I’m writing this at a friend’s house in Connecticut — a 220 year-old home full of history and memories.
Doves coo outside.
It’s our first visit to a friend’s home in more than a year and a half, since we are all fully vaccinated and our hostess had Covid a few months ago.
I’ve been very lucky to celebrate this day in Venice (once) and Paris three times, the most recent in 2017.
Last night for dinner, my husband Jose made his amazing short ribs and we had a carrot cake and champagne.
It’s the second year of a birthday without my mother being alive, even though we were estranged. To my shock, I found out she had left me some money, so that was a huge gift in itself.
The day of my birthday, June 6, is also one marked by two major world events — D-Day and the death of Robert Kennedy. My American-born mother cried that morning.
It’s been, so far, a good year. We are healthy and solvent and have savings and good work.
We have friends.
For the next year, I just hope for more of the same, with health always the most essential element.
I have great memories of some childhood birthday parties and a funny photo of my 12th. with a cake filled with sparklers. My high school best friend threw me a surprise party for my 16th. That was lovely.
In June 2018, I was found to have DCIS, a very early stage breast cancer. So that was a tougher birthday.
This year, cards have arrived from friends near and far.
Now I’m at an age I think….hmmmm…how many more will I be granted?
My father turns 93 in five days, so I hope for his healthful longevity.
Search online “work too much” and you’ll get screenfuls of information about the harmful medical, mental and social consequences of spending too much time on the job, going all the way back to that old saw first recorded in the 17th century, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
It should be “makes Jack a dead boy,” says the latest contribution to the literature of overwork, this one from the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization.
A new study by the two groups says that working 55 or more hours a week is a “serious health hazard.” It estimates that long working hours led to 745,000 deaths worldwide in 2016, a 29 percent increase over 2000. Men accounted for 72 percent of the fatalities; the worst concentrations were in the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia, and particularly among 60- to 79-year-olds who had worked long hours after the age of 45.
Reading this book is enough to set one’s blood to boiling…but so many Americans are still too scared, too poor and too disorganized (i.e. no union) to do a thing about their terrible hours, conditions and pay.
But there’s also a peculiarly American insistence, beyond financial need, to keep proving to everyone all the time how productive you are, as if there’s some Powerful Person standing somewhere with a clicker to clock every minute you ever worked and you’ll be rewarded by….not dying?
As if working all the time for money, to burnish your professional reputation, to boost your income or status, is the only thing worth attaining or achieving.
If Covid’s terrible damage to millions — destroying their long-term health or killing them — wasn’t sufficient warning that our time here is limited and we have many other ways to spend our time, what is?
But one I’m so happy to watch over and over again…
Filmed in London, Esrington (Durham) and in studio, it’s the story of a young working-class boy , played by Jamie Bell, who dreams of studying ballet, despite the initial anger and shock of his coal-miner father — broke, scared and out on strike.
“Ballet?!” he shouts (sounding like Bally)
“Boys do things like…football, wrestling!”
The film was made for a small budget of $5 million in only seven weeks, and they could only shoot during weekdays because of the actor’s young age — child labor laws!
It has since earned $109 million.
Bell had to endure seven auditions before finally winning the role — beating out 2,000 others!
A few reasons I love it so much:
If you love ballet and/or have studied it (as I did for years), it shows what discipline it really takes to even get started in this demanding art form as young Billy, then 11, learns turn-out and plies and arabesques.
2. Determination! Billy lives in a working-class neighborhood, surrounded by people whose dreams are usually small and local. It will take a lot of determination to break free, which he does.
3. How much a small boy misses his late mother. She has died young and there’s a lovely scene in the tiny kitchen where she appears to him again.
4. How the local, overwhelmingly macho ethos shapes a young boy — and what if you don’t fit the mold? His friend Michael, gay, is terrified Billy will reject him (set in 1984) and then what?
5. Why sometimes it’s someone far from your family who really sees you for who you are and will fight to make sure you get what you need — Mrs. Wilkinson, his ferocious local dance teacher.
6. The scenes of police chasing down striking coal miners — set to raucous tunes like the Clash’s London Calling — are both poignant and funny.
