Imperfect Serenity

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Friday, May 29, 2009

Cleaning for Company

Not long ago we were expecting company, and my husband cleaned the bathroom. Just before the guests arrived I spotted the mop still standing in the bathtub and thought with some irritation, “The reason we clean before company comes is so they’ll think we have a clean house all the time. If you leave the mop out, it’s a big tip off that we only cleaned just now for them.” My next thought was that I’m a much shallower person than I let on.

I’m remembering this today because we have company coming for the second weekend in a row, which means that on this Friday afternoon I have a choice: Blog, for the first time in a week, or make the house just a little cleaner. Obviously I’ve chosen to write, but not without a little anxiety. I find myself wondering what degree of cleaning for company is really motivated out of a desire to create a comfortable atmosphere for our guests vs. the ego’s desire to be seen as having the perfect home. I know it’s a mixture, but the thought about the exposed mop revealed that my motivation is perhaps driven more by ego than true hospitality.

Then there is the internalized sexism that makes me feel that any dust on the piano will reflect poorly on me, a concern my husband clearly doesn’t share. He does share in the housework (and cleaned the bathroom again last night), but he doesn’t share in the psychic burden of seeing what’s undone. I’m sure he doesn’t even realize there is dust on the piano, and even if he did, he wouldn’t think of taking off from work to dust, though I did take some work time today to vacuum and took several hours last week to prepare before my in-laws arrived. Part of it is that I’m the person with the flexible work schedule and the one who chose to be home when the kids get home from school. Part of it is that Saturday is our usual cleaning day, but when we have company we’re likely to be off doing other things, so it’s a matter of doing the routine cleaning early, as much as doing something extra. And part of it really is about being considerate. We don’t have a guest room, so our guest (a Catholic priest) will be staying in our master bedroom while Tom and I try out our new sofabed. Making sure there aren’t bras and tampons lying all over the place lands in the category of basic courtesy.

The struggle for me is knowing where basic courtesy ends and obsessive, perfectionist internalized sexism begins. I think I’m getting better at realizing that I can’t do everything, and if I spend my life worrying what other people will think of me, I won’t have time to do the things I truly feel called to do. And I am clear about being called to write.

Friday, May 22, 2009


Yesterday, for the first time, I attended graduation at University of the Arts, where I have taught part-time for the past nine years. I got big hugs from the students I threatened to fail not that long ago, when their papers were perilously late. I watched a few receive diplomas for whom I know it was a particularly difficult journey, like one who had to leave as a freshman six years ago because of money and another whose mother died during finals a few weeks ago. I was sitting next to a good friend, which made it less embarrassing during the many moments I got teary.

University President Sean Buffington gave a speech on the importance of “nerve” for artists and human beings generally that spoke to my condition as a writer. The main commencement address was delivered by Tony award-winning playwright James Lapine, who wrote a play for the occasion, a two-act conversation between Senator Diane Feinstein and her imaginary son on his decision to attend University of the Arts, rather than Princeton or Stanford. It was funny, politically astute, and I suspect more memorable than the address by Katherine Graham at my own commencement.

On the whole, I left the graduation with a spring in my step, not so much as the graduate pictured on the middle of Broad Street, but still feeling inspired to greater nerve and creativity.

(Apologies to the photographer, whom I can’t credit because they weren’t credited on the UArts site.)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Election Day in Philadelphia

I have to confess that I haven't followed today's elections very carefully, so for those readers registered to vote in Philadelphia, I am going to post the following e-mail from friend, well-informed citizen, and member of my meeting, Thomas Taylor:

The polling places are open but empty! Please make sure you get out and vote today: races like District Attorney and Controller will have MAJOR impact on the way our city is run and for whose benefit. Low turnout primaries benefit the tired old Democratic party machine; we can do better than that.

If you have time, you might be interested in reviewing this chart which aggregates the endorsements of verious progressive organizations, newspapers and the Bar Associations:

Also, here are some quick-hit personal recommendations:

District Attorney: Seth Williams. He is a transformational leader, who would greatly change the way the DA system works, including putting prosecutors out into the neighborhoods, and turning away from jail sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

City Controller: Brett Mandel. I don't agree with his outlook on taxation policy, but this is not a policy setting position. As a watchdog over the financial dealings of the many branches of city government, I believe he will do an excellent job.

