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.
Or going solo, no matter the family fallout, avoiding people whose behaviors keep making you miserable — substance abuse, alcoholism, homophobia — maybe a trifecta!
Where is home for you now?
Is it where you grew up, living with your parents?
Or maybe a hotel or apartment on the road, thousands of miles from people who speak your language?
Which holiday, if any, are you celebrating?
Will you attend a Christmas Eve church service?
I know one person spending it on an island deep in the Pacific Ocean, on Tuvalu. (Merry Christmas, Devi!)
Another two women, one from Philadelphia, one from Dublin, are each heading to Chile.
Christmas, with its rush of sentiment, shopping and song, can be a season of great joy, reuniting with people whose love and acceptance raise us up…or a time of intense loneliness.
At a time when people scurry home to their warm, well-lit refuges, some of us are mourning the loss of a partner, a child, a pet.
Some of us are battling serious illness. Some of us are seeking well-paid work and having little luck.
Anyone facing their first holiday season without a dearly loved one, as one recently widowed friend knows, will need the armor of light, (my favorite phrase), to carry them through.
I remember vividly the very first Christmas after my divorce. I’d been with my first husband for seven years and had left Canada, friends, family and career to follow him to the U.S.
I sat for the gorgeous solstice service offered each year by Paul Winter in the enormous New York City cathedral of St. John the Divine, with a dear friend and new beau beside me — loved, valued and deeply grateful not to be alone in a time that so celebrates togetherness.
Even gift-giving can be laden with emotion and anxiety.
I worked part-time in retail for 2.5 years. One man had no notion what his teenage daughter might enjoy while another practically begged me for help: “I need to find a present for a pain in the ass!”
For many years, my family gave me “gifts” that were clearly last-minute afterthoughts or the little free samples that come with cosmetic purchases. Nor were my gifts to them graciously or happily accepted.
The season can so quickly sour!
The first Christmas I introduced my husband Jose to my loud, argumentative family was typical. As usual, we were expounding on politics and economics, each of us thumping the table for emphasis, voices raised and fingers pointed, certainty — as usual — thick in the air. We never discuss emotion or feelings, never simply ask, “How are you?”
He finally slapped the table in exasperation: “Everyone take a turn!”
Like fighting dogs sprayed with a garden hose, we paused for a minute — stunned. Then, on we went.
Welcome to the family!
Christmas Eve is also difficult for me, the night that, when I was 14, my mother had a nervous breakdown in the foreign country where we were living, leaving me and a friend in an unfamiliar city at midnight. Within a few weeks, I had left the country and her care, returning to live with my father and his girlfriend; I barely knew her and I hadn’t lived with him since my parents’ divorce seven years earlier.
I never lived with my mother again. We since spent some crazy Christmases — like the one in Cartagena, Colombia, (where the police stopped our cab and asked us to step out to be frisked), and later got sunstroke.
But in the past four years I haven’t seen or spoken to her.
Nor will I see my father and two half-brothers, spending their Christmas together in Canada; one brother nurses a long-held grudge against me so that’s it for family holidays that include me.
So the words family and home don’t make much sense to me in any traditional “home for the holidays” way.
Instead of focusing on lack, I’m choosing joy.
We’re now in Paris, a city filled with sweet memories for me, a city I lived in at 25 for a year while on a journalism fellowship. It was a year that changed my life and my career, and I’m still in touch with some of my fellow fellows decades later.
Paris for me — a Canadian living in New York — still feels like home for that reason, even after years between visits.
Jose is my family now. He proposed to me at midnight on Christmas Eve after church, standing beneath our church’s lych gate as snow hissed around us. He knew how sad that night had been for me and decided to re-brand it with a happier memory.
I hope — wherever you are and whoever you’re with and whatever you celebrate — you have a calm, loving, happy holiday!
Thank you all for the gift of your attention to Broadside. It means a lot!
Every day, my email in-box (guilty!) fills up with notifications of sales from flash-sites like Gilt and One King’s Lane and Ideeli or from retailers I’ve purchased from before.
I delete almost every single one.
Every weekend, (yes, we still read some of our newspapers in print), a thick, glossy pile of flyers tumbles in a nasty tree-wasting avalanche from within the folds of the Times, each imploring us to spendspendspendbuybuybuybuybuybuy!
