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Filtering by Tag: Brenda Bliven Porter

"Can We Guess Who You Are in 20 Questions?"

Brenda Bliven Porter

Untitled “Here is our best guess at who you are: 1. You are male. [I’m female.] 2. You are still a teenager, but won't be one for very much longer. [I wish!] 3. Your future worries you more than you'd like to admit. [Nope.] 4. You have beautiful, silky brown hair and big eyes. [I don’t even want silky brown hair!] So, how did we do? How many of these did we get right? Tell us in the comments!”


None of it is right. Not one thing.

This was the latest of the popular Buzzfeed quizzes I’ve taken. I still remember the first one: Which Middle Earth race to do you most resemble? This was the question I had waited for all my life. I may be trapped in a hobbit-like body, but inside I knew there was elvishness---mystery, poetry, and, of course, immortality. Come to find out, I am actually an Ent. Though I wasn’t excited about these results, I pressed on with the quizzes. The color that best represents me is white, on Downton Abbey, I am the Dowager Countess, and if I lived in Riverdale, I would be Betty Cooper. My accent is Pennsylvanian, I should visit France, and I am only a fraction “Midwestern.” It’s all been enlightening, particularly the last question on the Middle Earth quiz:

“So why did you take this test?

(a) You had better give me good results. Grr.

(b) I was hoping for some insight about my personality.

(c) It sounded like fun.

(d) I wanted to know what race in Middle Earth I am. Wasn't that the whole point?”

I definitely wanted to know that race in Middle Earth I am. I would live in Middle Earth if I could. But why all those other quizzes? They’re fun, I guess. They don’t take much of my time, and they promise a quick answer. Everyone else is taking them. But I already know where I live, where I’ve come from, what I like, and what I don’t. According to Newsweek, quiz pages track all of the answers we provide, creating customized profiles of our preferences. Why isn’t the suspicious part of me stepping up to put her foot down? (I can see that quiz now: “What percentage conspiracy theorist are you?”) The Washington Post reports that “millions of people have answered the inane and occasionally probing questions with the hopes of learning just a little bit more about themselves.”

Why don’t we already know who we are? Perhaps all the messages sent to us by our culture have left us with an identity crisis. “Just be yourself” and “express yourself” are in opposition to the not-so-subtle messages to drive the right car, wear the right clothes, laugh at the right jokes, and use the right phone. With all of those messages, it’s hard to know who we are, so maybe we hope that something on those quizzes will reveal solid truth about us.

George MacDonald points us in a direction that gives us some real ground on which to stand when he notes that “I would rather be what God chose to make me than the most glorious creature that I could think of; for to have been thought about, born in God's thought, and then made by God, is the dearest, grandest and most precious thing in all thinking.” I can’t help but wish he had considered making me an elf, but at least I know who I am.

(Photo by Mattie Porter)

Building Barns and Bridges

Brenda Bliven Porter

26 Untitled

They should never have built a barn there, at all – Edward Thomas

In “The Revolt of Mother” New England wife Sarah Penn learns that husband Adoniram plans to build a barn on a piece of land set aside for a new house. Sarah speaks directly to her husband later that same day, imploring him to build the new house instead of another barn. Adoniram is unmoved by her eloquent and reasonable argument, and says several times: “I ain’t got nothin’ to say.” The issue is unresolved, and the construction of the barn takes place without further discussion.

When Adoniram is called away on an errand, Sarah takes action. She moves the entire household from the old cottage to the empty new barn. Upon his return, a shocked and then remorseful Adoniram finds Sarah and the children living quite comfortably in the barn.

In Sarah Penn, writer Mary E. Wilkins Freeman gives us a model for conflict resolution. When confronted with the knowledge that Adoniram has decided to build his barn without including her in the plans, Sarah refuses to criticize, telling her daughter, Nanny, “You hadn't ought to judge father.” There is little evidence of smoldering silences, nagging, or family discord. Sarah goes on with her work----baking, cooking, sewing, cleaning---until eventually she takes advantage of Adoniram’s absence to move the household to the barn.

What might have happened if a resentful Sarah had badgered and hectored her harried husband, and then taken over the barn? Adoniram might have set the hired hands to moving things right back to the little house, and he may have felt perfectly justified in doing so. Or what if Sarah had ignored her needs, stayed in the little house, and lived out the remaining years of their marriage in silent resentment? Think Ethan and Zeena Frome.

Sarah Penn refuses to criticize her husband, and she refuses to set aside her own real needs to languish in self-imposed unselfish silence. Refusing to rebuke Adoniram for his barn building, she effectively preserves her husband’s dignity and the dignity of their marriage. She bridges the gap between the two of them with virtuous behavior. There is no accusatory tone in Sarah’s voice when she explains the move to the barn:

"We've come here to live, an' we're goin' to live here. We've got jest as good a right here as new horses an' cows. The house wa'n't fit for us to live in any longer, an' I made up my mind I wa'n't goin' to stay there. I've done my duty by you forty year, an' I'm goin' to do it now; but I'm goin' to live here."

Finally, Adoniram understands. He yields the barn and weeps as he experiences real remorse at his own unjust action. He even agrees to build partitions and buy new furniture. I suspect he will find life in the large new house with a contented wife rather pleasant after all. If Mother ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!

(Painting by Arline Kroger)

Oh, my binging!

Brenda Bliven Porter


My college student daughter is on season three of Breaking Bad. Sometimes, late at night, we hear her moving around downstairs---studying, working on her laundry, perhaps, but always with her laptop at her side and Walter White on her mind. My youngest daughter is working her way through One Tree Hill; I’m hopeful that she’ll be bored before the end of season one. Over last year’s Christmas vacation, I started my love affair with Downton Abbey. It was late afternoon on Christmas Day. Worn down from the grind of the semester and with Christmas behind me, I settled in for a long winter’s nap on the sofa---compliments of Netflix and our newly-acquired Wii. After thirteen and a half hours of viewing time and several lengthy naps, I emerged from the fog. It was December 27, dirty dishes and chip bags were piled around the sofa, and I had somehow lost two days. I sat up, surveyed the living room, and did what any thinking person would do: I found something else to watch. Daniel Deronda, Wives and Daughters, North and South, Bleak House, Wuthering Heights---four more days passed and it was New Year’s Eve.

Binge-viewing. It has a name and lots of people (61% according to a recent Netflix poll) are doing it these days. Perhaps it is a product of our busy and chaotic lives. In an era when families can hardly make time to eat dinner together at night, sitting down every Thursday at 8:00 to watch The Waltons seems ludicrous. We have to catch up when we can! And there are physiological reasons why TV binges appeal to us. We long for the resolution of the narrative. Exciting and interesting questions arise about the impact of binge-viewing on the way television shows will be made. And there is a great case for thinking that this shift is similar to the move from the serialized Victorian novel to the more pithy twentieth century model. I’m in! Binge-viewing is the binge for me.


I keep a calendar. Mainly I use it as a diary to record ordinary days---lunch with my daughters, a walk with my friend Susan, a high school choir concert, an appointment with the dentist. My calendar is blank for the week between Christmas and New Year’s.

So I wonder about binge-viewing. Is it harmless? Or does it compromise the ability to live a disciplined and orderly life? How will we set acceptable limits on TV when Netflix makes it possible to always know what happens next?  Wendell Berry observes that “we must have limits or we will cease to exist as humans; perhaps we will cease to exist, period…in this world limits are not only inescapable but indispensable.”