life is marked by this Great Disappointment of a man. To protect herself from further hurt, she insulates herself more by becoming more and more insular, bitter and hurtful, even to those whom she loves most. As someone who sometimes struggles with the fact that she is single, it was a reminder of the attitude I don’t want to have!
In many ways, Christina, the main character and narrator, lives an insulated, isolated life. We catch glimpses of her life, ranging from childhood to old age, throughout the novel. Frankly, the jumping back and forth proved confusing to me. Time shifts are clearly denoted, but I could never remember which Christina we’d meet in those time periods, whether young or old.
So much imagery and tools are used to show the stark nature of Christina’s life. The separation and burden her illness causes her, the stark white house up on the hill, the lack of electricity and modern conveniences later in her life. But Christina herself also reveals the insular nature of her world. She’s continually reminding you how things are like poems or lines in books she’s read, showing that her world sometimes isn’t one she has experienced physically, but rather vicariously.
In the end, I think A Piece of the World is a book I’m happy I read. It’s beautifully written and well-constructed. But it’s also a bleak book, with happiness in bits and pieces and a lot of tragedy and unhappiness. Somehow, I think Kline has achieved a novel that points to the same themes that make Wyeth’s work so beautifully arresting and disturbing at the same time.
It’s definitely worth the read, just don’t go into it thinking you’ll feel uplifted at the end.
Want your own copy of this book? I’m giving away one copy of the Kindle version! Enter here.
NO PURCHASE NECESSARY. Ends the earlier of Feb 13, 2018 11:59 PM PST, or when all prizes are claimed. See Official Rules http://amzn.to/GArules.