If — like me — you’ve left behind the country where you were born and raised, let alone if you’ve moved many times domestically and/or internationally — you can end up feeling rootless.
I have three young female friends, ages 26 to 33, whose lives look like a game of Where’s Waldo? moving between Guam and Virginia and Luxembourg and Baltimore and Brussels and more, each thanks to their father’s work.
I also belong to a far-flung tribe of fellow journalists, web mavens and photographers, who are — to name only a few of them — in Madrid, Colombia, Berlin, London, Mexico City, California and Kabul, either permanently or on assignment.
I was born in Vancouver, lived in London ages two to five, Toronto five to 30, (with stints in Paris, Montreal and Cuernavaca, Mexico in those years), then New Hampshire and then, finally, New York, a suburban town north of Manhattan.
Despite living for decades in the U.S., I’m still, in some ways, not very American, clinging to some of my Canadian roots in terms of my political values, (the collective over the individual, single-payer healthcare, stronger unions) and also in shared cultural references that only fellow Canadians — here or there — can appreciate.
What is it that roots us deeply into a place?
What is it that keeps us there, for years, or a lifetime?
Is it family?
A political climate that best suits us?
A place — for me, Paris, where a year-long fellowship launched my career in earnest — that forever, and for the better, changed your trajectory?
Our parents die — freeing us to move anywhere. To live anywhere. To root anywhere.
I’m headed back up to Canada for the third time in four months tomorrow, a 12-hour train ride. It’s a lot of travel in a short time, the first time, to Montreal, for work, but the second and third for pleasure, and to see friends.
I’ll be dog and house-sitting for a friend, someone I met when she worked in New York at the Canadian consulate and with whom I’ve stayed in touch.
I’ll mourn the deep cuts in my hometown newspaper and former employer, The Globe & Mail, and its weird new re-design.
I’ll savor some Canadian treats like butter tarts, (sort of like mincemeat, but better.)
I’ll ride the Red Rocket, aka the streetcar.
I’ll visit with friends I’ve known for decades, renewing deep ties and hearing their news.
Then I’ll get back on the train and head south again — for a brief few minutes suspended between my two countries on the bridge over the Niagara River, its spume just barely visible — and return to the United States.
It’s recently become a place I’m deeply ambivalent about, with rampant racism, sexism, homophobia, relentless gun violence, climate change denial and an administration determined to damage the lives of all but the wealthy.
My life is now neatly bisected, divided into two exact halves, between the nation of my birth and upbringing and the place I chose to move.
I wonder more and more these days about whether it’s time to uproot.
It’s an annual tradition — my carefully chosen list of holiday gift ideas I hope you’ll find fun and inspiring.
I post it early so you’ll have time to ponder, order and still have things arrive in time.
None of these are sponsored, and in a wide range of prices — and, yes, a few are a big splurge.
While there’s nothing for children, and no tech suggestions, many of my picks are unisex and could be enjoyed by teens to seniors.
All are from online sites and all prices, unless otherwise stated, are in U.S. dollars.
This small ceramic bowl, the palest blue of a summer sky with a gleaming gold glazed interior, is stunning. Perfect as a ring holder or bedside or holding tiny flowers. From Summerill & Bishop, a British website (they ship internationally) with some of the prettiest homewares and linens I’ve ever seen anywhere.
I lovelovelove everything on this American website, Mothology, whose aesthetic is industrial/vintage/rustic but never twee. Roam around for glassware, furniture, lighting, textiles and more. Here’s a vintage-y looking hook — a whale’s tail — perfect for a coat, an apron, a towel.
Also from them, an indigo print cotton napkin, 20 inches square — my trick is to buy two and stitch them together, add a pillow insert and voila! Instant throw cushion.
Ooooooohh, this duvet cover is it! It looks like someone spent years embroidering it in jewel colors, on a charcoal background. It’s from mega-retailer Pottery Barn, (whose duvet covers I’ve used and loved for years.) If the duvet cover is too spendy, the matching pillow shams start at $60.