7. That opening scene with Billy bouncing on his bed!
8. Maybe my favorite scene of all — Billy and Mrs. Wilkinson on a car ferry, The Tees Transporter Bridge, while listening to Swan Lake as she explains the plot to him. The contrast between the industrial surroundings and the ethereal music is perfect!
9. The moment Billy is asked, at his audition for the Royal Ballet School, why he loves ballet…”I just disappear. It’s electricity.”
10. The final image of him soaring above the London stage, his father, brother and Michael there to watch him with pride.
And if you want to watch dancers in rehearsal — getting endless corrections to what already looks physically impossible! — check out the Australian Ballet’s Instagram feed.
I’m so much happier finally shedding all the heavy wools and blankets and duvets of winter.
Every spring, usually as the temperature suddenly climbs into the 70s or beyond, I change up our apartment decor, taking away winter’s dark colors and heavy textures — until late fall when the days shorten and the temperature drops and I’ll welcome them all again.
It’s a good time to have your rugs professionally cleaned, maybe your curtains, and get the duvet dry cleaned where (yay!) they store it for us for months as well.
While bare floors are easier to clean, if you live in an apartment you may have to keep some quiet. Rugs help.
This rug is dead simple and so elegant — and it’s made of a synthetic so can be used indoors or out — a copy of a classic Moroccan style, from Anthropologie.
Two years ago, I found a completely plain pale gray cotton rug, with no texture, perfect for summer, which is a nice foil for our new silver velvet sofa; our winter rug is this one (bought at an online auction.)
There are so many fantastic options, but a nice cotton flat-weave, aka a dhurrie, is always a good option as it’s easy to clean and can sometimes just be tossed in the washing machine.
Sun really bleaches the hell out of colored fabrics! Beware.
Three former outdoor pillows (NON outdoor cottons.) The vintage floral fabric was once a very deep blue and very
My favorite hack? If you can sew by hand, grab two great cotton or linen napkins and use them to make a pillow cover, like these ones — a fab oversize black-and-white check pattern from Pottery Barn; four 20″ square napkins for $32 means $16 per pillow fabric costs.
I’m a big fan of lanterns — whether pierced or slatted ones that throw lovely shadows or classic glass or crystal hurricane lamps.
These hurricanes are an investment at $195 each — but you’ll have them for years.
I bought a Moroccan one cheaply at a flea market and got it cleaned to the metal and painted it (of course! ) a great Farrow & Ball color, a soft red called Blazer.
I’ve bought lanterns in all sorts of places, from a cafe in Minneapolis to this great New York City store, Jamali Garden. These are perfect if you want a Moroccan vibe — without the travel. Their prices are excellent and they have a lot of amazing choices for all sorts of gardening needs as well.
I so love a pretty tablecloth, whether a pale lavender or gray or something bolder and fun.
I’ve gotten some wonderful ones — turquoise linen, blue embroidered white linen, blue and white checks, green and white checks — at flea markets.
This new one, an Indian print linen in white, pink and gray, is perfect; $85 on Etsy.
Our balcony, on the top floor surrounded by trees, is only 12 feet wide and six feet deep. Not a lot of room! We use a small round metal table, have four vintage metal chairs and a bench six feet wide we cover with throw cushions; lots of hidden storage.
I chose a color scheme of bright green and deep navy blue and choose our flowers accordingly — no reds or pinks, but maybe purples and whites.
Choose a color scheme to make the space cohesive — as one would indoors! Crisp black and white can be a nice choice.
There are so many ways to make an attractive and comfortable outdoor nook, even on a small balcony.
Choose your planters and pots to match one another, whether metal, ceramic or plastic.
Our space is too small, really, for an umbrella but they can add needed shade and color.
I don’t know about you, but ohhhhhhhhh, have I so missed style and wit and elegance!
Being in a room with other people, quietly paying attention to something riveting.
So an out-of-the-blue press invitation to attend a day of panels by Big Name interior designers and architects was just the ticket. I wore my go-to black pleated Aritiza maxi-dress, black denim heels, my $3 thrift shop black necklace, a Lucky brand shawl — and off I went to the city.
Jose sent me with a toasted bagel, so one of the many commuter skills I got to use once more was unwrapping it and eating it while maneuvring the FDR, the narrow, busy highway that runs along the east side of Manhattan, beside the East River.
