It’s not very far from one city to the other — about 1.5 hours by train.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art, its broad steps familiar to anyone who’s seen the film Rocky, is a lovely place with interesting shows, so I took the bold and costly step of traveling from our home in New York to see a show there, paintings from Mexico 1910 to 1950.
It meant taking a train into New York from our suburban home, changing train stations, then another train to Philadelphia, then a brief cab ride to the museum.
But the train ride there proved, as it often does, to be the highlight of the day.
Three African American women got on at one of the New Jersey stops and one sat beside me, swathed in a leopard print cape, and wearing leopard print gloves. She wore a simple black wool hat and beneath it a sheer black scarf printed with images of Jesus.
I’m not sure how we started talking, but we were soon trading stories and recipes for all our favorite foods. She was raised on a North Carolina farm. She bore nine children; her first-born, a daughter, and her mother, were burned to death in a house fire.
One of her grown daughters, a pastor, sat behind us, wearing a large necklace in rhinestones that spelled out the word Queen.
This, to me, is one of the joys of travel — to break my daily bubble and speak with people I’d never meet any other way.
We’re not wealthy, so we don’t fly first class or take costly cruises or stay in luxury hotels, certain to only meet people at a similar income level. That means, de facto, meeting a broad cross-section range of fellow travelers.
My seat-mate was 89, and the best company I’d had in weeks. When I got up to leave, we hugged goodbye.
The museum show was impressive, and exhaustive.
It took me 2.5 hours to see it all, although I’m an outlier now at museums because I actually look at things. It’s become normal — how depressing! — to quickly snap a cellphone photo of the art and/or its wall text and simply move on — without looking at the art itself.
I lived in Cuernavaca when I was 14, and have been to Mexico many times, a country I love and miss. It’s also the birthplace of my husband’s grandfather. So I was very interested to see the art, which included some famous and familiar images by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, including many lesser-known works.
I enjoyed lunch in the museum restaurant, now closed for 15 months for reservations.
On Friday nights, the museum offers live music and serves food and wine on its enormous central staircase. It creates a great welcoming atmosphere, and the stairs filled up quickly with people of all ages.
I needed to call Jose, (of course I’d left my phone back in New York), and a woman lent me hers and we fell into a long conversation; she was a Phd student from Belgrade.
I sat for a while in the Philadelphia train station before heading back to New York. It’s a classic — very high ceilings, tall white glass Deco-style hanging lamps, long polished wooden benches.
A statue at one end, an angel holding a male body with torn trousers, is a WWII memorial, one of the most powerful and moving I’ve ever seen.
I finally arrived home around midnight, having traveled further in one day than I had in six long months — my head and heart newly filled with ideas and memories, refreshed and recharged.
It was a cold, gray, rainy morning and the small Tarrytown, NY church — where author Washington Irving once worshipped — was filling up.
The long, dark wooden pews held friends, colleagues, cousins, a brother.
Several neighbors from her apartment building, including me, joined them.
So did one of her physicians, who would speak about her with respect and affection.
Attending a memorial service is — to put it bluntly — rarely fun.
It’s a spine-stiffening reminder of our mortality, no matter our age or health.
But someone has died and we’re there to honor them and their life, no matter how tenuous the thread of connection. To hold up, sometimes literally, their grieving friends and family, to show them that they, too, are loved and valued by a larger community.
It’s the right thing to do.
And, if you deeply knew and loved the person, it’s heartbreaking; even the female minister conducting the service warned us it would be difficult for her as she was a close friend of our neighbor.
One of my favorite writers, Susie Boyt, recently ended her 13-year column in the Financial Times; a great-grand-daughter of Freud, she is so deliciously un-British, all feelings and emotion, a huge breath of fresh air in those po-faced orange pages filled with PLU (people like us), and I will miss her!
She writes, in her farewell column:
I think that celebrating and mourning should be practiced in equal measure, sometimes at the same time.
I also loved this, from her:
You must try to prepare and be ready for the moment that you’re needed for the call could come at any time.
We now live in increasingly connected but disconnected times.
We check our phones constantly for some amusing text or parade of emojis.
We hang out on Facebook, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, “liking” and “friending” — but rarely sitting with someone who is in pain, scared and dying.