Don’t forget to give to charity — whether foreign or domestic. So many people need our help! Selfishly, I’m linking here to the Writers’ Emergency Assistance Fund, which can give up to $4,000 within weeks to a qualified, experienced writer of non-fiction or journalism. I sat on their board for years and I know, as a full-time independent writer, how difficult life can become, especially if serious illness or injury strikes, when you have no paid sick days or reliable paycheck.
Also from Hermes, this yummy soap, in their Terre d’Hermes fragrance, which I’ve been wearing and loving since I got it for Christmas last year. It’s an expensive piece of soap, certainly, but sure to last for at least a month or more, so call it $1 a day. “Reminds me of rainy fall days spent at my family’s cottage in the mountains,” said one online reviewer. Technically a male fragrance, but I love it, subtle but layered.
If you don’t know Muji, a Japanese brand established in 1980, you’re missing out: great quality, smart designs and some bits of quirk. If actually getting to New York City is too expensive or complicated, here’s New York in a bag! Six smaller versions of its iconic buildings and six cars, all made of wood. Oh, go on!
For years I’ve been using personalized stationery and love getting and sending it. How about offering a set of personalized notepads? This site, Paper Source, offers dozens of attractive options, a nice choice for that person who already has everything! Here’s a simple design, but there are cockatoos, flowers, succulents and many more.
Few stores still exist in New York City of this vintage — Porto Rico Coffee and Tea has been in business since 1907 — and their fragrant Bleecker Street store is my definition of heaven: a tin ceiling, weathered wooden floorboards, battered huge tins of tea, overflowing sacks of coffee beans, teapots and string bags and everything you could want. They do mail order and here’s their chocolate cinnamon coffee beans, to get you started…
It’s winter. Your skin gets all scaly and dry and a eucalyptus scrub might be just the ticket. From another of my old-time New York City favorite stores, C.O. Bigelow, founded in 1838. They offer a staggering array of lovely products, including obscure/fab European ones like Marvis toothpaste, so make time to roam around their site.
For the more ambitious writers and bloggers in your world — who would really use and appreciate some practical advice, insights and tips to get them closer to their goals, (like more readers, finding an agent, book publication, etc.) — why not offer them one of my webinars ($150 for 90 minutes, one on one at their time of choosing, by phone, Skype or in person) or an hour of my coaching, $225/hour with a one-hour minimum?
An award-winning two-time author and career journalist, teaching these skills for decades, I’ve helped many writers worldwide, winning them readers and bylines in outlets like The Guardian and The New York Times.
I’ll close with two of my most beloved books, which could be intriguing to a wide array of readers.
Skyfaring is written by a British Airways 747 pilot, (the iconic aircraft is going out of service), and is full of some of the most beautiful prose about what the world feels and looks like from 35,000 feet long-haul flights. If like me, your giftee loves: travel, airplanes, the sky and wonderful writing, this is a great choice, a New York Times best-seller.
Twyla Tharp is a New York based modern dance choreographer and a ferocious talent. If you work in any kind of creative field, I highly recommend her book The Creative Habit. Like her, it’s smart, practical and no bullshit.
Today in the U.S. is Thanksgiving, a huge holiday that the fortunate will spend with people they love and who have welcomed them into their homes with food and drink and kindness.
We are in suburban Maryland, just outside D.C., with a dear friend and her husband, a fellow journalist who stood in Toronto in September 2011 as our official wedding witness. We’ve visited them many times, but this year were grateful she was able to also welcome a younger friend of ours, a freelancer in D.C. whose mother died a few years ago and whose father lives far away.
We were also grateful recently in Ontario when our friends there welcomed my former sister-in-law to stay the night and dine with us — we live in a one-bedroom apartment, so we can welcome at most two people, (if Jose sleeps on the floor and I get the sofa and the couple get our bed.)
When people have room to spare, (and we always bring gifts and wine and pay for groceries and write thank-you notes!) it’s a blessing.
The opening of one’s home, heart and table are great gifts.
I’ve recently begun following a smart, tough Christian writer and pastor named John Pavlovitz, and his new book, A Bigger Table, brings the same spirit of generosity and openness in a time of deep and bitter social and political division.
I haven’t yet read his book, but I follow him on Twitter and like his voice and his point of view.
Wherever you are today, I hope you’re safe, solvent, healthy, well-loved and well-fed!
