Do you live to work — or work to live?

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Do you ever just STOP and take a breather?

 

By Caitlin Kelly

This recent blog post by a good friend — an American living in London — once more reminded me of what I value most…time away from the grind of work:

Last September Jeff and I spent a week in Greece and it was one of the most relaxing and restorative breaks I’ve ever taken in my life. It may be a silly thing to say about a fairly standard holiday, but it felt like a profound experience at the time. I needed it badly, felt great after I got back, and the sense of refreshment stayed with me a long time. When I was back in London I was emotional balanced, better at my work, and much better equipped to handle the flow of projects. We were in our 30s and this was the first holiday Jeff and I had ever taken that didn’t involve family or friends of some kind. There was no agenda, no purpose to the trip except to press pause on life for a moment and the positive effect of doing so was intense.

And then, like an idiot, I waited nearly a year to take significant time off again. It showed. I was getting anxious and overwhelmed by things that would not have phased me in a more rested state.

It’s not easy to take a proper holiday when you live far away from your family, losing a day each way to travel, (driving or flights, usually), plus cost.

You only get so many paid vacation days and then…they’re gone!

It’s also difficult if you’re burdened with debt, have multiple children and/or a very tight budget.

 

A holiday doesn’t have to be luxurious, but it does mean time for farniente — literally do nothing.

 

Relaxing.

People like Jose and I work freelance, which means that every day we don’t work we don’t get paid — and our bills don’t magically drop in size and volume. (Our health insurance alone is $1,400 every month, more than our mortgage payment.)

Even so, I usually take at least six weeks every year to not work, even if it’s just sitting at home.

American work culture isn’t as bad as Japan’s where karoshi — death from overwork — is real. But its savage demands of low wages, a thin social safety net, precarious employment, almost no unions — plus the insane costs of a university education — combine to keep too many Americans working with few breaks.

And —  how dare you look “unproductive”?!

Here’s my whip-smart pal Helaine Olen, writing on this in the Washington Post:

The United States is, famously, the only First World country that does not mandate employers give employees paid time off. (That includes Christmas and Thanksgiving.) In Canada and Japan, workers must receive at least 10 paid vacation days, and the Canadians also enjoy a number of paid official holidays. The European Union mandates all employees receive 20 days off annually — and that also does not include paid holidays. But in the United States? Nothing.

Instead, the wealthiest among us boast of their work habits — both Rupert Murdoch and Ivanka Trump (before her recent work-life family balance makeover) bragged that they would stop in their offices on Sundays to encourage their workers to do the same. Sheryl Sandberg urged women to lean in by going home and having dinner with the kids — and then signing back on the computer to catch up. At the same time, we all but demonize those who don’t have employment or can’t get by on what they earn.

I still enjoy writing, but I’ve been doing it for a living for decades and no longer seek the career-boosting thrill of a Big Magazine byline.

I’d love to write a few more books, but this year has been dis-spiriting — both of my book proposals, (which cost unpaid time to produce), have each been rejected by more than three agents. Not sure if I’ll keep trying with the second one.

 

Do you work to live or live to work?

 

Has that changed for you over time?

A few more thoughts about feelings

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

It’s been quite the rollercoaster, kids!

First off — very good news! My surgery July 6 went great and I’m free of disease.

What a blessed relief. I start radiation treatment in September.

But…what a disorienting time it’s been.

Jose, my husband, and I are career journalists — who, since the age of 19 when we began working for national publications even as college undergrads — learned early that having, let alone expressing, our feelings was an impediment to just getting shit done.

When you’re on deadline, no matter how stressed/tired/hungry/thirsty/in pain you might actually be, you have to get the bloody story done.

Jose, working as a New York Times photographer, once stepped on a nail so long it punctured his boot and his foot while covering the aftermath of a hurricane in Florida. He’d flown down — yes, really — aboard Air Force One, as he’d been in Connecticut covering Bush. He got a tetanus shot as the jet took off to head back to New York.

But this has meant, for decades, whatever we truly felt in a difficult situation — also listening to and photographing war, trauma, crime victims, fires — we suppressed our fear, grief, sadness. It might have popped out later, privately, or not.

Ours is not a business that welcomes signs of “weakness” — you can lose the respect of peers and editors, losing out on the major assignments that boost our careers if you admit to the PTSD that can affect us — even if it privately stains our souls with trauma for years.

This cancer diagnosis, and the sudden and reluctant admission of my own very real vulnerability, blew my self-protective walls to smithereens.

I’ve never cried as much in my entire life, (I never was one to cry), even in the toughest situations, as I have in the past month.

