Inspiration

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"T ogether we can ... "

"Now you don't want to walk right up to them right away," explains Leyla Penczar. "I mean, it's not like regular shopping. Going up to someone and saying 'May I help you?' breaks their concentration. You have to give them some time to take it all in."

Indeed. The small sales floor in this shrine to one-stop soul-searching is library-quiet, but it is loud with visuals--colors in bright primaries and fluorescents; spinner-racks stuffed with pamphlets, cards, "appreciation" certificates. Everywhere there are images with corresponding themes to ponder:

"Teamwork," illustrated by, you guessed it, a sweaty scull crew. "Together we can create more; achieve more," reads the tag line. "Achievement" is emblazoned on photo of a small scrub that has somehow struggled through dry red rock on a lonely summit. "Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered," the text reads, "you will never grow."

Possibilities abound--"Believe and succeed," "Make it happen, " "Essence of a new day"--and they flash from posters, commuter mugs, combo mouse-pad/calculators, the whole lot harking back to soft-lit, earnest ecology posters of the '70s.

This is the land of Successories, where "our goal is to help you reach yours." And it's just one outpost in the culture of easy-dose inspiration that's rapidly spreading nowadays. More and more, wisdom is seen as something that can be picked up at the mall along with a new lipstick or a pair of socks. We snap it up in greeting card and stationery lines embossed with epigrams from Mao to Mae West. We pick witty quips or homilies to tack onto our e-mail sig-files, or stud our work-space partitions with quotes that reflect our outlook and neatly frame our interiors.

Penczar is sales manager for the chain's Glendale Galleria outlet, and she's well-practiced in pitching quick-hit inspiration. Her store has been in the mall for four years, she says, but in this new, heavily-trafficked spot for about a year.

Penczar flies about the store as if uncorked. She picks up three brightly hued fabric balls inscribed "Think big." "Create magic" and "Achieve more."

It takes just a second to put the metaphor together. "Juggling tasks?" the novice suggests.

Eyes alight, Penczar juts a forefinger in the novice's direction. "That's right!" A big thumbs up.

Successories gives the old department store sales category of "notions" a new meaning--not just gifts for all occasions, suggests Penczar, but all personalities--even those you don't know quite so well.

That makes the collection of inspirational bric-a-brac a ready fit for families looking for gifts to celebrate milestones or soothe the sting of a loved one's failure, or human resources administrators attempting an approximation of a relationship with their workforce. Just as they might match the task to the employee, the goal here is to match the employee with just the right ounce of encouragement.

After all, as one Successories poster, "Attitude," suggests, "The currents that determine our dreams and shape our lives flow from the attitudes we nurture everyday."

Perhaps, the current popularity of platitudes or aphorisms is a measure of not only how little time we have for self-reflection but also suggests how much we feel we need to remind ourselves of who we are or, in the simplest terms, who we want to be. Our love affair with the aphorism "goes back to Descartes: 'I think, therefore I am,' says professor and cultural mythologist Laura Shamas, who teaches theater at USC and in Pepperdine University's communications division. "That's why we think [they] will work for us. If we get it in our head, then we'll make it so."

Still, there is something somewhat disconcerting about searching for (and worse, finding) inspiration on a spinner-rack. These messages are not simply desk clutter, but also may be a valiant attempt to make sense of lives that feel increasingly chaotic.

"You can fill your room with candles, but then you have to take the next steps," says L.A. based therapist Patricia D. Johnson, who has done the TV-talk-show circuit and knows the power of sound-bite advice. "People get a little bit of good feeling ... for a second. And they want to hold onto it. I've been guilty of it. Even I almost bought a rock that said 'Believe.' But then you have to stop and think. What is it? Well, basically a pet rock."

Beware the quote left unexamined...

To honor a mother's milestone birthday, a young woman who wishes to remain anonymous--for reasons that will momentarily become obvious--wants to find a resonant gift. The mother, who admires Nelson Mandela, had for years been collecting his writings. When the daughter finds a fragment of a speech circulating on the Internet said to have come from Mandela's 1994 inauguration address, she knows she has the makings of the perfect present. She has the speech letter-pressed over a block ready for framing.

So pleased is her mother with the gesture that she decorates her bathroom in shades echoing those on the broadside. Every morning as she performs her ablutions, she can reread those words and prepare for her day: "We are all meant to shine as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just some of us; it is in everyone."

Energized, she can face the day, as Mandela would . . . except that those aren't Mandela's words. Rather they are the words of motivational speaker Marianne Williamson. Not a hero of the young woman's mother. The daughter has yet to find the courage to tell her.

It isn't the first time that someone's words of wisdom somehow became attached to another in the wilds of cyberspace. Just a few years ago, much ruckus was made over a mix up over a column written by Chicago Tribune journalist Mary Schmich that, through the alchemy of cyberspace, instantly became attributed to Kurt Vonnegut.

Why should words have any different meaning if they come from not a funny novelist but a funny newspaper columnist? If "Floss." "Sing." "Use sunscreen" resonatefor you in a speech by Vonnegut, why not in one by Schmich? "It's part of the power of myth," says Shamas. "Its about mythologizing these cultural heroes and investing iconic value into the person who said it. That aphorism is something we admire because it was spoken by someone we admire." It's not, explains Shamas, simply the words.

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood . . . and with them, so too their meaning" --with apologies to Robert Frost.

The lesson to those caught blindsided: Slogans are easy. Real wisdom is hard-won. Too often in this age of off-the-rack philosophy, "introspection" simply means internalizing a quick, pithy phrase--and simply repeating it.

Gail Wronsky always sees it coming.

Each semester, her young poets slump into a seat in her classroom at Loyola Marymount University, ready to write. A poet herself, Wronsky knows all about voice and point-of-view. And that's why she sometimes becomes merciless. "Whenever I encounter students who are leaning on a phrase like 'I'm doing my personal best.' And they write a poem called "I'm Doing My Personal Best," that's where I stop them. I'm trying to help people find their own words. To find out what that phrase means to them. To make them look critically at the language they use."

At every juncture she presses them to look between the couplets. Case in point: Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken." "The poem makes it clear that the two roads are equal," says Wronsky. "He looks down them. They look the same. It's not a poem about choosing the tougher road. 'I shall be telling this with a sigh/somewhere ages and ages hence. . . . It's really a poem about lying to [oneself]. He invents this thing to sound heroic. The poem is better than that." And it would only be something that could be seen in context, in sharp relief. "The poem is smart," but not only that, the reward for the journey, she says gleefully, "It's wicked."

It's varied, prickly and full of many levels of meaning. And just like life, can never be summed up in the space of two lines.

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