I was struck recently by a social media post by someone I know who works in a demanding healthcare specialty. She had treated herself to a fantastic day trip to a nearby natural wonder and a gorgeous splurge of a breakfast.
What struck me most was the sense this was something, perhaps, to apologize for.
That taking —- making — time to care for herself and her soul was somehow suspect or self-indulgent.
I think being consistently kind to ourselves is essential and something too often overlooked or dismissed as silly, by others and worse, by ourselves. Women are so heavily socialized to take care of everyone else’s needs first and foremost that, when there’s a lack of time or money — and there often is — we get the short end of the stick.
I’m not someone who advocates self-indulgence or hedonism, (and who draws the line?) but I’m absolutely committed to what is now called self care.
For me that’s everything from playing my beloved vinyl on a Sunday morning to making home-made meals I can enjoy during the week, with my husband and on my own.
I spend real money at our local florist, sometimes as much as $25 a week, to fill our apartment with blooms and greenery, whether fragrant eucalyptus or bright gerbera or the tiny purple orchids that come all the way from Thailand. To me, it’s an investment in daily joy and beauty.
I go to a spin class at the gym to burn calories, manage stress, to enjoy the music and see familiar faces. It offers me a low-key social life and human contact when I work alone at home, now 11 years into that isolating workstyle.
I make play dates with friends, meeting them face to face for a coffee or lunch or a concert or ballet performance, creating memories we can share years later. I went to a fantastic Iron & Wine concert this week at Town Hall with a dear pal and made her spit with laughter over Manhattans at the bar in Grand Central. Priceless!
I love to travel, so am always looking a few weeks and months ahead at where we might be able to afford to go, and for how long. It refreshes me, whether seeing old friends back in Toronto or meeting new ones, as I did this summer in Berlin and Zagreb.
I commit a few hours each week to my favorite television shows. (Poldark!)
And this year — for the first time in my life — I’m driving a brand-new car, a luxury vehicle we’ve leased. Despite my initial trepidation, it is sheer bliss: quiet, beautifully designed, with intelligent and helpful technology. Our other vehicle is 16 years old, dented and scraped and, no matter how much money we drop at the mechanic, always has the check engine light on; freedom from that anxiety alone is a form of self care for me now.
It can feel weird, even guilt-inducing, to put yourself first, to say no, firmly (and mean it!) to others’ demands on your limited time and energy.
But without adding even the smallest pleasures to our days, and to our lives, we can end up stewing in resentment and self-denial.
If you’ve ever been a “trouble-making” student — or have tried to teach one — this recent op-ed might resonate:
The Department of Education estimates that 7 percent of the student population — nearly 3.5 million students in kindergarten through high school — was suspended at least once in the 2011-12 academic year, the last for which these data are available. Despite the Checkpoint Charlie climate in many urban high schools, where students are herded through metal detectors when they enter the building, suspensions are rarely prompted by violence. Ninety-five percent are for “willful defiance” or “disruption.”
African-American students are hit hardest. They are more than three times as likely than their white classmates to be suspended or expelled. As a result, as early as middle school, many black students have concluded that when it comes to discipline, the cards are stacked against them. They stop trusting their teachers, and their negative attitude becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They fall behind when they’re suspended, and many drop out or are pushed out…
In short, this kind of discipline is a lose-lose proposition. What’s to be done? Enter empathy.
This one hit me hard.
I’m white, female and grew up with privilege.
None of which exempted me from being in a lot of trouble, and eventually asked to leave the private all-girl school I’d been attending since fourth grade, when I was eight, which was when I went into boarding.
I spent every summer at summer camp, all eight weeks, so my life between the ages of eight and 14 was largely spent, (except two years living with my mother at home), surrounded by strangers and subject to their rules.
At the end of Grade Nine, I was told I would not be welcome there again.
If you’ve ever been suspended, expelled or told to leave a school, you’ll also know the feelings of rage, shame, humiliation and possible loss I felt then.
I loved our uniform, (a Hunting Stewart kilt and tie), and the rambling Victorian buildings of campus, its ancient chestnut trees and long afternoons of playing sports in the sunshine.
I would lose contact with some close friends, girls whose names I remember clearly decades later.
