Wednesday, September 03, 2008


For those of you who don’t spend every waking hour transporting a child to extracurricular activities, or who do but spend those hours listening to Radio Disney and praying for deafness, let me tell you about “This I Believe”. It’s a segment which runs on National Public Radio in which people write three minute-long essays about the belief systems which keep them going. Some of the writers are famous; most are not. I don’t always agree with the belief, but I’m never bored. At the end of each essay, I find myself thinking I should write one of those! Actually, to be more accurate, I find myself thinking I should write that a parking space? No, it’s a red zone, darn it, but if it was a parking space, I’d have to drive quickly around the block and you just know it won’t be there when I get back... of those!

And then I wouldn't. This is partially because I fear my deepest belief system involves buttered toast at more meals and partially because even if I did come up with a belief system I thought was worthy of writing about, my inner voice would say What a lovely essay, Quinn. Too bad you’re a total maniac and don’t follow it in any way, shape or form. Stick to writing about toast. Months have passed since I first considered this subject until this past weekend when I realized that I do have a belief. I don’t always follow it, but I am certain I’d be a happier person if I did. I’d write in to NPR, but I’d rather write it here.

When I was fourteen, my mother took me to Europe for ten days to see the sights. We saw Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, the Louvre, the Champs Elysees, all the usual suspects. During this entire time, we took only four photographs. One was of my hand when I didn’t realize the camera was on; two were of a daschund sitting in front of a café; and the last was a picture of me in front of Versailles in which you can see a great deal of the pavement and nothing of Versailles. Were my whole memory of the trip based on those pictures, I would swear to you that Versailles was known throughout the world as the loveliest parking lot in France. Luckily, I have my memories but, really, what are memories but mental pictures I have chosen to keep? Which leads me to what I believe:

Life is where you frame the picture.

How we see ourselves is nothing more than the stories we tell ourselves, the accumulation of mental pictures which confirm suspicions we already have. The things we remember and the things we forget, the parts of the story we place in the middle of the image and the things we cut off or leave blurrily walking out of frame are what comprise how we view each new event in our lives.

A few years back I worked as an assistant to an agent who required, it can be said delicately, a certain amount of work. Her tantrums were legendary and her mood swings would have warmed the heart of a Lithium distributor. One of her worst moments was when a client or agent would leave the agency. This would lead to an afternoon of sulking, shouting, berating and general cat-o’-nine-tailing anyone within reach, followed by her slumping over her twelfth Diet Coke of the day moaning about how everyone left her. The people around her, planning our exits ourselves, would never state the obvious, which included:

  1. When you throw a Diet Coke can at an assistant, all but the most psychologically unsound are going to look for other work.
  2. You had just been complaining about how much you disliked the person who just quit.
  3. Every single person in the entertainment industry moves around. The assistant washes the Diet Coke out of her hair and becomes a low-level agent somewhere else. The ingénue is scooped up by a big powerful agent who scares her into thinking she’s not getting in for the big movies. The agent takes his clients and sets up shop on his own.

When I was first interviewed for the job she was incredibly charming and I was starting to doubt every story I had heard about her moods. Suddenly, in the middle of extolling my virtues and painting pretty pictures of how my being her assistant would be a lot like a sleepover only with a paycheck, she frowned. The room seemed to darken. “You’ll leave me,” she snapped, “everyone does.”

Her picture was framed not around how she had managed to become a highly successful person in a business based on transience and petty betrayals, but on people leaving. Not just leaving, but leaving her. Every time someone left, it sharpened the focus on that picture. No one had the nerve to point out that if you keep telling people they’re going to leave you, and you keep treating people as if they are sneaking away when you’re popping another Diet Coke, they’ll do just that. Her picture, her narrative, could have been about the gorgeous house she bought herself, or the dozens of famous and successful actors she had discovered and represented during her amazing career, but instead it was how she would lose the gorgeous house if people kept leaving her, and how those actors she'd discovered had left her by the wayside. It was a sad and dreary picture, which I added to when I left myself.