I scored on parking — having resigned myself to a $50 day for an Upper East Side spot — by getting into a garage by 9:00 a.m. (early bird special), for a daily cost of $18, less (yes!) than a cocktail here and even less than the round trip commuter train fare of $19.
The day offered a lively mix of topics, all focused on interior design, from the use of color to what makes a pretty room to choosing and using antiques. Each designer and architect had about 20 minutes to show slides of their work and explain the thinking behind their decisions.
Typical of this world, many had worked for some of the same firms and some had worked together on projects.
The back-stories were delicious!
It’s easy to forget, or not know, or not care, how staggeringly wealthy so many people are now.
So there’s another 10,000 square foot mansion with 11 bedrooms and a bowling alley and a skating rink and a theater…
Here’s a mega-yacht with a bed inlaid with mother-of-pearl.
Here’s the 6th or 7th home of another mogul, this one in Mexico.
And so on.
It would be easy to disdain all of this as appalling excess.
I get it. I do!
Or the fact that every project employs hundreds of workers, many in the unionized building trades.
But I still loved every minute of the day, and savored the stylish people seated all around me — the woman in leopard trousers with a massive leopard hat; the older woman in her navy leather Roger Vivier flats; the man in black Belgian loafers (a very specific NYC old-money brand), the speaker in from Dallas in perfect patent Manolos….
The shoe game was strong!
I studied design at the New York School of Interior Design in the mid-90s and planned to leave journalism for a new career in the industry. After my first husband walked out, starting over at the bottom at $10/hour wasn’t a viable option, so I stayed in journalism.
But I learned a lot at school, and really enjoyed my education.
My maternal grandmother had money and hired Toronto’s top decorator, so my taste was formed early! I still remember one of her 1970s bathroom wallpapers.
I love design dearly, so an entire day listening to the greats and legends of the field — and seeing the depth of their knowledge — was a fantastic, free pleasure.
For all its challenges, New York City remains a vibrant center full of talent and inspiration. What a relief to see it finally, slowly, coming back to life again!
Thanks to a generous friend who lent me her Upper East Side studio apartment for three weekends recently, I got to explore the city at leisure.
I grew up in big cities: London, Toronto, Montreal and Paris, so my life in a New York suburb for the past few decades, certainly without the social connection of having children, has been a weird experience.
I would never have chosen to spend my life outside of a city, but we had (still here!) a great apartment with a river view and a pool and I can see the towers of downtown Manhattan, even 25 miles south, from my quiet, tree-lined residential street.
If I were super rich, Manhattan could be fun — a spacious, bright apartment and not being subjected to the stinky summer streets and sweaty subway. But I would never have been able to afford and enjoy the life there I have, so I stayed out here and head in as often as I have time and money for — a round-trip trainfare is $19.
I love the variety and people-watching and walking everywhere (so much healthier than driving!) of city life. So many dogs! Such great eavesdropping.
I had a great time meandering, re-visiting some favorite spots and discovering some new ones, like:
If you’ve never been to NY, it is spectacular, built between 1930 and 1939, 19 commercial buildings in midtown, designed by Raymond Hood. Some of its details are very beautiful, especially those facing Fifth Avenue. One of my favorites — by (!?) Isamu Noguchi — is over the entrance to the Associated Press buildings, a massive metal bas-relief of various sorts of news reporting.
Here’s the famous statue of Atlas, now wearing a mask!
Well, if you’ve ever watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s, you’ve seen Audrey Hepburn standing before one of its windows on the famous avenue.
It’s a street with so much elegance, starting at 42d Street with the massive NY Public Library and its entrance flanked by two stone lions, Patience and Fortitude, who in winter sport holiday wreaths. Today, the street — which once housed such elegant stores as Takashimaya and Bendel’s — is now much more mass-market and full of tourists buying all the stuff they could by at home in Oklahoma.
But it’s also home to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and St. Thomas.
After 59th street, heading north, it becomes residential, with palatial buildings overlooking Central Park.
The Lexington Candy Shop
Last renovated in 1948, at the southwest corner of Lex and 83rd. this funky little place is a classic diner. I met a pal there for breakfast and it was great.