That’s the tough part. Showing up.
More than ever, now, we need to show up in one another’s lives: when someone is ill, or injured, or their parents are dying or your favorite teacher or professor is retiring.
Not every event is sad, of course, but we need to be present, to witness, to celebrate and to console.
I’m at an age now (sigh) where funerals and memorials — for friends, for parents, for neighbors — are more prevalent than graduations, weddings and christenings, all events filled with flowers and joy, hope and anticipation.
And few moments are more sobering and searing than a virtually unattended funeral or memorial service.
I’ve been to one of those.
I’ve been to one that was standing room only, for former New York Times photographer (and someone whose life you might know from the film The Killing Fields), Dith Pran.
I’m especially sensitive to unattended milestones; neither parent attended my college graduation. My mother wasn’t there for my second wedding and neither were my husband’s two sisters or their partners. That hurt, a lot.
So I try, (grateful for the freedom as a self-employed person to be able to do so), to attend memorials and funerals for the people I know, even someone like our neighbor A., a single woman, never married, who was ferociously private.
We never socialized and rarely spoke.
St. Marks in the Bowery, one of Manhattan’s oldest churches
But at her memorial service I learned a great deal about her, and how very deeply her life, and her enthusiasms, had touched so many others.
Until or unless you’re in the room for these intimate, once-in-a-lifetime events, you’re missing a great deal.
We’re all a thread — as one late beau, cut down too soon by cancer, used to joke — in life’s rich tapestry.
Set at least one face-to-face date with a friend (or colleague) every week
In a world of virtual connection, it’s too easy to spend our life tapping a keyboard and staring into a screen. And we miss out on so much by not sitting face to face with friends and colleagues — their laughter, a hug, a raised eyebrow.
Eat less meat
I’m neither vegan nor vegetarian, but have decided, for health reasons, to try and eat less red meat. Great recipes help, as does finding a good and affordable fishmonger.
Switch up your cultural consumption
If you’ve never been to the opera or ballet, (or played a video game or read a manga), or visited a private art gallery or museum, give it a try.
We all fall into ruts, easily forgetting — or, worse, never knowing or caring — how many forms of cultural expression exist in the world.
If all you read is science fiction, pick up a book of real-life science, and vice versa.
Have you ever listened to koto music? Or bhangra? Or reggae? Or soukous? One of my favorite musicians is Mali’s Salif Keita. Another is the British songwriter Richard Thompson.
Watch less television
I turned off the “news” and my stress levels quickly dropped. I read Twitter and two papers a day, but most television news is a shallow, U.S.-centric (where I live) joke. I enjoy movies and a very few shows, but try to limit my television time to maybe six hours a week.
Read for pure pleasure
I consume vast amounts of media for my work as a journalist, (we get 20 monthly and weekly magazines and newspapers by subscription), often ending up too tired to read for pure enjoyment.
Make a point of finding some terrific new reads and dive in.
Schedule a long phone call or Skype visit each month with someone far away you miss
Like me, you’ve probably got friends and family scattered across the world. People I love live as far away from me (in New York) as Kamloops, B.C., D.C., Toronto and London. Emails and social media can’t get to the heart of the matter as deeply as a face to face or intimate conversation.
Get a handle on your finances: spending, saving, investing
Do you know your APRs? Your FICO score and how to improve it? Are you saving 15 percent of your income every week or month? (If not, how will you ever retire or weather a financial crisis?)
Have you invested your savings? Are you reviewing your portfolio a few times a year to see if things have changed substantially?
Do you read the business press, watching where the economy is headed? If you’ve never read a personal finance book or blog, invest some time this year in really understanding how to maximize every bit of your hard-earned income and cut expenses.
I wrote five pieces last year for Reuters Money; there are many such sites to help you better understand personal finance. Here’s a helpful piece from one of my favorite writers on the topic, (meeting her in D.C. last year was a great nerd-thrill!), the Washington Post‘s Michelle Singletary.
Fast one or two days a week
I’ve now been doing this for seven months, two days a week, and plan to do it forever. The hard core consume only 500 calories on “fast” days. I eat 750, and eat normally the other days. (Normally doesn’t include fast food, liquor [except for weekends], junk food like chips and soda.) It’s helped me shed weight and calm digestive issues.