Superior Court: Anne Lazarus and John Younge.

Common Pleas Judge: Angeles Roca, Dan Anders, Joyce Eubanks, Diane Thompson and Sharon Williams-Losier.

Municipal Court: Dawn Segal, Charles Hayden and Christine Adair.

Please feel free, indeed encouraged, to pass this along.

Thomas Taylor

Thanks, Thomas!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Identity Theft

Marshall Massey (author of the Earth Witness blog) posted on Facebook this morning a reference to Matthew 18: 23-35, a passage about forgiveness in the face of being owed money. Interesting timing since I am trying to sort out my feelings about an unsettling experience yesterday.

I had an appointment with my podiatrist, whose office building gives a discount for the valet parking lot next door. I gave my key to the valet, entered the building, stopped at the bathroom (relevant because it means I was in the building for longer than a minute), and then sat down to wait to be called. I decided to get my health insurance card out while I waited and discovered that my wallet was not in my backpack. Thinking I must have left it in the car, I went back to the parking attendant at the little booth, but they couldn’t find my key, which was my first indication that something was amiss. Another valet helped me look for my car, in which I found the first valet sitting in the driver’s seat with my wallet open on his lap, a credit card in his hand, as well as a piece of paper on which he had written my name, credit card number, expiration date, and security code. When I opened the door and confronted him, he claimed he had found the wallet on the floor and was just going to turn it in. He handed me the wallet and upon my insistence, the paper with my credit information on it (a dry cleaning receipt that had been in the door pocket). I took my wallet and paper and went back into the office, where I discovered that $20 was missing. I came back out and confronted the valet again, to more denials. He tried to make it sound like I was just a suspicious person who was falsely accusing him. Not getting any satisfaction, I went back to the doctor’s office because I didn’t want to miss an appointment that usually takes months to get. I had another appointment after that on the other side of town, which is why I had driven in the first place, so I kept on my original schedule. It didn’t really occur to me to call the police, though almost everyone I’ve spoken to since has said I should have. I should have asked to talk to a manager, too, but that didn’t really occur to me either, especially after a different valet came inside to speak to me. He asked me what had happened and shook his head sympathetically when he saw the paper with my credit card information written on it. He offered me two phone numbers, his and their manager’s, though he also asked to copy the paper with my credit information on it, something I found odd. When I got home I called the police and two officers came by the house to take a report, so at least there is a record of this incident if I have any credit problems in the future. I also notified both my credit card companies and am trying to figure out whom at the Podiatry hospital I should notify.

Although I’ve done the practical things I can to protect my credit, I still feel unsettled this morning. I find myself being mistrustful, double checking that I’ve locked the car door, wondering if the guy who gave me the phone numbers and asked to copy the paper was really trying to be helpful or was somehow “in on it,” and giving me the phone number of someone who wouldn’t really do anything, so I would drop it. I find myself wondering if I should have called the police right away, not so I would get my $20 back, but so this guy wouldn’t do the same thing to someone else–which is where I find myself getting confused about the concept of forgiveness. In the Matthew 18 story, both the men who owed money begged for forgiveness, and the message is clear: we should forgive. But owing money is different than theft, and this guy never asked for forgiveness. What if someone denies wrongdoing and might do the wrong again if unstopped? What is the loving response to a person who denies doing something we witnessed firsthand? I think forgiving in my heart is still appropriate, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t get the guy fired, too. I can’t help recalling that some money went missing from my car two years ago–just after my last visit to the podiatrist–and I remember pushing out of my mind my suspicion of the valets, not wanting to falsely accuse them. The memory of that incident makes me wonder if there is systematic theft going on here, which only feeds my mistrust of the man who gave me the phone numbers.

I think of myself as a trusting person. I’m finding the (temporary) loss of that self-identity to be much more disturbing than the loss of $20, though the prospect of the other kind of identity theft is unsettling, too.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Breathe, Laugh

Last night I attended the book launch for Friends Council on Education’s new publication, Tuning In: Mindfulness in Teaching and Learning. I went partly as a university teacher, partly as a parent and former school committee member at a Friends school, and partly to support members of my meeting–Irene McHenry, the book’s editor as well as one of the contributors, and Christie Duncan-Tessmer, a contributing author­. Unlike most book launches, the evening was designed to be experiential. Most of the contributors who spoke directed us in the kinds of exercises teachers might use to introduce mindfulness to their students (or calm themselves down when necessary), such as closing one’s eyes and observing one’s thoughts or following one’s breath. For one exercise, each of us received a gold post-it with four pairs of words: in–out, deep–slow, calm–ease, and here–now. We were directed to use these words along with our breath, thinking “deep” on the inhale, for example, and “slow” on the exhale.