Tears of fear and anxiety.

Tears of gratitude for friends’ kindness.

Tears of pain. It’s a much rougher recovery than four previous surgeries on my knees, shoulder and hip.

Tears of pure exhaustion from being medically probed and punctured for weeks on end.

Tears of worry I won’t get back to being wry, wise-cracking me. (If not, who will I be?)

I feel like a lobster cracked open.

I’ve spent my life being private, guarded and wary of revealing weakness, vulnerability or need.

My late step-mother loved to taunt me as being “needy.” That did it.

I was bullied in high school which taught me that authority figures who did nothing to stop it didn’t care about me as a person, just a number in a chair.

But this has been life-changing — not only in the rush of so many negative emotions — but the kindness, gentleness and compassion I’ve also felt with every single medical intervention. Ten minutes before being wheeled in the OR, I was laughing with my surgeon and her nurses. That’s a rare gift.

I also feel some shame at how infantile one becomes — focused with ferocious selfishness  — memememememememe! — when in pain and fear. Two dear friends were widowed and another’s adult daughter died of cancer within the same month as all of this, and it’s taken a lot of energy to offer them the attention and love they so need.

People have offered to talk to me about their experiences of breast cancer. I can’t. Too often, they plunge into detail and I can’t listen, process and empathize. It’s too much.

That may be my own weakness, because feelings can feel so overwhelming.

Interesting times….

 

The power of comfort

By Caitlin Kelly

When we’re feeling anxious, few things are as helpful as comfort.

It can be difficult for some people — private, feisty, super-independent — to open up wide enough to admit: “I need help!”

*cough*

But if you can, and if people respond with love, my oh my…

Self-soothing is also a crucial life skill.

It might be food or drink or a hug or a hand to hold.

 

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My pre-op nerves soothed  by a tiny rhino. (Good band name!) It went well.

 

It might be a stuffed animal, whether you’re six, 16 or 60.

It might be a kind word in the middle of a tough moment or a gentle touch.

It might be a bright bouquet of flowers.

It might be a lovely notecard — on paper, sent with a stamp — that arrives just at the right time.

It might be the loving presence of your dog or cat — or husband/wife/partner.

It might be a view out the window of something lovely that soothes you.

It might be your favorite music.

It might be a familiar poem or prayer.

In a time of some personal anxiety, I have been truly grateful for all of these, arriving from Dublin and Paris and London and Hawaii.

Some of you have commented here and some have emailed me privately.

 

Thank you!

 

Carpe the damn diem!

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All the time in the world? Maybe not…

 

By Caitlin Kelly

 

You know how this goes.

I’ll do it: tomorrow, next week, next month, next year.

Sometime.

But not right now.

I’m too: busy, tired, broke, otherwise committed, ambivalent, not sure it’s going to work out perfectly.

It might be trying for a dream job.

It might be repairing a broken relationship — or starting a tender new one, romantic or platonic.

It might committing to a course of study.

It might mean selling everything you own and/or disappearing for a while (not abandoning your loved ones.)

 

Whatever it is, I urge you to get on with it.

 

It’s the worst cliche, but a cancer diagnosis — even one as incredibly hopeful as mine is — will instantly alter how you perceive time and its brevity and its value.

I’ve cut off useless drama. I’ve turned down invitations. I’m avoiding situations I know will stress me further.

But I’m also making and planting gorgeous new wooden planters for our balcony and accepting assignments for later this summer and planning a trip, possibly to Cornwall, in the late fall.

Two dear friends — one in London, one in California — were widowed in the same week. Both were, sadly, expected but still.

Now another friend’s husband is newly diagnosed.

 

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This time last year I was carefree, solo, sunning myself in a tiny, beautiful Croatian town on the Adriatic, Rovinj. I stayed in, and loved, a boutique hotel made up of two buildings from the 18th and 17th century, walking down smooth cobble-stoned streets.

If this had happened last year, I would have lost a ton of money on prepaid flights, tickets and hotels and had to cancel a trip that was absolute heaven.

This year I’m walking down hospital corridors and consulting with six physicians, submitting to seven presurgical tests and procedures — slightly less amusing!

I am so glad I was able, financially and physically, to make that journey as a birthday gift to myself.

To take it for myself.

To give it to myself without reservation or guilt or remorse for that “wasted” time or mis-spent savings.

 

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Whatever brings you joy, get out there and claim it.

 

Today!

 

 

 

 

Feelings?!

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Do you start most sentences with “I think” or “I feel”?

