People accumulate a lot of stuff in today’s society. We have a vast abundance of material goods, far more than at any time in the past; and often we don’t give much thought to what we’re going to do with them all. Our homes are overflowing with things that don’t have a place. Even if we are not classic hoarders or struggling with a garage that’s too full of junk to get the car inside, we still have to decide where to keep the things we buy.

Put another way, for every purchase we make in our modern consumer society, there is a corresponding drain on our mental energy as we ponder what we’re going to do with it. And after that gets sorted, we often need to rearrange other things in turn. We don’t always notice when we do this, and we may not trace the cause-and-effect chain all the way through.

By way of illustration: During the summer, my husband and I decided to buy a Keurig coffeemaker. We never drank enough coffee to make a standard coffeepot worthwhile, but we bought occasional cups at Starbucks or the gas station convenience store. So we thought a single-serving coffeemaker would be ideal—no bags of old coffee getting stale, and we could have a carousel with several different flavors.

After we made these purchases, we had to decide where to put them on the kitchen counter. The carousel fit into the corner well enough. The coffeemaker took more time to get situated because some decorative items already occupied the preferred location, which was the counter space underneath the cabinet that holds the dishes. We got the decorations rearranged, after a few tries, in a way that made enough space for the coffeemaker and still looked almost the same. We also bought travel cups, which we put in the corner cabinet above the new carousel.

At first we bought only small boxes of K-cups, the contents of which mostly fit into the carousel. Space didn’t seem to be a problem. But then, not surprisingly, we found that we were drinking more coffee because it was so much more convenient. After we had sampled various flavors and decided which ones we liked best, we thought it made more sense to order large boxes online and get the volume discount. When the boxes arrived, we had to make room for them in the pantry. That wasn’t too difficult; but, as it turned out, there was still more to be done.

We already had a set of cups that matched our dishes. I regularly used them for hot tea before we got the coffeemaker. I thought they would be fine for coffee, too; but after we started drinking coffee more often, my husband told me that he would prefer to use mugs, rather than cups. We had some promotional mugs with various logos, none of which matched. Because we hadn’t used them, we kept them in the high cabinet above the refrigerator. To make space on an easily reachable shelf of the cabinet above the coffeemaker, we first had to take out some plastic glasses, and then we had to rearrange the contents of another cabinet to make room for the displaced glasses.

At this point, my husband had two mismatched mugs in the preferred spot above the coffeemaker. One was a large red mug that had been a blood donor freebie, and the other was a smaller white mug with a college sports logo. That looked awkward because almost everything else in the cabinet was part of a matched group. While doing some Christmas shopping, I found a nice boxed set of two mugs that read “Joy to the World” and featured a cheerful winter scene. Problem solved, or so I thought.

But I never did move the old mismatched mugs to the cabinet above the refrigerator because it occurred to me that my husband might want one of them if he drank more than two cups of coffee in a day, or if we forgot to run the dishwasher. So at the present time, all four mugs are residing in the cabinet above the coffeemaker. They still look awkward and don’t fit well either.

I’m probably going to move the old mugs to the cabinet where we put the plastic glasses when we first made space for the mugs. But right now, the remaining space on that shelf is taken up by a box of K-cups in assorted holiday flavors. I have the options of moving the box to the pantry, which would be less convenient because the pantry is farther away from the carousel; moving the box to another cabinet and doing more rearranging; or finding another place for the old mugs, which would also require more rearranging. And so the saga continues…

I have been enjoying the coffeemaker, and I very much appreciate the wonders of modern technology making such small indulgences possible. This post isn’t meant as a complaint, but simply as an observation that our consumer culture takes up more of our mental energy than we may realize. We shouldn’t assume that if people are having trouble clearing away clutter or adjusting to small changes, there must be something wrong with them. Today’s world requires us to deal with more clutter and more small changes as part of our everyday lives. These are cultural issues, not just individual problems. We should consider how our social structures might be adapted to better suit our needs in this regard.

Colorful strands of holiday lights, leading up to the front entrance of the nursing home, did little to relieve the darkness of a rainy South Carolina afternoon. A reindeer statue with a blinking red nose gazed out upon the parking lot from its place of honor in an evergreen planting bed. The statue reminded Ella Mae of the deer she had hit in the twilight several years ago, when it had bounded out into the road without her seeing it. After that she had given up driving.