It’s not that difficult after the first few weeks and doing vigorous exercise helps enormously, thanks to endorphins and other chemicals that naturally suppress appetite.
Explore a new-to-you neighborhood, town or city nearby
Do you always take the same route to work or school or the gym? We all try to save time by taking well-known short-cuts, but can miss a lot in so doing.
Make time to try a new-to-you neighborhood or place nearby. Travel, adventure and exploration don’t have to require a costly plane or train ticket.
Ditch a long-standing habit — and create a new one
Watching television news had become a nightly habit for me, even as I found much of it shallow and stupid.
My new habit for 2015 was playing golf, even just going to the driving range to work on my skills.
My new habit, for 2016, is fasting twice a week.
Not sure yet what my 2017 new habit will be.
Write notes on paper
As thank-yous for the dinners and parties you attend. For gifts received. Condolence notes.
Splurge on some quality stationery and a nice pen; keep stamps handy so you’ve no excuse. Getting a hand-written letter through the mail now is such a rarity and a luxury. It leaves an impression.
Decades from now, you’ll savor some of the ones you received — not a pile of pixels or emails.
Even a can of paint and a roller can transform a room.
Your home is a refuge and sanctuary from a noisy, crowded, stressful world. Treat it well!
Visit your local library
Libraries have changed, becoming more community centers. I love settling into a comfortable chair for a few hours to soak up some new magazines or to pick up a selection of CDs or DVDs to try.
Get to know a child you’re not related to
We don’t have children or grand-children, or nephews or nieces, so we appreciate getting to know the son of our friends across the street, who’s 10, and a lively, funny, talented musician.
People who don’t have children can really enjoy the company of others’ kids, and kids can use a break from their parents and relatives; an outside perspective can be a refreshing change (when it’s someone whose values you share and whose behavior, of course, you trust.)
If you’re ready for the commitment, volunteer to mentor a less-privileged child through a program like Big Brothers or Big Sisters or other local initiatives. Everyone needs an attentive ear and someone fun and cool to hang out with and learn from — who’s not only one more authority figure.
Write to your elected representative(s) praising them for work you admire — or arguing lucidly for the changes you want them to make, and why
I admire those who choose political office. For every bloviating blowhard, there’s someone who really hopes to make a difference. Let them know you appreciate their hard work — or make sure they hear your concerns.
Write a letter to the editor
If you ever read the letters page, you’ll find it dominated by male voices. Make time to read deeply enough that you find stories and issues to engage with, about which you have strong and lucid opinions and reactions.
Support the causes you believe in by arguing for them publicly — not just on social media or privately.
Spend at least 30 minutes every day in silence, solitude and/or surrounded by nature
A dear friend sent me an e-card for Christmas, filled with birds and flowers and music.
Her message, typically feisty, ended with: “And in 2017 we fight!”
An avowed, life-long progressive — and one of the smartest science writers I know (here’s a link to her terrific book, “Fevered” , about climate change and its effects on health, globally) — she’s full of piss and vinegar as I think we all should be in 2017, and for the next four years.
There has been a shocking and dis-spiriting increase in hate crimes, physical attacks and appalling verbal abuse in the past few months, both in Britain post-Brexit and in the United States, after the election of a President who has vilified women, Muslims, Mexicans and many others.
By “fight” I don’t mean fisticuffs.
I don’t mean screaming abuse back at someone who’s clearly got boundary issues.
Nor do I mean seeking some shouty, nasty draaaaama, if that can be avoided.
But I do mean — stiffen your spine, no matter how scared you are of what might happen if you do. (Clearly, not if you live in an abusive situation, where your life and that of others is at risk.)
In the past month, after long deliberation and, yes, fearful of the consequences, I finally stood up and fought for myself in three difficult and enervating situations, one within my family (I wrote a long letter, snail mailed); one within my parish (ditto) and one with a client whose disregard for basic courtesy (and abysmal pay) were grim beyond words.
It takes guts to tell someone, (who can just blow you off completely): “Enough!”
It takes trust in your own judgment of what you truly most need.
It also means preparing for the potential consequences, the most frightening bit: loss of income, loss of affection, affiliation, respect, losing your welcome within a community.