Having, managing, expressing (or suppressing) feelings is a big deal in my life.

As someone who faced and had to cope alone with mental illness and alcoholism in one parent and frequent work-related absence in another, I learned early that no one had much interest in hearing how I felt about all of this.

So I learned to bottle it up, or to share only with close friends.

Living in boarding school and summer camp ages eight to 13 (school) and eight to 16 (camp) also meant being surrounded by strangers, some of whom became close friends — but some of whom were bullies.

You learned to keep your counsel.

So a recent workshop at a writers’ conference — where the audience was urged to write “I remember” and dredge up some memories — proved both painful and illuminating for me.

Some of us then read our initial sentences to the room, maybe 150 other professional writers; I did, as well.

I was amazed and moved by what I heard.

It made me much more aware of how limited my ability to express some feelings still is — even later in life.

I’m reluctant to show vulnerability.

I very rarely say “I love you” to someone, even when I feel it.

I’m much more comfortable (which tends to unnerve others) expressing dismay, outrage or frustration — less tender and delicate emotions.

Except — thanks to a diagnosis I received since writing this post (tiny/early/contained breast cancer) — my view has shifted radically and I’ve told a number of friends, neighbors and even professional colleagues.

This is not something to face alone.

It’s also exhausting keeping up a brave face when I don’t feel at all brave or badass but feel worried and tired dealing with six (!) doctors, even if all of them are people I like.

The greatest challenge so far has been managing my anxiety, a battle in itself, while absorbing and making lucid decisions about treatment. It’s a lot to manage.

 

Are you at ease having and expressing your feelings?

 

Take a break!

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

I know, for some of you — parents, caregivers, those on super-tight budgets, in school — that’s not easy to do.

2018 did not begin well for me — the first time in many years I earned no income at all from my freelance work, for two months.

And our fixed monthly living costs, even without children or debt, are more than $5,000 a month, so no income from my side meant digging into our savings. (Which we are lucky to have!)

Burned out, I recently took a two-week break, and that cost us even more lost income and savings, in hotel/gas/meals, for 2 weeks back in Ontario, where I grew up and have many friends. (A last-minute change of plans meant our free dog-sitting housing fell through.)

The “freedom” of freelance work also means that every minute we’re not working, we lose income. No paid vacation days for us!

But oh, I needed some time off, and so did my weary full-time freelance husband Jose, a photo editor.

We didn’t do very much: napped, read magazines and books, had some very good meals, enjoyed long evenings with old friends, took photos, hit some golf balls at the driving range. Visited with my Dad, who lives alone and who turns 89 in June.

I was burned out and deeply frustrated by endless rejections and some nasty encounters. Fed up!

I came home renewed, and have been pitching up a storm of fresh ideas and projects, trying for some new and much more ambitious targets. I’ve also been asking others for more help achieving some of my goals than I used to — doing everything alone is exhausting and demoralizing.  (It’s really interesting to see who follows through, generously, and who — for all their very public social media all about how they believe deeply in mentorship — won’t lift a finger.)

In a country, (the U.S., where I live) and state (New York) where costs are so high and many people work insane hours, it’s counter-cultural to even admit to wanting a break, let alone taking one.

Not a glamorous brag-worthy Insta-perfect exotic and foreign vacation.

No poolside fruity drinks with little umbrellas in them.

Just a break.

I’m really glad that we did.

 

Are you able to carve out time to recharge?

 

Daily? Weekly? Every few months?

 

 

What do you do to re-energize?

The power of zzzzzzzzz

By Caitlin Kelly

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Yet another snowstorm!

 

This has been a brutally cold and snowy winter for the Northeastern U.S. and Canada, with millions losing power as trees shatter and fall on power lines. Every week has brought more ice, snow and shoveling of same.

The best bet for anyone who can?

Bed!

Naps!

It’s becoming ever clearer that getting a full, deep night’s sleep is essential to health, mental and physical. 

From the U.S. Dept.of Health and Human Services:

Studies show that a good night’s sleep improves learning. Whether you’re learning math, how to play the piano, how to perfect your golf swing, or how to drive a car, sleep helps enhance your learning and problem-solving skills. Sleep also helps you pay attention, make decisions, and be creative.

Studies also show that sleep deficiency alters activity in some parts of the brain. If you’re sleep deficient, you may have trouble making decisions, solving problems, controlling your emotions and behavior, and coping with change. Sleep deficiency also has been linked to depression, suicide, and risk-taking behavior.