Between the easy availabilty of on-line shopping — a boon to the home-bound or retail-underserved — and a consumer-driven culture urging us to buy everything we see, right now, it’s an ongoing challenge not to spend money. Not to buy even more stuff.
The U.S. economy, a statistic that always somewhat horrifies me in its implications of rampant consumption, is based 70 percent on consumer spending — gas, food, diapers, gum, Manolos, trucks, Ipads, whatever.
So if we actually stop shopping, or slow down our spending on consumer goods, the economy slows. If you live in the U.S., and have any disposable income (such a bizarre phrase!) it can feel like some civic or patriotic duty to go spend some more money.
When I worked retail for 2.5 years in an upscale suburban New York mall, I saw the insanity — truly — of holiday shopping firsthand. People staggered into our store already so loaded with bags they looked like pontoons. They pawed through the racks, threw our stock onto the floor and shouted with anger when we didn’t have exactly what we needed when they needed it.
And yet very few Americans, even those with decades of earned income, have saved enough money to ever stop working.
In October 2013, USA Today reported:
A new report paints a rather grim assessment of how prepared we are for retirement. “The Retirement Savings Crisis: Is it Worse Than We Think?” from the Washington, D.C.-based National Institute on Retirement Security, says the typical American family has only “a few thousand dollars” saved for retirement.
“We have millions of Americans who have nothing saved for retirement,” says Diane Oakley, executive director of the NIRS. “We have 38 million working-age households who do not have any retirement assets.”
For people 10 years away from retirement, the median savings is $12,000. “Of the people between 55 and 64, one third haven’t saved anything for retirement,” Oakley says.
I read those statistics and wonder what is going to become of them; not everyone has children able or willing to rescue them.
Fortunately, (partly because we never assumed the costs of raising children), we’re way ahead of that $12,000 figure. We drive a 13-year-old vehicle and live in a one-bedroom apartment and I set aside the maximum for my IRA, even when I’d really prefer to spend that money on a long and fantastic overseas vacation, or some gorgeous new clothes or to take in all the shows, plays and concerts that Manhattan offers us.
Having significant savings is, for me, a much deeper comfort than anything I could buy.
Here, from Harvard Business School, why buying an experience (if you must buy anything at all) wins:
Conventional wisdom says that money can’t buy happiness. Behavioral science begs to differ. In fact, research shows that money can make us happier—but only if we spend it in particular ways.
The key lies in adhering to five key principles: Buy Experiences (research shows that material purchases are less satisfying than vacations or concerts); Make it a Treat (limiting access to our favorite things will make us keep appreciating them); Buy Time (focusing on time over money yields wiser purchases); Pay Now, Consume Later (delayed consumption leads to increased enjoyment); and Invest in Others (spending money on other people makes us happier than spending it on ourselves).
I try to adhere to all five of these principles:
— I can still taste the salted caramel ice cream we savored at Berthillon on the Ile St Louis in Paris five years ago.
— I’ve chosen to work fewer hours, (which restricts my ability to shop, given that I save 15 percent of my pre-tax income every year as well), to better enjoy my free time and have experiences I value more than buying more things — to take a long walk mid-day or have coffee with a friend or read a book instead of flogging myself into another 10 or 15 hours’ paid work. I ended up in the hospital in 2007 for three days with pneumonia after chasing money too hard, too fast. Never again.
— I tend to hoard gift cards for as long as a year before finally using them, as I did recently with a Christmas 2012 gift card from my husband, (it bought two great pairs of shoes on sale.)
— I splurge on small surprises for Jose whenever I can, whether a book or a pair of colorful socks or a dinner out.
In a season where so many of us are rushing about madly shopshopshopping, it’s easy to forget that a more valuable gift can be as small and essential as a hug, a night or two of babysitting for a weary friend, making a meal for an elderly or ill neighbor.
It doesn’t have to come in a shiny Apple-designed, (cheap Chinese labor made), plastic shell or turquoise Tiffany box, no matter what their ads insist.
For some people, holiday gift shopping is hell — you have no idea of your recipients’ sizes or favorite colors or you’re on a super-tight budget and/or the thought of a crowded mall makes you want to give up before you start.
Take heart, Broadsiders!
Every year I make a list for you of fun, lovely practical gift ideas for men and women of all ages. A few are big splurges, but I’ve sought out a variety, many chosen for their combination of charm and affordability.