She waited in the passenger seat of the Buick, listening to the rain patter on its roof, while her housekeeper Marta walked around with the umbrella and opened the door. Struggling to step down while holding the neatly wrapped box she had brought, Ella Mae placed her feet carefully on the slick asphalt. Marta put a hand on her arm to steady her.

Once inside the building’s lobby, the two women parted ways. Marta, pushing an errant strand of dark hair away from her round face, settled down in a comfortable chair with a Sudoku puzzle book. Ella Mae got a visitor’s badge from a cheerful young receptionist and went on through another door. On either side of the wide hall beyond, thick pine wreaths adorned doorways that led into small visiting areas. The heavy fragrance of the wreaths, and likely some pine air freshener too, didn’t quite cover the institutional smell of bleach and other cleaning products.

Cousin Florence came into view at the other end of the hall, wearing a blue polyester dress and pushing her walker. She had been obese most of her life, and the weight had only just come off a few years ago, now that she no longer cooked for herself. Under sparse white hair that had gotten only a desultory combing, the skin of Florence’s face and neck hung in loose folds, like rivulets of melted wax running away from a candle at the end of its wick.

The right side of Florence’s mouth always looked like it was turned up in a sneer. Ella Mae knew this was the result of a stroke and Florence couldn’t control it; but that was sometimes hard to keep in mind, given Florence’s habit of starting to complain the moment a visitor arrived. Today, just as she got within earshot, Florence launched into her favorite topic—the unpardonable neglect from her four children, all of whom had left South Carolina long ago and rarely came to see her.

“Not one of them can be bothered,” Florence declared, as she maneuvered her walker into one of the visiting rooms, “to come and see their poor lonely mother at Christmas. They’re so wicked and thoughtless. I might not last another year, Ella Mae, and then they’d be coming to my funeral instead, if they could even stir their lazy bones that far.”

This lament no longer had much emotional impact after having been repeated each year, in one form or another, over the past four decades. Cousin Florence had made up her mind that she was a neglected old lady as soon as her children left home. To nobody’s surprise, that complaint had turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Ella Mae put her box on a coffee table and settled herself on an overstuffed pea-green sofa, nodding at intervals and making sympathetic noises as her cousin’s rant continued. Her weekly visits always went much this way. She didn’t begrudge Florence a little company now and again, though; it seemed only the decent thing to do, now that both women had been widowed for many years and most of their kinfolk had left town.

The ringing of her cell phone gave Ella Mae a brief reprieve from this one-sided conversation. She glanced down at the picture on the screen. It was Timmy, still staring at the world with the bright curious eyes he’d had at his birth, although by now he had deep crow’s feet around them and had lost most of his hair. Ella Mae touched the screen and gave him a cheerful “Hello.”

“I’m working overtime again tonight, Mama.”

Timmy never had been much of a talker. He could manage a sentence or two at a time, but not much beyond that. Telephone calls, when they went on for more than a minute, left him as nervous as if he’d picked up a snake. Even so, he always called without fail when he had a change of plans.

“I’ll let Marta know, dear. Bye.”

Ella Mae put her phone back in her handbag before her cousin had time to say anything about the interruption. What Florence thought of Timmy had long been a sore spot. Almost a half-century ago, Florence had said some unkind things and Ella Mae hadn’t spoken to her for months. If Ella Mae thought about it for too long, she still got upset sometimes, although she knew there wasn’t any sense in that. By now, Florence, who had been diagnosed with dementia, probably didn’t even remember what had been said. Although her cousin’s childhood memories remained clear as a bell, anything else was hit-or-miss.

All the same, Ella Mae still felt she was owed the apology she’d never gotten. Florence had been so hateful all those years ago when Timmy got his first job, telling her, “You raised that boy all wrong, Ella Mae. He can’t do for himself worth a nickel; you’re still fixing his meals and doing his laundry, and now you’re driving him to work. He never goes out on dates or does much of anything besides building those silly model trains in your basement. What’s he going to do when you can’t take care of him anymore? That boy is bound to end up in an institution, Ella Mae, mark my words.”

As it turned out, although Timmy never left home or learned how to drive, nothing dramatic came of it when Ella Mae got older. Marta took charge of both the household chores and the driving, and life went on much as usual. Timmy had a good union job in a factory, earning more than enough to pay Marta’s wages and keep up their small house.

Reminding herself once again that she ought to know better than to hold a grudge against her cousin for so many years, Ella Mae turned her attention to the gift-wrapped box. “Go ahead and open your Christmas present, Florence. It’s made special for you.”