Children and teens who are sleep deficient may have problems getting along with others. They may feel angry and impulsive, have mood swings, feel sad or depressed, or lack motivation. They also may have problems paying attention, and they may get lower grades and feel stressed.

Boy, do I know this firsthand.

The only time I’ve been utterly sleep-deprived — as I’ve never cared for small infants who need multiple night-time feedings — was when I got pneumonia in March 2007 and spent three days in the hospital. It’s a terrible disease that fills your lungs with fluid that you cough up and out, hour after hour after hour.

Some people break ribs from coughing so hard.

All you want to do, and need to do to heal, is sleep. But your poor weary body won’t let you.

 

We need to rest.

We need to sleep.

 

One of my favorite things to do, as I’ve written here before, is to fall asleep by candlelight and to light low candles in the morning’s darkness to slowly and calmly wake up. (As someone who works from home, and with no children or pets to care for, my schedule is very much my own, unlike most people’s.)

The very worst choice is something many of us now do — read on a blue-lit screen of some sort before bed or during the night. It physiologically shocks us back awake, even if we don’t want it.

 

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The sofa beckons…

 

I’ve been napping more this winter than ever before.

Maybe it’s a low-level depression.

Maybe I’m not sleeping as well each night as I need to.

But every afternoon around 3:30, unless I’m fully committed to something else, I snuggle beneath the duvet or a throw, fluff up my pillow, and disappear for an hour or so.

It’s a great luxury, I know, to be able to re-charge my batteries during a workday.

I also know what a bear I am when I don’t get enough zzzzzz’s!

 

How’s your sleep these days?

Do you take and enjoy naps?

Another cold gray day?! 10 comforts

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

Naps!

I hate to admit it, and being self-employed allows for this, but I’ve been falling back into bed almost daily at 3:30 for at least an hour. I feel slothful, but my body tells me this is a good choice, so I’m going with it. Hey, animals hibernate!

 

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Fresh flowers and plants

Little hits of color, shape, texture and scent — at bedside, in the living room, at the front door as we enter the apartment.

When all the sky offers, from dawn to dusk, is gray, we need life and color!

 

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Tea and coffee

Moroccan mint tea to Constant Comment to Earl Grey to Irish Breakfast to fruit-y stuff that comes out bright pink. (Did I mention color?) I love the ritual of putting on the kettle and filling a china teapot, then choosing a mug or a teacup and sitting with a steaming little bit of pleasure. No-calorie rehydration is also healthy!

 

Great radio

Living in New York, I enjoy WFUV, the station for Fordham University and WKCR, of Columbia University, which plays reggae on Saturday mornings.  I love many NPR shows, like This American Life and The Moth; you can hear them all on-line. We also enjoy TSF Jazz, a fantastic station in Paris.

 

Vigorous exercise — away from home!

 

I know, some people loathe spin class — which is basically riding fast on a stationary bike for 45 minutes while listening to music. But I really enjoy it. It burns plenty of calories. It’s social. I love the music. It makes me leave the apartment! Thanks to a screwed-up right knee and torn tendon in my right foot, I can’t do a treadmill or elliptical so all I have left for aerobic work is spin and swimming (which I don’t enjoy.)

Go for a walk and get as much sunlight as possible. Our bodies need fresh air and Vitamin D too.

 

Massage/steam/sauna

 

We’ve still got another two to three months swathed in layers of wool and leather (or pleather) and rubber to stay warm and dry. Strip down and sweat for a while.

 

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I designed a broad ledge of marble to allow for comfortable seating

 

Long baths

I just read —- oh, is it possible?! — that a long bath actually burns calories. See y’all later!

 

Moisturize everything all the time

Hair, nails, skin, hands. Repeat.

Winter air, both outdoors cold and indoor heat, is dehydrating in the extreme. I keep tubes of cream and lotion in every room and apply multiple times a day. I fill the tub and add plenty of Neutrogena Body Oil and scented essences like lavender, peppermint or eucalyptus.

 

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Candlelight

I saw this first in Stockholm in late November — when it was dark by 2:30 p.m. and the sun didn’t reappear until 8:30 a.m. Even at lunchtime, candles flickered on every restaurant tabletop and their effect was soothing, lovely and intimate.  At home, I light candles in the morning to wake up slowly and gently, and sometimes as my last illumination.

So much nicer than the cold blue light of a screen!

 

 

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Five of these for $10 at our local thrift shop

 

Add something new, gorgeous — and permanent — to your home

 

When last winter’s endlessly gray skies made us miserable, we repainted our small sitting room from soft warm gray to pale, subtle lavender, the color of clouds just tinged at sunset; (Peignoir by Farrow & Ball, my favorite brand. I even visited their Dorset factory last summer!)