I lost my place as someone whose intelligence, and writing, had been winning prizes, respect and recognition for years.
None of which, of course, was ever discussed.
My bad behavior never included drugs or alcohol or physical fights — it was all very WASP-y and Canadian.
Instead, I talked back to teachers.
My bed and dresser, (we were marked every morning on neatness on a sheet of paper at the entrance to our shared bedrooms), were always a mess.
I once thew an apple core across the room, aiming at a waste basket below — instead it hit ancient paper wallpaper, leaving a tell-tale stain. I was 13 at the time.
I was excoriated for my deliberate vandalism.
It was nuts.
I’ve since taught at four different colleges and have had a few tough students.
I’ve not had the challenge of fighting, shouting and blatant disrespect of me or other students — so I wouldn’t presume to say how to manage that.
But I will say this — if a child or young adult is behaving like a monster in class, they’re quite likely plagued by demons outside of it.
They might be being bullied.
They might have parents or siblings with substance abuse issues.
They might be being abused.
You can be sure they are deeply unhappy and may well have no one who cares enough to get past their rage and rebellion to find out why. I still wish someone had done that for me.
You will only know if you care enough to ask them, kindly.
In my case, it was parents who were rarely there, off traveling the world for work or pleasure, or just not particularly interested in knowing I was troubled, just as long as I kept winning academic prizes and keeping my grades high enough to get a bursary.
I was sick to death of being ignored.
Instead of empathy, I was shouted at by ancient, furious housemothers, increasingly disdained by fed-up teachers, shunned by scared fellow students, and moved from bedroom to bedroom to bedroom as punishment.
My worst punishment made me very happy — a room all to myself.
I was later bullied for three years in high school, and didn’t much enjoy my four years at a very large and deeply impersonal university.
As a result, I pretty much hate school.
Also not fond of (useless) authority figures, most of whom insist on obedience with no interest in empathy.
Which of these best describes your default choice?
I know a few people who immediately choose the first, justifying their expenditures — sometimes far beyond their budget or means — with “I deserve it” and “I work hard” or “It’s only X$/euros/pounds.”
I watch those people from a distance, warily.
Not spending money can be a monumental challenge for some. Or not over-eating or drinking or smoking.
Maybe my perspective is a result of my unlikely and stringent childhood, shuttling between a strict girls-only boarding school and more permissive but still-regimented girls-only summer camps.
The former offered very little comfort, softness or emotional respite, only a large, shared dark green wicker basket of cookies every afternoon and the chance to watch television in the common room for a few hours one evening a week.
So I’ve always been suspicious, sometimes even disdainful, of people who constantly insist on pampering and spoiling themselves, having seen too much of it in adults who should have been more aware of, and attentive to, their responsibilities.
I do enjoy many pleasures — good food and wine, travel, music, a lovely home — but I can also wear myself out battling internally over how often and how much is too much.
I sometimes find it hard to just be nice to myself.
And, as someone who works alone at home, with no boss or colleagues, no performance reviews except winning repeat business from my clients, it’s all up to me to find and complete enough work to earn my living.
That means no dicking around — I don’t even sit on our comfy sofa until my workday is done, daytime television only tuned to CNN or BBC in the case of huge breaking news.
Self-care, a word I find odd although I heartily endorse its spirit, can be difficult for people who’ve been raised to be stoic and uncomplaining. It can feel like self-indulgence when it’s really just putting gas back into your depleted physical, emotional and spiritual tank.
It’s also deeply unAmerican, (a nation founded by Puritans), to take time off, to slow down, to actually take and enjoy vacations.
It’s so much easier, in an economy driven by consumer spending, to just buy stuff, more stuff, better stuff and newer stuff — which (funny thing!) also takes no time away from remaining “productive”.
It does very little to produce happiness.
And not being perpetually busy here is often seen as evidence of stupidity or laziness — not a smart decision to rest and re-charge.
My six weeks off, unimaginable to some, (and yes, a huge investment), was a great gift to myself.
Many could see it as self-indulgence, and maybe it was!
But here’s the thing….
The money that funded it only resulted from years of self-denial, saving hard, whether an unexpected windfall, (a massive copyright settlement in Canada that won me and many journalism colleagues five-figure sums), or my own income.