But the costs of not fighting for what you know is right can be crippling to your mental, emotional and physical health.
To your self-esteem and confidence.
So, eventually, it must be done.
Ask for help before you do it, from a friend, a therapist, a loving partner, to steady your nerves and make sure you’re not about to self-immolate.
But we’re also living in strange and challenging times, politically.
So, it’s also time to go fight the good fight for social justice and economic progress that doesn’t , once more, simply re-enrich the already wealthy; 95 percent of Americans, according to a recent New York Times report, have seen no rise in their income in seven years.
If all we do is whinge and cringe, nothing will change.
Write to your elected representatives.
Work hard – if you live in the U.S. — to get some Democrats elected in the mid-term elections, only two years away.
Donate your time, energy or money to Planned Parenthood, the ACLU and other groups working daily to protect our rights, bodily and civil.
Write letters to the editor, in print; women, especially! Most of those appearing these days are written by men.
On-line, leave civil, smart comments.
If you’re a writer, send out some op-eds, essays and opinion pieces or reported stories to keep issues front and center.
If you see someone being verbally abused in a public setting, stand beside them to signal that you’re an ally. Speak calmly and quietly to them. Do not ignore cruelty; passivity signals assent.
It’s not the time to shrug and look away.
It’s not the time to say “Not my problem.”
It’s not the time to just soak up fake news and comforting lies.
It’s not the time to ignore the news because “it’s too depressing.” It’s our world.
There is never a “time and place” for cruelty. By staying silent, you robbed the little girl of the acknowledgment and the apology to which she was entitled. And you deprived the boy of learning the consequences of nasty behavior. He may not understand how mean he was. But your inaction ensured that his ignorance persists.
But even our easiest and richest friendships can be laced with tensions and conflicts, as are most human relationships. They can lose a bit of their magic and fail to regain it, or even fade out altogether for tragic reasons, or no reason at all. Then there are the not-so-easy friendships; increasingly difficult friendships; and bad, gut-wrenching, toxic friendships. The pleasures and benefits of good friends are abundant, but they come with a price. Friendship, looked at through a clear and wide lens, is far messier and more lopsided than it is often portrayed.
The first cold splash on an idealised notion of friendship is the data showing that only about half of friendships are reciprocal. This is shocking to people, since research confirms that we actually assume nearly all our friendships are reciprocal. Can you guess who on your list of friends wouldn’t list you?
As longtime readers here know, I’ve often blogged about friendship.
One reason friendship is so compelling to me is coming from a family that’s always riddled with anger and estrangements that go on for years, sometimes permanent. That’s deeply painful.
We all need love. We all need intimacy. We all need people willing to listen to our woes, cheer our triumphs, attend our graduations and bar/bat miztvahs, our kids’ weddings, to visit us in hospital or hospice — and someone, finally, to attend our funeral or memorial service.
A woman in our apartment building, (which is only made up of owners, some here for decades), recently died of cancer. She was prickly and cantankerous and had no family.
A note recently went up from friend of hers in a public space here to thank every single neighbor who showed up for her, took her meals, drove her to medical appointments — proxies for a loving family when she needed it most.
Another reason I so value friendship is having lost a few, and mourning the memories and histories now lost to me, shared with those women, like a New Year’s party in Jamaica with (!) live shots fired into the air around us or the day her friend let me helm his yacht — running it aground in Kingston harbor.
Like you, I treasure my friends and feel bereft when I lose one, although time and hindsight has helped me see that losing three of them has not inflicted long-term damage and, in fact, freed me to find much healthier, more egalitarian relationships.
I discovered that one of them had been lying a lot. That was enough for me.
Some of the friends I’m so grateful for:
Jose. My husband. We’ve been together 16 years and it’s the deepest and best friendship of my life. Even when I’m ready to change the locks, furious, I’ve never lost my respect or admiration for him.
N. She’s been through a hell of a lot, including early widowhood and a trans-national move. Her sweetness and optimism are refreshing, and consistent. My blood pressure drops when I’m around her.
S. Who else would give me a stuffed octopus?! A fellow journalist and college teacher of journalism, her calm, wise advice helped me through some of my toughest classroom moments.