With a sniff as though to demonstrate how little she expected, Florence picked at the ribbons and wrapping paper, complaining all the while about her selfish children who couldn’t be bothered to get any Christmas gifts for their poor old mother. Ella Mae knew they had in fact sent gifts last week, but she held her peace. Then Florence slowly lifted the lid off the box, revealing the bright Christmastime tableau inside.

The old train station had been demolished many years ago, when passenger trains stopped coming through town. Timmy had worked both from his boyhood memories and from Ella Mae’s photo albums in creating the scene. There was the little building with its holiday decorations perfectly rendered, a train just coming into the station, and a small crowd of carefully painted figurines waiting in their old-fashioned clothing. One of the figurines, a tall woman with a fancy hat and a long fur coat, had a little dog trotting beside her. The dog wore a red sweater.

As soon as Florence’s gaze fell on that particular figurine, she amazed Ella Mae by bursting out into a loud girlish giggle.

“Why, I declare—that’s Aunt Rhoda with her spoiled-rotten poodle!”

Ella Mae glanced down at the tiny painted face, which was little more than a blur without her reading glasses. When Timmy had shown her the completed scene, she hadn’t thought the characters in it were meant to be real people. But then, come to think of it, she hadn’t asked.

“And look, Ella Mae, that’s us!” Florence pointed gleefully at two girls in sweaters and skirts. “That’s when we went down to the train station to meet Uncle Frank when he came back from business in the city. He gave us candy canes and told us he’d brought presents, but we couldn’t open them till Christmas.”

“I remember. Aunt Rhoda’s poodle nipped me on the ankle. Horrid little beast. Ruined my best pair of stockings.” And then Ella Mae also found herself dissolving helplessly into giggles as her memories came back with more clarity. She finally added, “You know what, Florence, I do believe you’re right. Uncle Frank took pictures of us at the train station, and they were in one of the photo albums Timmy looked at while he was working on this.”

Cousin Florence looked up from the scene, her pale blue eyes moist. “Ella Mae, could you get copies of those photos for me?”

“I sure will. Next week when I visit, I’ll bring everything that’s in all my photo albums. Timmy has a scanner on his computer that can copy the photos, and there’s a special kind of picture frame with a screen for displaying them. He bought me one of those frames for my birthday, a few years ago, and put some digital pictures on it that he took with his camera. I don’t quite understand how it works, but Timmy does. He’ll fix you right up.”

For the first time since she’d moved into the nursing home, Florence had a peaceful look. Even the twitch at the corner of her mouth no longer seemed to have any agitation in it, and her gaze was completely lucid.

“You raised a good son, Ella Mae.”

Most people don’t like to be told that we are stuck in old habits of thinking or that we are behind the times. We prefer to believe that we are sensible people who can adjust our thinking when the circumstances change. But in fact, we often have no idea how many outdated instructions we’re carrying around in our mental checklists.

Not long ago, my husband pointed out one of mine when he asked why I loaded the dishwasher a particular way. He had noticed that I didn’t put spoons next to other spoons in the basket. I explained that my mother had told me to do it like that, when loading the dishwasher was one of my chores as a child, because otherwise the spoons might nest together and not come clean. He replied that maybe this was a problem 40 years ago, but it wouldn’t happen with a good modern dishwasher.

After I thought about it for a moment, I realized he was correct. The spoons always came out just as clean when he was the one loading the dishwasher and put them next to each other. It simply hadn’t occurred to me that there might not be any real need to keep them separate.

I believe that most of our social prejudices have equally simple underpinnings. They’re based on things that were said long ago—that it was best to keep certain kinds of people separate, or to have different ways of treating them. Maybe some of those ideas made sense in their original context of a world with vastly different cultural expectations and more primitive technology. Maybe they never really made sense. But however it might have happened, they ended up as entries in society’s collective checklist of how things ought to be done.

Whether our antiquated notions have to do with the proper placement of the spoons in the dishwasher or of the people in our community, we feel uncomfortable when someone points out the flaws in our thinking. After all, we’ve always done things the same way without seeing any reason to change, so how can there be anything wrong? We’re reasonable people, and we certainly would have noticed if we had been doing something that made no sense—wouldn’t we?

Once we get past our initial feelings of denial and annoyance, though, we generally do acknowledge the facts in front of us. Although humans are creatures of habit on both a social and an individual level, we are capable of changing our ways, even if it might take a little while for new information to sink in.