Americans also continue to have frighteningly low rates of savings, for a variety of reasons: health insurance and post-secondary education — hardly luxuries! –— are now big-ticket items, for one.
Low and stagnant wages are another problem.
But if you’re making enough to surpass basic needs, you have to save. And that often means — ideally for a while anyway — doing fewer fun, cool, tempting things, like buying the latest tech toys or phone or putting a vacation or wedding or new something on credit cards.
I’ve also been fasting, (800 cals/day, 2 days per week) since April 2016 and it’s helped me to lose weight; I’ve blogged about it here.
No one wants to go through life forever feeling deprived. But, I’ve seen, if you can stick it out and be patient, results do accrue.
It takes guts to face your feelings and try to work through them, certainly when they’re painful or confusing. I’ve found it simpler to just ignore and/or bury them.
Writing publicly about your most private emotions? I’m still deciding how much of it I want to do.
I’ve not struggled with panic attacks or severe anxiety, occasionally with depression. I haven’t been sexually abused or attacked. Therapists — starting in my teens when I was bullied in high school for three years — have helped.
I grew up in a family most comfortable expressing a limited set of emotions, often anger. There was usually plenty of money, and good health and interesting work, so there was no obvious source for it. Material wealth and a sort of emotional poverty are a challenging combination.
No one got hit, but verbal attacks weren’t unusual.
My mother is bi-polar and hated how her medication tamped down her energy and creativity — so her terrifying and out-of-the-blue manic episodes were a part of my life, beginning at age 12 and continuing into my 30s. These included police, consular officials in three foreign countries and multiple hospitalizations, including a locked ward in London.
As an only child, my father (then divorced) usually off traveling for work, I had no backup.
She also drank a lot, and smoked, both of which eventually have ruined her health. No one seemed to care very much, which was both understandable and heartbreaking. She was Mensa smart, beautiful, funny.
We gave up on our relationship in 2011; I live a six-hour international flight away from her.
It’s a source of deep and un-resolvable pain. I don’t write about it because…what good would it possibly do?
I have three half-siblings, each from different mothers; we’re not close.
When people rave about how awesome their family is, I feel like a Martian; I left my mother’s care at 14, my father’s at 19, to live alone.
I hate explaining this. It feels like telling tales out of school, or people react with pity or they just can’t relate to it at all.
Which stops me from writing about it, except for here, something, I suppose, of a trial balloon. I still don’t have the distance, or skill, to make it all beautiful, an amuse-bouche presented prettily for others’ enjoyment.
I wonder if I ever will.
My parents divorced when I was 7, and I spent my childhood, ages eight to 14, shuttling between boarding school and three summer camps. Camp saved me. There, at least, I felt wholly loved: as a talented actress and singer, an athlete, a friend and an admired leader of my peers.
But you quickly learn, when you share your bedroom with strangers, none of whom you chose, to keep your mouth shut. Guarded = safe. There’s almost nowhere completely private to cry, or comfort yourself.
At my private school, no one ever just asked: “How are you? Are you OK?”
The ability to be emotionally intimate is very much a learned, practiced skill.
Not surprising, then, that I became a nationally-ranked saber fencer!
I also work in a highly competitive field — journalism — where emotional vulnerability can provoke (and has) attack, ridicule, gossip and bullying. A friend in India once defended me there against a lie that took root in Toronto, where I worked, carried overseas by someone who thought this was a cool tidbit to share.
Luckily, later in life, I met and married Jose, a man fully at ease with having and expressing his feelings and hearing mine, a deeply loving person. He was the much- cherished youngest child of his parents, a small-town preacher and a kindergarten teacher. He was a late-life surprise baby, born after the stillbirth of a brother.
A fellow career journalist, working at The New York Times for 31 years in photography, he’s also quite private and cautious about who he lets in close.
I’m so grateful every day for his love and support.
How do you cope with your difficult feelings, of sadness or anger or loneliness?
Do you share them and/or blog or write publicly about them?