P. I haven’t had an adult pal-across-the-street since the mid-1980s when I lived on the top two floors of a Toronto house and made a friend living in a communal house across the street. Proximity makes it so fun and easy to meet for a coffee or an adventure shopping for Italian food in the Bronx. She’s got one of the biggest and most generous hearts of anyone I know. Also, funny as hell.
L. One of the very few close friends I’ve made at church, mostly a WASPy, frosty crowd. She’s an amazing mom, an attentive and loving listener, a font of calm wisdom.
The view from D’s apartment, which she sometimes lends me…
D. Oh, what we’ve seen, and survived! Both of us divorced, both of us career journalists still (!) in the business, both of us who’ve become New Yorkers who came from elsewhere. In a deep, long friendship, there’s so much shared history. She’s my oldest friend in New York.
M. More than family, she took me into her Toronto home year after year, hosting and celebrating birthdays like Jose’s 50th, and nurturing me for three weeks after my terrifying encounter here with a con man. Now she’s recently re-married, at 70. Yay!
MS. Young enough to be my daughter, this talented photographer is beautiful, smart, hard-working, adventurous. I admire her drive and skill, and so enjoy her visits. She’s slept on our sofa many times.
C. This astonishing young woman, also half my age, is a treat: whip-smart, emotionally intelligent, resilient as hell. She and I share a global perspective from life lived in various countries and some similar family issues. So happy that she and her fabulous husband are in my life.
PHMT. We met on a rooftop in Cartagena, Colombia when I was in my early 20s. I promptly fell hard! “I’m gay,” he said. Oh. OK. Let’s just be great friends! And we are. He finally stopped being cool to Jose when Jose and I married — knowing, finally, I was back in good hands, as he was so deeply protective of me for years. That’s friendship.
MO. Ohhhhh. We call ourselves the Pasta Twins, a play on each of our names, Marioni and Catellini. We met in freshman English class at University of Toronto, a very serious, very po-faced venue, when we rolled our eyes at one another. College pals know us in ways no one else ever will. We dated the wrong men, (like the gggggorgeous male best friends we met at a party, both of whom shattered our hearts), and fought for our independence from difficult fathers. Our adult lives could not be any more different — she’s the proud mom of three grown daughters and lives very far away now — but our love continues.
Wishing every one of you the blessing of friendship, now and for years to come!
“The older I get, the more anxiety I feel about gift giving,” said Mr. York, a 48-year-old executive at a nonprofit company in Brooklyn. “It’s a huge amount of stress, and it will go on for several weeks, until about five or six days before Christmas. The more Christmases that pile on, there is more anxiety.”
In the stereotype, indifference or ham-handed ineptitude is at the root of a man’s difficulty when it comes to the ritual of gift giving. But no one wants the reaction Homer Simpson got when, in the first season of “The Simpsons,” he gave his wife, Marge, a bowling ball — with his name etched on it — for her birthday
For men like Mr. York, who try to do the right thing, the very idea of giving and receiving gifts can spur feelings of failure and self-doubt.
I’ve rarely seen such crazy anxiety as when I worked three holiday seasons as a sales associate for The North Face in an upscale suburban mall in New York, near my home here.
It started at Thanksgiving when holiday shoppers started panicking, and ratcheted up to truly stupendous levels as Christmas approached.
Music? Hers is great stuff, from the 80s’…
What if I get someone the wrong thing?
What if they hate it?
I have no idea what they’d even like!
I admit, I did see more of this panic in male shoppers, like the man who (!) asked me what his 14-year-old daughter would like.
— I was far from 14
— I have no kids or nieces of any age
— She’s your daughter, dude!
None of which, of course, I said to him. I probed gently as to what sort of girl she was and tried my best to be helpful. But, honestly, I found it sad and weird he had no idea what might make her happy.
Another man, frantically pawing through the ski jackets, yelped: “I need to find a present for a pain in the ass!”
We all do, kids.
In the 16 years Jose and I have been together, he’s given me wonderful Christmas gifts, everything from a colander and toaster (I was so broke that year!) to gorgeous earrings. The only dud? Snowshoes.
Our gifts tend to be fairly traditional: clothing, jewelry, books, music and always a present “for the house” — pretty new dishes or glassware or kitchen tools.