Laila had packed her bag for the return trip to France. Uncle Mustafa would be coming over in a few minutes to drive her to the train station. On impulse, she walked through the little kitchen and stepped outside into the backyard… [This is Part 7. Continue reading this final installment, or read the story from the beginning.]

Laila put a clean plate away in the cabinet and took another plate from Aysha, who was washing the dishes by hand while Laila dried them. Except for the soft splashing of the water in the kitchen sink, the house was very quiet… [This is Part 6. Continue reading this installment, or read the story from the beginning.]

November 26, 2012 · Write a comment · Categories: Musings · Tags:

My family set up the Christmas tree over the long weekend, next to the fireplace as usual, while the kids were home from college. It’s an old artificial tree that we have had since they were little. This year, instead of putting on plain basic strands of lights, we bought new LED lights shaped like evergreen cones. I found their soft colors and decorative shape to be a pleasant change from the old-style Christmas tree lights.

So far, so good. But we have two sconces over the mantel, with bright incandescent bulbs. Turning them on at the same time as the new Christmas lights produced a horrid glare. The problem was easily solved, of course, by turning off the sconces and leaving the room dark except for the tree lights.

But I wonder what might have happened if we’d had incandescent bulbs only on the other side of the room, farther away from the tree. We might not have consciously noticed that the two different kinds of lights clashed. Maybe we’d have spent the entire holiday season feeling that there was something not right, but never knowing what had put our nerves on edge.

Modern technology can irritate people’s senses in ways that are below the threshold of conscious perception. We’re all born with senses that evolved over many millennia to process natural inputs such as those from forests, grasslands, and other natural vistas. But instead we find ourselves in cities that look very different from the surroundings our ancestors knew. Humans are a very adaptable species; but although we can learn to function in many different environments, it’s kind of like installing new software on a computer with an older operating system. There are bound to be incompatibilities, like not being able to deal with my new LED lights and the existing incandescent bulbs at the same time, as well as unexpected glitches.

As science advances our knowledge of the human brain and how it processes sensory inputs, I expect researchers will learn how to design more comfortable environments. That should go a long way toward reducing our stress levels. Perhaps the homes and workspaces of the future will be creatively designed to give us feelings of serenity, confidence, and joy.

Lively conversation filled the halls of the girls’ high school where Aysha taught French, history, and world cultures… [This is Part 5. Continue reading this installment, or read the story from the beginning.]

November 1, 2012 · Write a comment · Categories: Musings · Tags:

When I was five years old and thought I knew everything, I put together a construction-paper traffic light with green at the top. Then I told my kindergarten teacher that all traffic lights ought to be made that way because the green light was the most important. After all, green meant that you could get to places faster, while red meant that you just had to sit and wait. Red lights were boring. Who needed them, anyway?

It took me a few more years to grasp the concept of danger well enough to understand why red lights had to be on top. Green lights, although useful for showing where intersections are, don’t require that we do anything differently. A red light grabs our attention, shouting: Danger! Stop! Right now!

I’ve sometimes wondered whether humans evolved to react to praise and criticism in much the same way. No matter how many compliments we get, we’re likely to take them for granted. As with green lights, they just go by as part of the social landscape, confirming in general that we’re on the right road. We don’t give them much weight in our minds. Criticism, however, weighs much more heavily; it can sting for many years. Even if we consciously know that an old mistake doesn’t matter, it still bothers us long after the fact.

Why do we find criticism so troubling? I suspect we may be hard-wired to process it as a danger signal, which would have made sense in the small villages of the past. Because primitive humans’ daily tasks were very simple and repetitive, there wouldn’t have been much reason for either compliments or gripes about the quality of a person’s work. As long as it got done, it was probably good enough. Criticism would have consisted of pointing out dangerous errors, such as picking a poisonous mushroom or not noticing a lion’s tracks near the river. The message would have been: Danger! Pay attention! Don’t ever make that mistake again, or somebody is going to get killed!

In today’s world, criticism usually involves trivial oversights or harmless differences in appearance and social behavior. Instead of the rare and memorable event that it might have been in our ancestors’ villages, it has become commonplace. Remembering criticism for years no longer has any significant survival value; on the contrary, it’s much more likely to shorten our lives by making us susceptible to depression and anxiety.