When you’re stuck indoors day after day, week after week, month after month you really need some color, comfort and beauty!

For us, that’s framed art in every room, well-chosen colors for walls and floors and rugs and furniture, and plenty of comfort — a teal waffle cotton throw we bought in Paris at BHV,  a paisley duvet cover and shams, a  soft sheepskin rug bedside.

A couple of patterned throw pillows, a set of lacy pillowcases or shams, a bright tablecloth or fresh hand towels or a lovely mug don’t have to cost a lot and can add a cheering jolt of pretty. If money is super-tight, thrift and consignment shops can offer great stuff at very low prices.

I love this blog post about true hygge — the newly trendy Danish word meaning cosy and charming. It includes some of my suggestions, (candles, plants, art) but is really a wise life philosophy:

That’s what real hygge is – a simple moment that feels so special, cosy, relaxing, loving or happy that you just need to call it out. It’s not about being fancy, or styled, or being in the best circumstances, or having the right things. It’s literally about being present enough to see how great a moment is, and give that moment a name – hygge.

I’m not against beautiful images and styled things at all. I love to both see these and take them but I am against all the sites, articles and posts selling the concept of hygge as if it’s something you can just buy and do and you’re done. It’s not a “lifestyle” as so many non-Danish posts try to make it out to be. It’s not one thing you can check off your list and your life is better. And it’s not always picture perfect.

Hygge in its simplest form is really about being present. It can happen several times a day, anywhere, anytime – all it takes is you. Nothing else.

 

An ER visit (I’m OK!) — and lessons for women

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

I awoke this morning at 4:40 a.m, feeling like my chest was being crushed.

I sat up in bed, trying to focus on whether this was a heart attack, knowing that symptoms are very different for women than men, and because of that often overlooked or ignored.

I had never had one, but knew to pay close attention to my body’s signals.

 

These include:

 

shortness of breath

nausea

dizziness

pain in chest, jaw, back, shoulder and arm

cold sweat

light headedness

 

I felt light headed and, although there is no history of heart disease in my family, I’ve been taking a low dose of cholesterol medication daily for a few years.

We have health insurance and a very good regional hospital that I know far too well from multiple orthopedic surgeries since the year 2000, only a 10 minute drive from home.

The roads were empty at 5:00 a.m. so my husband got me there fast and the  emergency room luckily, had only one other patient in their 30 rooms.

I was quickly given an EKG, X-ray and had four vials of blood taken. The nurse put in an IV line in case (as I did need) they would need to take more blood later.

The pain subsided and within a few hours, thankfully, I was pain-free, if exhausted.

I learned a lot.

If it had been (thank heaven it was not!) a heart attack, specific proteins like troponin-1 are released into the bloodstream as heart cells die. The first blood test showed I was probably fine, but the second one needed to be taken six hours after my symptoms — i.e. I arrived at the hospital by 5:00 a.m. but had to wait there til 11:00 for the second set of blood samples to be taken and results read and shared with me.

I also learned that if it had been a heart attack, I would have been sent to another larger hospital for the insertion of a stent.

I also learned that many people present at the ER thinking, like I did, they were having a heart attack but it was — as we think it was for me — a very bad case of acid reflux, an esophageal spasm. (Very unusually, I had eaten a very small snack at 11:15 the night before. Normally, I know better, and don’t eat anything later than 8:00 p.m. now.)

 

We are very lucky:

— we have good health insurance, so few fear of surprise huge bills for this treatment; we’ll see

— it’s a very good hospital, created by the Rockefellers who live a 10-minute drive east

— we didn’t need the cost of an ambulance (which, we hope, would have been covered); our town has a volunteer ambulance squad as well.

— my treatment was quick, respectful and detailed.

— the hospital was recently renovated so the ER, which we knew too well from a few broken fingers and my husband’s biking concussion, was very different from a few years ago. Now it’s attractive and very comfortable; I was a bit stunned to have a TV screen in the room with me. Each room had an internal privacy curtain and a sliding glass door and an overhead light that didn’t glare into my eyes.

It was so American — each room had a glass plaque by the door with the name(s) of the donors who gave the funds for it.

But I’m grateful as hell for their generosity.

 

If you’re female, please memorize these symptoms — and make sure your partner/spouse and/or family know them as well.

 

They’re easy to ignore or dismiss.

 

 

Pleasure matters

By Caitlin Kelly

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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.

Alone.

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.

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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.

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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.

No one really benefits from that.