Donohue’s Steak House
How I love a classic NYC joint! This spot, in business since 1950, is perfect. I stopped by and had a club sandwich and a beer and rice pudding and it was just what I wanted and not a lot of money, hard to imagine at Lexington and 64th. The waitresses all wear crisp white shirts and black trousers — and in 2015, a regular left two of them each $50,000. That’s the UES, baby!
One of my favorite shops. This is the place to buy the perfect hostess or wedding gift, from gorgeous lacquer trays to Indian print tablecloths, small throw rugs, picture frames, scented candles, and a tiny selection of vintage glassware. Also at Lex and 64th.
I told a much younger stylish friend, NYC born and raised, how I’d just scored there — gorgeous brown suede knee-high boots, a fab 80’s oversize leather satchel and a burgundy cotton jacket — and she laughed. “I’ve been shopping there since high school!”
To stay in business for 19 years in fiercely competitive NYC is a feat in itself! This vintage clothing shop is always full of terrific clothes, bags, footwear and accessories. Prices aren’t stupidly high and none are Big Name Designers, which makes it more fun and affordable. I splurged $180 on a silk 80s Genny dress a long time ago and wore it a LOT and loved it. Rivington is a fun street, and Economy Candy is next door!
Oh, my dears! This place, a classic French bistro, holds one of my most cherished memories, meeting my first agent there for lunch on a scorching spring or summer day in 2001. He was handsome as hell, looking like a younger William Hurt, and, then being a new agent needing clients, was wooing me — which is now not the case for most writers!
The restaurant is one created by Brian McNally, opened in 1997, who is a legendary restaurateur here, a Briton whose venues are both hyper-stylish and skilfully weathered.
The agent ordred Kumamotos — which were…? Tiny oysters I’d never heard of or tried.
It was such a pleasure to return to this stalwart where I ate outside, and lunch came to $87. Yes, I know. It’s a bloody fortune!
But sometimes the experience — the food, the service, the street, the people-watching — is worth every dime.
Long-time readers here know my mother and I were estranged for the final decade of her life. I won’t repeat all those details. She died in her chair, watching TV, on Feb. 15, 2020, my best friend’s birthday, in a nursing home in Victoria, B.C.
Her friend and executor was kind enough, at 2:00 a.m., to say Psalm 23 over her body, a gesture I’m really grateful for.
She was cremated and I was to have gone to B.C. — basically impossible thanks to Canadian border closings and quarantine demands — to scatter her ashes there.
Now they’re in our living room, in a nasty plastic container they arrived in (for now) and it’s oddly comforting.
Because our relationship was so difficult for so many years, we usually lived very far apart — I in her native New York, she in my native British Columbia.
The closest ever? I was in Paris on a journalism fellowship and she lived in Bath. We had a few very good visits, until the week I was to fly back to Canada for good, and she ended up in a locked ward of a London psychiatric hospital.
So there was always tension and fear and anxiety for me with her.
A cliche, but true — her death has released me from this, and for that I’m very glad.
It has also, thank God, lessened my anger and frustration over the behaviors and decisions that cost us thousands we couldn’t really afford, over her unwillingness to address her alcoholism, even to acknowledge my annual Christmas cards and newsletters, including 2018, when I got early-stage breast cancer. (She had had a mastectomy.)
But, to my absolute shock, she left me a significant sum of money.
I would never have imagined this.
I assumed she was, by then, broke.
I assumed whatever she might have had would go to someone else.
That money is now in my bank account and I keep flailing about emotionally, alternating between guilt (it’s unearned) and gratitude.
It’s even enough to buy a small house, although — as one friend said — not in a place I would actually want to live!
I spent a lot of years, decades, dreading the next argument or insult or unwanted phone call alerting me to some fresh chaos. I left her care for good at 14.
She never taught me to cook or dress or wear make-up or how to handle money.
Even my minimal sex education was a booklet she left on a table.
What I did learn was how to be independent.
How to make and keep good friendships.
How to confidently and effectively manage my own affairs.
Only in a recent conversation did I finally, belatedly, understand something fundamental about her that I had always taken too personally.
She did not invite or enjoy intimacy.
Her alcoholism and bipolar illness and tough personality all made sure it was very difficult to get close to her.
That kept her safe.