What’s to be done about it? Many people take medications to cope with depression and anxiety. Others self-medicate with alcohol, street drugs, cigarettes, coffee, et cetera. Finding comfort in food also is common. Some of us seek to modify our reactions to distressing situations by way of traditional psychotherapy or behavioral therapy. Another approach is to distract ourselves from our worries, such as with yoga, meditation, art and music, fiction, video games, gambling, sports, and hobbies in general—or perhaps by compulsively working long hours.

Of course, however effective they may be, all of these approaches to dealing with depression and anxiety are simply coping mechanisms. They don’t solve, or even acknowledge, the underlying problem of living in a highly stressful environment that bears little resemblance to the conditions under which humans evolved. As individuals, there’s not much we can do to avoid criticism and all the other stresses of modern society unless we choose to live as hermits or otherwise drastically isolate ourselves, which, needless to say, would have major drawbacks.

So the question to be asked is this: How can we change our culture to bring about a healthier social environment? On the specific issue of criticism and its effects, I believe we need to end the bullying and casual insults that pervade our social sphere. Today’s politics has degenerated into a lot more name-calling than substance. The Internet is full of nastiness. Although school officials and employers are starting to recognize that bullying is a serious problem, much more still needs to be done. It’s no wonder that so many of us struggle with depression and anxiety. But when we do, we should keep in mind that it’s chiefly the culture, rather than ourselves, that has something wrong and needs to be fixed.

The pale light of early morning tumbled through the high windows of Aysha’s bedroom. Though it was smaller than Laila’s dorm room back in Paris, every wall was crammed full of books on long shelves, with titles in Arabic, French, and English… [This is Part 4. Continue reading this installment, or read the story from the beginning.]

As we go through our days dutifully checking off the various tasks on our calendars, we may look around and notice that a few things have fallen by the wayside. Perhaps we haven’t written any blog posts for months, or the supplies we bought for a project we planned last year are still sitting at the back of the closet. Whatever it is, we start wondering where all the time went. We’re likely to tell ourselves, in a familiar modern lament, that our lives have gotten too busy and need to be brought back into balance.

Sometimes we really do get overscheduled to such an extent that we can barely function. But more often, I believe, the actual issue isn’t one of time management at all; it has more to do with all those nagging anxieties at the back of our minds, which accumulate until we can’t turn our mental focus to anything else.

We can make checklists for every imaginable daily task ’til the cows come home—but although that may help to manage the distraction and lack of focus often described as executive-functioning issues, I suspect there’s much more to the underlying problem than simply needing to organize our schedules more efficiently. We live in a hugely complex pressure-cooker society that has caused many of us to become, in the literal sense of the word, unbalanced. That is to say, we don’t feel confident in our ability to balance all the demands our society expects us to satisfy. And so our thoughts start to run in anxious frightened circles that distract us from getting our tasks done, causing us to worry even more—and the vicious cycle spirals downward.

In a bygone era, the natural rhythms of the days and seasons kept our ancestors’ lives in balance. Physically, they worked much harder than most of us can imagine. Their days were filled with strenuous, time-consuming chores as they struggled to bring in enough food to survive the winter. Their fears were much more immediate and concrete than ours: starvation, plague, tribal warfare, being attacked by wolves and bears. But although they experienced miseries that most of us thankfully will never have to face, their tasks were simple and predictable enough so that they didn’t have our modern-day anxieties. Their subconscious minds weren’t filled with worries about what they ought to be doing differently, how well they could measure up to society’s demands, et cetera. Whether they ate or got eaten on any particular day was up to Fate; they made whatever sacrifices they believed would keep the gods happy, and left it at that.

How can we cultivate our ancestors’ untroubled mindset in a world that has become vastly more complicated? I would say it begins with centering ourselves in the moment, so that our thoughts don’t habitually wander along negative paths. Meditation, exercise, and mindfulness can be helpful approaches to banishing persistent worries. They don’t necessarily require large amounts of time; it’s more a matter of arranging our daily routines in ways that provide for moments of peaceful reflection.

This morning, before I sat down to write this post, I got myself a cup of raspberry-flavored coffee and a whole wheat English muffin with raspberry jam. I thought about what good fortune it was to have these small comforts, how pleasant the coffee smelled, and how pretty the raspberry jam looked—bright sparkling red in the morning sunlight, with little seeds all throughout. One can’t simultaneously contemplate a raspberry seed and worry obsessively about some upcoming task or other. That simple fact seemed to be enough, at least for the moment, to bring my entire world into balance.