Backyard Pearls: Cultivating Wisdom and Joy in Everyday Life
by Carolyn A. Scarborough


Backyard Pearls, 2008. ISBN 978-0-615-17409-9.
Reviewed by Lisa Shirah-Hiers
Posted on 06/18/2010

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Life Lessons; Nonfiction: Creative Life

Backyard Pearls is a collection of short essays drawn from the hundreds Carolyn Scarborough wrote as a biweekly newspaper columnist. The "backyard pearls" of the title refers to what she calls "moments of beauty, insight or joy [that] are always available." Collected into chapter categories, each column or "pearl" is prefaced by a quotation and followed by prompts inviting the reader to explore her own life.

In her first chapter, "Identity Pearls," Scarborough explores how our sense of ourselves is shaped by what we do, what we call ourselves, and how others see us through these various labels. For Scarborough, this realization began at a fundraising dinner shortly after she left a glamorous job as an international magazine editor in order to stay home with her children. When a corporate lawyer asked her the "what do you do" question, she struggled to find the right answer. "I certainly wasn't going to roll back the progress of feminism for the past 30 years and call myself a 'housewife'," she writes. "And I also didn't buy into the modern politically-correct phrasing, such as 'I work, but not outside the home,' So I settled on the least objectionable label and said I was a stay-at-home mother. Granted, this one too was misleading—did it mean I was a mother at home, but once out the door it was nothing but spiked heels and salsa parties for me?" The pearl came for her when she recognized that her career identity was really just a shell that couldn't contain who she'd become. "What we sometimes forget is that, whether whorled with sea colors or plain-Jane gray, singing star or soccer mom, even the prettiest shell is too heavy a burden. For our identities lie within the miraculous creature inside."

The second chapter, "Mother of Pearls," explores wisdom learned through motherhood from what we give up ("Before children, I had uninterrupted flows of time to dream and scribble away"), and what we gain ("It is our adventure with children that adds the extra depth, patience and twinkle we pack in our briefcase in the morning.... The rigid perfectionism of our youth deepens into the flexibility and acceptance of our maturity"). She describes the "invisible" way we work to help our children every day as we "...ponder and stitch, smooth and straighten the threads that run through our children's days..." and how in this struggle to be present to them "...we realize this fragile thread that we weave through their lives doesn't just hold them together—it holds us together too."

"Everyday Pearls" explores the lessons to be learned from such things as clutter ("...any wall that keeps us contained also keeps us from reaching out, fully tapping into the energy that awaits us when we free rooms, drawers and mental space from the shackles of too much stuff") and to-do lists ("What if we look back at everything that wasn't on the list to begin with, and yet happened nevertheless? The hugs. The moment admiring the first spring bloom. The sweet snatches of solitude where we paused, remembering why we're here on Earth.") and the family dog:"He was contentedly lying amid his paper carnage. He wasn't telling himself how he was addicted to shredding things and would never break the habit."

In each chapter that follows—"Holiday Pearls," "Strands of Pearls," "Growing Pearls," and "Moment-to-Moment Pearls"—Scarborough deepens the exploration of her key themes: that what we are is not as important as who we are becoming; that paying attention and being present in each task—however humble—brings us joy; that we need each other; and that wisdom isn't some lofty, unattainable goal but exists already in the here and now.

Each mini-essay in Scarborough's neat book is at once a self-contained nugget of wisdom, a writing/thinking prompt and an image to carry forward as you mine your own life for its "backyard pearls."


Carolyn Scarborough is the award-winning author of more than 400 essays and articles that have appeared in magazines and newspapers worldwide. She is also an Inner Wisdom Writing Coach, helping people get in touch with the message they're here to share with the world, then supporting them to write it in books, blogs or articles. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, two teenage daughters and their big-haired labradoodle. For more information visit her website.

Check out our interview with the author of Backyard Pearls.

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