Used within reasonable limits, of course, these devices also offer us new graces. But we are not using them within reasonable limits. They are the masters; we are not. They are built to addict us, as the social psychologist Adam Alter’s new book “Irresistible” points out — and to madden us, distract us, arouse us and deceive us. We primp and perform for them as for a lover; we surrender our privacy to their demands; we wait on tenterhooks for every “like.” The smartphone is in the saddle, and it rides mankind.
Which is why we need a social and political movement — digital temperance, if you will — to take back some control.
I know, I know…how else could you be reading this, except on a device?
So, of course, I want you here and I want your attention (hey, over here!) and I want you to keep coming back for more.
But I agree with him that life spent only attached to a screen is a miserable existence:
American car accident rates are much higher now than a few years ago, due to drivers texting while behind the wheel.
People walk into the street, into objects and into other human beings because they refuse to pay attention to where they are in the real world, aka meatspace.
For all the connection it brings, staying tech-tethered also distances us from the people and experiences all around us.
It may be a sign of my generation, or my friends, but when I’m with someone in a social setting, like dinner or coffee or just a chat, we aren’t looking at our phones.
On a recent week’s vacation, breaking my normal routines, I stayed off my phone and computer — and took photos, read books and magazines (on paper), ate, slept, shopped, walked, exercised, talked to friends.
Do I care if everyone else “likes” my life?
If I like it, I’m fine.
Do you take technology sabbaths and turn off or put away all your digital devices?
the most distinctive aspect of Trump’s presidency, which is his complete and consistent rejection of the conventional etiquette of the office — of public comportment that speaks to the best in us, not the worst.
The other presidents in my lifetime have at least done a pantomime of the qualities that we try to instill in children: humility, honesty, magnanimity, generosity. Even Richard Nixon took his stabs at these. Trump makes a proud and almost ceaseless mockery of them.
And while I worry plenty that he’ll achieve some of his most ill-conceived policy goals, I’m just as fearful that he has already succeeded in changing forever the expected demeanor of someone in public office.
We need etiquette more than ever before — from the French word for ticket — to grease the wheels of our discourse and behavior. When we use agreed-upon rules of polite interaction,we can just get on with life’s many other challenges.
E.G.: You don’t wear white to a (North American) wedding. You probably wear black to a Christian funeral. You shake hands when meeting someone and look them in the eye and say” “Pleased to meet you” or something similar.
In France, and some other countries, you greet someone with a kiss on the cheek, possibly multiple times, or shake hands with them. (I love how personal that is.)
I recently attended a funeral where one woman — in her late 40s or beyond — arrived wearing workout clothing. My husband thinks I’m being a snob, (entirely possible), for thinking this was rude, but to my mind, a funeral is hardly a spontaneous event you just show up to in Spandex and sneakers.
It’s meant, I think, to be a time of sober reflection and support for the family, even if celebratory as well. Show some respect!
Another friend just lost her much beloved stepfather, and heard some incredibly rude and stupid things at his funeral. Like adding to someone’s grief is an intelligent or kind thing to do.
I was trained, and still do, to write thank-you notes, promptly, on paper and send them through the mail. However ancient this may seem to a generation accustomed to texts and emojis, a hand-written note on lovely stationery — whether a thank-you for a meal, a visit, a job interview, a wedding or birthday gift — remains a much-appreciated touch.
If you ever get an invitation with the letters RSVP, also French, they mean Repondez S’il Vous Plait, (answer, please!) Having to repeatedly email, text or call would-be guests to ask: “Are you coming?” really ruins the pleasure of entertaining.
Even as so many us wander about in comfy techno-isolation, wearing headphones, staring into our phones, we’re still sharing space on the street, in cramped airplanes and slow-moving subway cars, in open-plan offices with no privacy, in crowded, poorly-designed classrooms and stores.
That’s why we still need ways to smooth our passage through work, life and major events, to feel safe in knowing what to expect of one another and to be able to rely on that.
Keep your shoes on!
Don’t tweeze your chin hairs!
Don’t clip your nails!
Speak quietly (if you must speak at all) on your cellphone.
Offer your seat to a pregnant, elderly or visibly exhausted person, regardless or their age or gender.
Don’t shout at people working low or minimum-wage jobs like food service, hospitality or retail — their lives are already difficult enough.