Of course, framing works positively as well. My friend Mary is getting her PhD in Theology. She writes books on travel and is currently off on an annual road trip with a friend, enjoying world-class barbecue in many forms and many time zones. She also has been living with a mean and stubborn cancer for just about a decade. This summer she started an intensive course of chemo and an intensive course in German. Besides being the friend I have who puts the whole idea of multitasking into perspective, she is one of the most alive people I know. She has framed her picture so that her travels, her studies, her husband, her dogs and her pork products are smack in the middle of the frame. She refuses to let the cancer be anything more than noxious weeds on the edges of the picture, and of her life.

I think praying is asking whatever name you give God to move the frame of what you see from where it is to where it should be. For every miracle which comes from prayer --where the problem simply and inexplicably goes away -- you get a hundred examples of people praying and finding they now have the strength to see the problem from a new angle, or to put it in clearer focus. This certainly doesn't have to come from prayer alone. I think running allows some people the time to reframe. For others it might be a yoga class, Mozart, or a road trip through the desert at night. I keep hoping a pint of ice-cream might shift the focus of my problems but so far all it's done it add being bloated and sticky to the composition.

What framing and reframing require to work best is quiet and contemplation. I don’t know anyone who has enough of that. We certainly have enough props and costumes to fill up any layout. We’re online reading the news and catching up on TiVo or we’re reading Us Weekly while sitting at the orthodontist’s office and we’re all so terribly packed with information. But if you’re not careful to carve out time there’s never a point where you look at all the things you know and see and have experienced and actually crop the image. There's no room to think this is important and this makes me who I am and this makes me happy in a way I can’t exactly explain.

Too often, the loudest events which come up in our lives become the most important, even if we don’t really like them or don’t want to make them a priority. The narrative, the picture, becomes one of great movement and activity but we lose the thing at the center of the frame which matters. We find ourselves wondering why an entire week has gone by and everyone we care for has been fed and cared for but we haven’t had a single transcendent moment. Maybe we tell ourselves that feeling a sense of connection to our ultimate goals is too much to ask for on the week the kids go back to school, or we start a new job, or the holidays are upon us. But then when can we ask for it?

I need to frame my picture better. I need to move less and think more. I need to start viewing each day as productive not only for how many things I knocked off the “To-do” list but for the moments when I was truly present and grateful.

This I believe.


Blogger ~Mad said...

I listen to This I Believe with podcasts on my iPod.

I think you should send this one in to be used by them on air.

~Mad(elyn) in Alabama

2:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! I don't know what to say but Thank you! I've admired, read and learned a lot of things on your blog and this is one of the most profound. I will need to re-read then re-read it again to really digest every piece of this gift.

2:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really? This post is just perfect. Whether it's on NPR or not!

3:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is what I believe, too. How eloquently you put it. And I always liked to combine running and praying. :-)

3:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a beautiful and thought provoking post. It really touched me in ways you'll never know. I love your blog, your sense of humor and your incites. Thank you.

3:36 PM  
Blogger Kathryn in NZ said...

Awesome - that post rocks.
thank you

4:54 PM  
Blogger Sarah said...

This was lovely, and timely. Thank you.

7:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

phenomenal post - very well said.

8:20 PM  
Blogger Skerrib said...

Very nice. I like that a lot.

8:23 PM  
Blogger repsac3 said...


That was just what I needed.

While your writing frequently lifts my spirits (& makes me short of breath with aching sides in the process), I don't think I've ever felt as grateful for a post as I am for this one.

Submit it to NPR or don't, but never doubt that you've written something of value here that's worthy of submission, even if you don't actually live it day to day. Whatever our beliefs, few of us do...

And besides...


1:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really really really needed this today. Really. Thank you.

3:34 AM  
Blogger Claire said...


7:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for an inspiring post - leading me to re-framing AND buttered toast.

Oh, and unintended poetry.

9:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I realized halfway through your post that my jaw was literally hanging. It spoke to me because I really need to adjust my frame, what a beautifully-expressed thought-provoking post.