The mindfulness refresher came in handy last night, as both of my kids were having trouble falling asleep. I directed them to follow their breath, and that seemed to help. This morning when we jumped in the car (running late, as usual), they saw the post-it stuck to my dashboard and asked what it meant. I explained how mindfulness was about paying attention to what is happening right now, not worrying about what is going to happen, and how paying attention to one’s breath can help us do that.

“Do you have to use those words?” asked my ten-year-old son.

“No, you can use any words that work for you,” I responded.

Then from the backseat I heard him chant, “Dog–chicken, human-cannibal.”

So, now in addition to a practice to calm me down whenever we’re running late, I have something to think of that will always make me laugh, which is one of the best ways of being present I know.

Sunday, May 03, 2009


I once asked a Harry Potter enthusiast in my Quaker meeting what she liked so much about the series. “The magic,” she replied, as she cleaned up the stacks of dishes in the meeting kitchen. I understand. I’ve often wished I could wave a wand like Mrs. Weasley and have the pots scrub themselves. I’ve been thinking about magic’s appeal lately as my son has gotten into card tricks and making coins disappear. Being asked to pick a card at 6:30 on a Saturday morning does not always endear me to the magical arts, but then I see the glint in my son’s eyes when he pulls off a trick, and we can’t figure out how he did it. There’s something about doing the impossible that has always fascinated us humans.

Last night we took the magic enthusiast to a show at Grasso’s Magic Theatre as a belated birthday present. It’s a tiny, quaint theatre down by the Philadelphia waterfront, in what used to be the fresh produce district. Using his experience as a contractor, the owner, Joe Grasso, converted the old bricks into “Philadelphia's first and only full-time performance venue for magic and the variety arts,” with Houdini posters framed on the walls and trick cards for sale in a glass case next to the Junior Mints. Four different magicians performed to an audience of no more than twenty-five, which meant that a third of us got dragged up to the stage as accomplices at some point or another. We saw birds appear out of scarves, coins change color and shape before our eyes, and a ripped up fifty-dollar bill appear restored inside a grapefruit. I looked over every once in a while to see birthday boy’s eyes widen with a smile.

I confess I winced as one guy ate fire and then appeared to cut off a fifteen-year-old audience member’s hand, even though I knew the trick must be safe. There was that speck of belief that the illusion might be real, which is probably the key to the whole enterprise. We want to believe that it’s possible to pull money out of a grapefruit or play quidditch on a broomstick. We want to believe there are magic trains that go to magic places, which may be why, according to the Wikipedia entry for King’s Cross Station in London, “The Platform 9¾ sign occasionally causes congestion as tourists and Harry Potter fans stop to photograph it or try to push the rest of the luggage trolley through the wall.”

Today I’m wondering how this fascination relates to faith and the way we live in the real world. I scoffed at the Harry Potter critics who claimed the book was unchristian. The whole lesson (it seemed to me) was that love conquers hate and that giving up your life for your friends is more powerful than violence. In fact, I could argue that the Harry Potter series was more in keeping with the teachings of Jesus than the Narnia series (which also included magic), but that would be a long digression. More to the point, for me, is to wonder why so many of us secretly long for unusual powers and what we would do with them if we had them. It’s easy to understand why a ten-year-old boy would enjoy tricking his parents or why a busy mother would want the dishes to wash themselves, but I think there is something deeper. In short, I wonder if we human beings are so far from fulfilling our potential that on some level we sense we are meant for something more. Perhaps this is why The Secret has stayed near the top of the bestseller list for over a hundred weeks. Do we want to believe we are Gods or do we simply want to be as powerful as we could be if we tapped into our best selves? I'm not sure, but last night as we left the little theatre and walked out onto streets littered with broken glass, it occurred to me that there is magic walking on a spring night with my family, and I shouldn't let that escape my eye.

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