It hurt me, but with hindsight and distance I now see them as coping mechanisms.
Loved this recent blog post with 10 reasons why you should go back to places you’ve already been to, instead of some frenzied checklist or bucket list of all the places you haven’t yet visited.
A few of these:
Oh yeah! I spent a year in Paris at 25 on a life-changing journalism fellowship on the Rue du Louvre. Since then I’ve been back many many times, as often as I can afford, and have spent three birthdays there. I’m still me, but my perspective has changed, as it would.
I’ve been to Ireland five times — in the 80s to visit a friend in Dublin, the mid-90s when my father owned a Georgian house near Athenry, Co. Donegal; in the aughts with my father driving around, alone to cover the Lidsoonvarna singles festival and in 2015 with Jose. Happy to go back many more times!
You know what to expect
I love Riana’s detail — of bringing your Old Oyster card (yes!) back to London with you. I keep little bags of euros and Canadian currency for those return trips. I know how long it will take to get around some cities by bus or subway. I learned — in the heat of July — that city blocks in Berlin are massive! I thought New York city blocks were long, but no.
Every first visit will bring surprises (ask my husband about the pre-dawn post-flight bus I said would take us into Paris…but didn’t) but if you go back, you know better now.
You can revisit old favorites
Well, post-pandemic I suspect many have closed for good.
But the ones that remain are a lovely comfort, whether a diner or cafe or museum or even a favorite street or park.
the pandemic has dragged on, and the acute state of anguish has given way to a chronic condition of languish.
In psychology, we think about mental health on a spectrum from depression to flourishing. Flourishing is the peak of well-being: You have a strong sense of meaning, mastery and mattering to others. Depression is the valley of ill-being: You feel despondent, drained and worthless.
Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. You’re not functioning at full capacity. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work. It appears to be more common than major depression — and in some ways it may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness.
Maybe like some of you, I’ve been a bit shocked — before reading this story — at how little I have felt the normal drive to work and work and work.
It isn’t just about income, as Grant says:
The pandemic was a big loss. To transcend languishing, try starting with small wins, like the tiny triumph of figuring out a whodunit or the rush of playing a seven-letter word. One of the clearest paths to flow is a just-manageable difficulty: a challenge that stretches your skills and heightens your resolve. That means carving out daily time to focus on a challenge that matters to you — an interesting project, a worthwhile goal, a meaningful conversation. Sometimes it’s a small step toward rediscovering some of the energy and enthusiasm that you’ve missed during all these months.
We are privileged to not have the burdens of massive debt or kids or grand-kids or parents to support. We have savings. A recent lucrative and easy assignment out of the blue paid enough, (rare but lovely!) I could coast for even a few months.
And so I have been.
I’ve been focused instead on some work in our apartment, with managing a sudden and unexpected arrival of my late mother’s belongings and art from British Columbia, with trying to sell a book proposal seven agents have already rejected, (and managing my battered ego as I try to decide whether to just give up or not), and with slowly healing a sprained wrist and knee from a bad fall March 12.
Plus a lot of medical tests and for now, I’m fine.
My small win?
I’ve become addicted to the NYT Spelling Bee, an online daily challenge making words using some or all of that day’s seven letters. Some days are a lot easier than others — a recent one had 66 words! Whew.
Jose and I recently joined a new gym and it’s huge and spotless and welcoming and I am re-starting my routines, with a set of quite challenging weight exercises set for me by a trainer.
I feel very lucky to be married to a gardener, because gardening gives us rich metaphors for creative work that we don’t get from our business-focused productivity-obsessed culture. (I dedicated the last chapter of Keep Going, “Plant Your Garden,” to seasons and cyclical time.)
Gardening situates you in a different kind of time, the antithesis of the agitating present of social media. Time becomes circular, not chronological; minutes stretch into hours; some actions don’t bear fruit for decades.
Gardeners not only develop a different sense of time, they develop the ancient wisdom of knowing when to do things:
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up…
It seems to me that the reason that so many of us feel like we’re languishing is that we are trying to flourish in terrible conditions. It is spring outside — or the “unlocking” season — but it is still “Winter in America,” and, as any gardener knows, if you try to wake a plant out of dormancy too soon, it will wither, and maybe die.