From Plumo, one of my favorite fashion online retailers, this watch, with an owl on its face, $122. And these great socks, with chartreuse hares on a field of blue, $38.63; they also come with foxes or crows.
I didn’t expect to find housewares at this new site, Saturday by Kate Spade. But this simple, black pitcher is gorgeous and large enough to hold a bunch of tall flowers or a lot of martinis; $75.
As someone who loves to entertain and set a pretty table, I love this colored flatware, in a variety of colors, from tortoise to deep blue; $150.
Love this linen tea towel — made by a Broadside follower, Edinburgh-based designer Niki Fulton — of an industrial crane in the harbor, bright pink on black; $13.26.
You probably know Zara, the fast-fashion Spanish retailer. But do you know Zara Home? I love their unusual designs and colors, and splurged this year on a duvet cover and shams on sale. The quality is excellent! I adore this duvet cover, in a dusty grey and soft red paisley, (the sort of thing you’d pay three time as much for an antique version if you could even find it), $89-109.
I use candles and votives in every room of our home. I love their gentle, flickering light — a lovely way to wake up slowly on a cold winter’s morning or soothe yourself during a long bath or illuminate an intimate meal. This set of three, in white ceramic, resemble sea urchins, from one of my favorite catalogs, Wisteria; $19.
Oh, admit it…you’re dying for a little (maybe a lot of) cashmere. Feel less guilty if you buy it for your brother/father/sister/bestie (after getting one for yourself.) This V-neck sweater, a classic, is a delicious heathery teal; $225.
Speaking of cashmere, they call this thing a snood; I call it a cagoule. Either way, it’s a cozy, gorgeous way to wrap your throat from chilly gusts; in three soft colors, $108.
Do you know the Moomins? They were one of my favorite children’s books, by Finnish author Tove Jansson. A Moomin mug is sure to start your day with a smile; $22.
I love my Lamy fountain pen; this one is a sharp, matte black. $28.
These gold-plated Herve van der Straeten clip-on drop earrings are divine! Bold but organic. $376.
I serve on the volunteer board of the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, and am proud that we’re able to help non-fiction writers facing financial crisis. We have absolutely no administration costs so every penny goes directly to the people who need our help. We can give up to $4,000, which we send out within a week of receiving and approving an application. Writers, no matter how talented or experienced, often live a somewhat precarious life financially. Please keep our culture thriving with a donation to WEAF!
Scarf mavens, unite! I want this one, quite desperately, a mineral print in tones of blue, turquoise and brown, on silk, exclusively from one of my favorite shops in the world, Liberty of London; $120.
I do love the elegance of a silk pocket square; this one, in deep blues and blacks, is also from Liberty; $56.
Have you ever tasted tamarind? Here’s one of the world’s best gourmet/spice shops, Kalyustan’s, on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. Delight your favorite foodie or cook with a basket filled with exotic, hard-to-find ingredients — and hope for a dinner invitation!
This creamy, dreamy soap, with a tangy citrus-y smell, is the signature fragrance of the five-star hotel Le Sireneuse on Positano and…swoon! We’ve been using it for the past month in our bathroom and the whole room smells divine. Eau d’Italie, a box of three bars; 36 euros.
And speaking of lovely scents, my favorite is Blenheim Bouquet, a man’s fragrance created in 1902 by the British firm Penhaligon’s. It’s crisp but rich, and I wear it year-round. “Reserved Victorianism, telegraph style. But fresh. Colonial lemon/lime meets Scarborough fair. Splendid, old boy,” says one reviewer; $136.68.
That photo was taken on January 19, 1977, when I was in my third year of university, working already as a freelance photographer and journalist, selling to national publications. I was living alone, on very little money.
At 20, I knew to expect to do a lot of stuff for myself.
What we expect is a fundamental question.
It drives how we see the world and react to it, whether we hunch instinctively in a defensive posture or spring forward with a hopeful smile and the confidence it will all work out, somehow.
Jose was born to a Mom who never expected his arrival when she was 49, but deeply valued her surprise baby.