I also really like it that you wrote "whatever name you give God" because this allows me to personalize your advice rather than distancing myself from it. Thank you!

11:11 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Thank you. This was really, really lovely. Off now, to knit and have some contemplative time.

5:53 PM  
Blogger Dodi said...

Thank you. This is absolutely beautiful. I was thinking just this afternoon about how it is time to work on shifting my "priorities"... and now I know that what I really need to do is frame my picture differently. It's really such a great way of looking at things.

You are very gifted with words. I can't wait for your book!

8:10 PM  
Blogger Lady Prism said...


I can read this again and again and never tire of it...

This I believe!

2:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for an excellent challenge! How we choose to frame/crop makes a huge difference in each of our attitudes. Thanks for your insightful way of sharing what you have learned!

6:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yep- this is exactly what I am trying to convey to my daughter. Despite her beliefs, I am not a Susie Sunshine. But I also think you see in your life what you expect to see, and frame it that way as you write. I am going to print this out and share it with her when I think she might be receptive.

7:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. A friend sent me a link and this was exactly what I needed to read at this moment, since I'm in the process of trying to reframe things myself. You gave me a lot to think about.

1:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You just made my day. Thank you.

2:54 PM  
Blogger Adam Byrn "Adamus" Tritt said...

A friend of mine read my blog today and commented "There must be something in the air." He pointed me to your blog.

And so, glad I am here, I read a This I Believe essay just after I posted my own.

Excellently done. I appreciate it. (But, sorry those of you who want tha above essay sent to The I Believe: ther is a 500 word limit.)


5:03 PM  
Blogger Askew To You said...

That was lovely. :D

9:07 PM  
Blogger Gail S said...

Thank you Quinn. Very thought-provoking. It's made me realize that I need to actually figure out what my goals and hopes ARE now. My daughter is grown, I'm approaching retirement, so what is it exactly that I am hoping to achieve now? Your post can't tell me that of course, but it has made me realize that I need to figure this out

8:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, I needed it.

I love "This I Believe", "Wait, Wait", "This American Life", Sarah Vowell, both Davids....and Quinn Cummings! I can't wait for your book!! Thank you!!

7:56 PM  
Blogger Judy said...

Oh, wow. Much to ponder here.

If you can say that while not having had much time to think, I'm impressed.

After 50 years of thinking waaaay too much, I'm now struggling to focus the frame on 'seeking justice, loving mercy, walking humbly...'

I know it isn't true, but it seems that as soon as I get my frame where it needs to be, I need to start peeling back the fingers of other stuff screaming 'no! you cannot do this to me!' while trying to jump back into the picture I have just so nicely framed.

8:52 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Indeed. Well said.

Once again, you expressed something of immense depth and value with a disarming charm and simplicity.

(You are my hero.)

11:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fantastic. Amazing. Inspired.

I'm hungry for buttered toast now.

8:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Quinn, I really needed that. My boyfriend is in the midst of tests to see if his cancer has returned, and while he has pushed this to the edge of his frame, it's right in the middle of mine. I'm overwhelmed by fear that I might lose him, and actually I would be far better served by focussing on how much I love him and how happy he makes me. And remembering to breathe.

2:42 PM  
Blogger Dawn Maria said...

Great post! I think all too often we feel the outside forces are directing our lives and schedules. We're too busy for this, too busy for that. The reality, so beautifully described here, is that we really are the editors of our own life's story.

6:05 AM  
Blogger Narya said...

There are times when Joan Didion's self-involvement can get on my last nerve, but she wrote (at least) one perfect sentence: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." I've been thinking about (and talking and writing about) the implications of that sentence for 25 years.

Sounds like you have, too, even if you never read the actual sentence.

9:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for reminding me to appreciate the present. This article reminds me of my aunt, a 15 year cancer survivor, who I admire in the way she has ramped up her enjoyment of life since diagnosis and lives more fully each day than I have in all my years.

11:36 AM  
Anonymous movers London said...

I love your articles! This is a great one!

2:11 PM  

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