This year, we set a very tight dollar limit for one another and yet I’ve been able to find a fun variety of things I think he’ll really enjoy.
The secret of choosing a great gift?
You need to know the person well.
The panic sets in when you’re buying for people you don’t really know at all, nor their favorite/hated colors or textures, what they own (or want to own), their current sizes, etc.
Even worse are the gifts we end up buying, often at the very last minute when we’re tired, cranky and already over-budget, out of sheer obligation, sometimes for people we don’t even like very much.
As someone who was the grim recipient of too many of these — like the books with the big black streak on them, the stigmata of the remaindered (i.e. cheap) — not to mention discarded free cosmetic samples — just don’t!
(When someone has no money, of course a gift is anything they offer with love. When someone has plenty of money but no heart or attention to detail? That can feel mean.)
I’ve been fortunate enough to travel far and wide from an early age, the only child of two deeply curious parents who took the back seat out of their car, installed my crib, and drove to Mexico from Vancouver (my birthplace) when I was a small baby.
No wonder motion feels like my natural state!
I’ve been to 38 countries and 38 states of the U.S. — so far!
Here are the five places I’ve so far found the most beautiful and why:
Ko Phi Phi, Thailand (tied with Mae Hong Son, Thailand)
In 1994, I spent 21 days in Thailand, most of it with my first husband, but a week alone. To reach Ko Phi Phi was in itself an adventure — an overnight train from Bangkok to Krabi, at the nation’s southern tip, then a two-hour boat ride in blazing sun to reach the island, shaped like two croissants back to back. Even then, it was clear that it was being over-developed, and I wondered how it would change in later years.
Mae Hong Song has been called the prettiest town in Thailand, a quick flight from Bangkok, landing in an airport across the street from a Buddhist temple, and so close to town — which circles a lake — you simply walk the distance. In the early morning, mist covers the town and, atop its highest hill, you can easily hear kids and roosters and radios, but can’t see any of it, thickly muffled. As the sun rises and heats the moisture, it evaporates and shimmies upward, revealing the town below.
Well known to Europeans, lesser known to Americans, this island off the southern coast of France is spectacularly lovely. A quick flight or longer ferry ride brings you to Bastia in the north or Ajaccio in the south. I spent a week on a mo-ped touring the north, specifically La Balagne, and went as far inland and south as Corte.
It was July and the land is covered with maquis, a thick, low scrubby brush that’s a mix of herbs — sun-warmed it smells divine, so my nostrils were full of its scent. I drove down switchback roads to find 19th century hotels at the ocean’s edge, saw the Desert des Agriates in pelting rain, (a truly eerie Martian landscape), and felt more at home in its wild beauty than almost anywhere.
I wept, bereft, when the plane headed back to Nice. I’ve not yet returned but it remains one of my most treasured memories.
From top to bottom, this is a state bursting with natural beauty, from the sinuous red rocks of Sedona to the jaw-dropping expanses of the Grand Canyon.
I still recall a field of cactus at sunset, a spectacular array of gold and purple, their curves silhouetted against the sky.
I love Flagstaff; (stay at the Monte Vista, a funky hotel built in 1926) and you’ll feel like an out-take from a Sam Spade film noir. Tucson is a welcoming small city with some great restaurants.
It’s hard to overstate how lovely this country is — albeit a brutally long flight from most of the United States (12 hours from Los Angeles.) I only saw a bit of the North Island, staying in a youth hostel in the Coromandel Peninsula, where (!) I met and was promptly adopted by four kids then half my age who whisked me off to their weekend home then to one of their parent’s houses outside Auckland where, a total stranger, I was welcomed as family.
A place where kindness and beauty abound. What’s not to love?
Salluit, Quebec (aka the Arctic)
How can fewer than 24 hours somewhere be unforgettable decades later?
You’ll never go there because it’s a town of 500 people with no tourist facilities. Or anything, officially, to see. I went, in December (!) to write a story for the Montreal Gazette, where I was then a reporter. It takes forever to get to — jet from Montreal to Kujuuaq then into a very small plane, past the tree line, to Salluit, landing on a tiny, narrow ice/snow landing strip surrounded by frigid Arctic waters.
White knuckle city!
What made my very brief stay magical? There is only one color — white.