So what we each grew up expecting from the world — from work, lovers, friends, family — was in some ways very different. I’ve shown him he can ask for much more than he thinks he deserves, and he’s taught me how to be happy with much less than I think I need to be happy
I know you didn’t go to college to wait tables, serve coffee, or assist customers in a clothing store (I didn’t either). The hardest part of being a Broke Girl is learning to be humble. You need to continue making money somehow to support yourself- or at least to maintain your savings. Unfortunately, that might mean taking a job you never thought you would need after college.
I know that it might feel like a step down, especially at first. However, these are hard times, and your finances can’t afford for you to hold out for too long.
I am not saying that you need to give up and “settle,” if that’s what taking this kind of job would mean to you. I am encouraging you to remember that 1) doing nothing while continuing to search for dream jobs will look aheck of a lot worse than making productive use of your time and 2) you need to be saving money. Can you tell I’m a big fan of saving money? Maybe it’s because of the whole my-father-is-a-finance-guy thing. But seriously, long gaps of emptiness on a resume look way worse than making an effort to contribute to society, even if it’s not the task you want to be doing.
We have got to stop taking ourselves too seriously, ladies. Tons of hard-working, intelligent men and women are out of work right now as well. Who are you (and frankly, who am I?) to think that you are above anything?
This recent New York Times story really showed how much our expectations, for good or ill, can shape our lives. It follows the lives of three Hispanic girls who all went off to college with high hopes, yet none has yet graduated and some carry shocking debt.
They struggled, but were unwilling or unable to ask for help:
Each showed the ability to do college work, even excel at it. But the need to earn money brought one set of strains, campus alienation brought others, and ties to boyfriends not in school added complications. With little guidance from family or school officials, college became a leap that they braved without a safety net.
The story of their lost footing is also the story of something larger — the growing role that education plays in preserving class divisions. Poor students have long trailed affluent peers in school performance, but from grade-school tests to college completion, the gaps are growing. With school success and earning prospects ever more entwined, the consequences carry far: education, a force meant to erode class barriers, appears to be fortifying them.
“Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer — the place where upward mobility gets started,” said Greg J. Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine. “But on virtually every measure we have, the gaps between high- and low-income kids are widening. It’s very disheartening.”
The American narrative can really be confusing as hell — Do it yourself! Don’t ask for help! All it takes is hard work! Only losers fail! — but those who do best in this country are often those who don’t hesitate to ask for help or more money or more time to finish a paper or negotiate a higher starting salary. So you’ve got to figure out for yourself how to navigate the corridors of power and influence, even if you’ve never seen them before.
Jose and I mentor a few young Hispanic women, students of journalism, several of whom have turned to me for guidance and advice about how to negotiate the balance of love and career, as they face significant pressure from their parents to marry and have children, career — even college — be damned. I’m honored they trust me enough to ask my advice, and I encourage them to kick professional ass as hard as possible, knowing full well this sometimes places them in direct conflict with their culture’s expectations of obedient or admirable Latinas devoted more to family than anything else.
I love ZaraHome’s products, newly available this fall in the U.S. These purple paisley towels are gorgeous and unusual, $18.90 for hand towels, $59.00 for the bath towel.
This 15.5 inch square throw pillow isn’t cheap — at $87 — but looks like something three times the price, embroidered in cream on white, also from ZaraHome. Pretty for the bedroom, or a nice touch on the sofa.
Oooooh la la! These red and black panties, $52, from Bergdorf Goodman, are to die for.
If she has pierced ears, these stunners from Swarovski, $75, are a great choice; (in my photo on this site’s Welcome page, I’m wearing them.) In gray crystal, they’re a gorgeous neutral elegant enough for evening but simple enough for day. I get compliments every time I wear them.
I love this Timex watch — with a Hudson Bay striped band, in classic primary colors. These are the colors of the classic “point blankets” introduced by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1780 to trade with Canadian natives.
Please consider helping writers in your charitable giving this year!
BONUS: I’ll send you a signed copy of my new book “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” — for you or as a gift, signed to someone else — if you donate $25 or more to WEAF, the writers’ aid organization listed above. Email me at email@example.com with your mailing address; checks should be made out to the Writers’ Emergency Assistance Fund, or you can donate directly to WEAF, here.
The most materially fortunate spent today unwrapping their Christmas gifts.
Jose, as is his wont, gave me a lovely mixture of the practical and flattering, from a new workout wardrobe to get me back into the gym in style to a book about the mountains of Antarctica to…a folding telescope!