No trees. No vegetation. No animals (that I saw.) No city lights. No air pollution or car exhaust. No billboards.
Ice, snow, water.
Every minute, as the light shifted, that white became the palest shade of blue, purple, green, gray, mutating before us. It was pristine, mesmerizing, extraordinary.
Here’s a list by travel writer Paul Marshman, which inspired mine.
I loved this, from the late British writer A.A. Gill, from The Times:
The abiding pleasure of my life so far has been the opportunity to travel. It is also the single greatest gift of my affluent generation. We got to go around the globe relatively easily, cheaply and safely. Postwar children are the best and most widely travelled generation that has yet lived. We were given the world when it was varied, various and mostly welcoming.
Whether we took enough goodwill with us and brought back enough insight is debatable. But today the laziest gap-year student has probably seen more and been further than Livingstone, Stanley and Richard Burton.
One of the things that surprises and dismays me is how many of my contemporaries spend their time and money on travelling to sunny beaches. All beach experiences, give or take a cocktail, are the same experience. My advice to travellers and tourists is to avoid coasts and visit people. There is not a view in the world that is as exciting as a new city.
Some of many runners-up include: The Hudson Valley (my home), Ireland, Paris, Savannah, the British Columbia coastline.
For some people, the holidays are a time of dread and loneliness, for others a riot of celebration.
We’re spending this Christmas at home. My mother and I have no relationship and my father (again) and I are estranged; last year we drove up to Ontario and had a lovely time with him and my half-brother and sister-in-law.
It’s been a difficult year financially — lower income and much higher health insurance costs have made this a low-budget holiday for us.
I took on a freelance project in August that, while hardly ideal, sounded like it might be worth doing.
I was willing to try.
It was a lot of hard work for not-enough money.
It was also, though, a lot of hard work with editors whose skills proved deeply disappointing.
Last week I ditched it.
I rarely walk away from regular paid work; like every full-time freelancer (or anyone running a business), I know how difficult it can be replace one client with another or, more realistically, with three or four.
But I finally hit breaking point when I spoke up for myself (not a quick decision) — and in reply was smacked down like a puppy who’d peed the rug.
By someone barely one-third my age and with two years’ experience.
Anyone who grew up in a family where their feelings were routinely ignored, let alone one with some seriously nasty behavior patterns, knows that it can a lifelong challenge to parse what’s “normal”, (especially indifference to respecting you), and what isn’t.
To determine if it’s “just you” feeling shitty about that relationship all the time, or maybe, just maybe, there’s a reason for that, and you need to get away now.
To know when to stand up for yourself — sick to death of cringing and genuflecting to people whose treatment of you is miserable, but whose payments cover stuff like your groceries and health insurance.
And to know when to simply say, enough toxic bullshit.
Throughout my life, I’ve marked these pivotal moments with a piece of jewelry, a talisman to signify, with beauty and grace and a tangible memory of taking the best possible care of myself, the important transition away from a soul-sucking situation and a movement towards freedom, re-definition and independence.
It’s not easy.
I don’t bolt quickly, easily or without much deliberation and self-doubt.
The first was the decision to end my first marriage, at least in its then-iteration, (deeply lonely, adulterous on his part), while I was 100 percent reliant on his income.
I was alone in Thailand, on Ko Phi Phi, a remote island when I decided. I bought a coral and turquoise and silver ring for about $20 and brought it home to remind me of my resolution. My husband, of course, didn’t like its style. Within six months, the marriage was over.
The second was putting my alcoholic mother into a nursing home. Our relationship had been tumultuous for decades. The experience was emotionally brutal for reasons too tedious to detail here.
I found, in a craft shop on Granville Island in Vancouver, a small sterling silver heart that looked like a stone that had washed up on some beach or river shore, pitted and rutted, battered — but intact.
It symbolized exactly how I felt; I wear it on a long piece of cord.
The third was this one, to shed a client I’d had doubts about from start.
So I found this gorgeous small lock at a Christmas market in New York’s Bryant Park, a Turkish design. It consumed almost exactly the paltry sum I’ll earn from my last piece of work for them.
Open the lock.
Freedom feels good.
Talismans remind me to chase it, cherish it and never relinquish it so easily again.