Not at all what some men might buy a wife for their first married Christmas but I was, and am, totally thrilled. I feel like a pirate woman. The ‘scope is powerful enough that I can tell if someone’s standing on the balcony of the apartment building on the opposite side of the Hudson, a distance of three miles. Essential!
My gifts to him this year included “1493”, a new work of history; a paisley silk pocket square and bright blue tattersall shirt and a road atlas. I like that our gifts to each of us combine a sense of adventure with the tools to enjoy it.
It’s a quiet Christmas for us; my father is in Canada with my two half-brothers and my Mom is in a nursing home far away. We had a wonderful Christmas Eve dinner with our New York family, whose daughter Jose dated some 15 years ago, all of whom have remained dear friends of ours. We went to church this morning, part of a very small group of perhaps 20 others.
— Christmas dinner in Montreal with friends, then flying BOAC with tinsel garlands hanging across the aisle, to have Christmas Day dinner with my aunt and uncle in London
— Living in Cuernavaca, Mexico with my mother, and trimming the smallest, weediest little tree we’d ever seen (think of the tree in A Charlie Brown Christmas)
— Coming out of midnight Christmas Eve service at church, just as it’s starting to snow, and Jose suggests we go to the lych gate — where he proposes!
— Getting stuck on the 401, the world’s most boring highway, heading back to Montreal from Toronto, in a scary blizzard, trying to stay warm until the tow-truck came
— The first Christmas living with my Dad, at 15, years after my parents split up when I was seven, showered with lovely and thoughtful gifts I used for years, like the cheery red, yellow and blue patchwork quilt for my bed
— meeting a dishy, blue-eyed engineer, home from Khartoum, on a flight from Dublin to Bristol, and running off into the Welsh fog for a few days with him, back in my crazy single days
— getting frisked by the cops after attending midnight Mass at the cathedral in Cartagena, Colombia
— Heading into the insanity of Boxing Day sales with Jose
— Jose’s first Christmas dinner with my fractious, loud family of table-thumpers. As we sat around expounding and bloviating, interrupting and opining, he finally slammed the table himself, to our enormous shock. “Take turns!” he said. Stunned, like dogs who’ve had the hose turned on us, we did — for a few minutes. Welcome to the family, sweetie!
— My first Christmas with Jose, in 2001, when my gifts included a toaster and a colander. Not sexy, but useful and still very much appreciated
What was your best — or worst — Christmas memory?
Broadside’s best gift is you — such smart, fun readers worldwide — now 560 worldwide!
As we unpacked our Christmas tree ornaments this week, my sweetie, a former photographer for The New York Times, (now an editor there), pulled out a Ziploc bag and handed me a small reddish brown booklet, the length of my middle finger, crumpled and water-stained.
He found it in a ski chalet in the mountains of Bosnia, in December 1995, that had been turned into a war hospital.
Its black and white photo shows a clean-shaven man wearing a dress shirt, woolen vest and dress jacket. His name, it seems, is Sokolac Mehmedovic, born May 9, 1950. My sweetie found his identity papers, for this is what they were, lying on the floor.
Was the man dead? Fled? In that bleak, freezing, terrifying place and time, one could only guess.
The paper, a list of Serbo-Croatian words and phrases, contains normal things like Hello (Zdravo), and Please (Molim).
Cease fire (Prekid Vatre)
Don’t shoot (Ne Pucajte)
Drop Your Weapon (Spustite orujze)
He arrived in Bosnia on December 6, according to one of his battered press passes, the one issued by the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces in Zagreb. He came with 20 power bars, long underwear and a carabiner, a light, strong metal clip used by mountain climbers.
Why would he need a carabiner?
It ended up saving his life.
His vehicle, containing a reporter and interpreter, got stuck in deep snow at dusk. Two German UNHCR peacekeepers, one named Wolfgang, a former photojournalist, towed them out — attaching their truck to the car with a cable they looped through the carabiner. My sweetie had picked it up, as an afterthought, at the checkout counter at Eastern Mountain Sports on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
A little voice had told him: “You’re going to need this.”
For a month, he was cold, wet, tired, scared. On Christmas Day, he was alone in a hotel in Tuzla.
His New York Times colleagues had packed a pile of trinkets for him, knowing how hard that being far from home in so frightening a place would be. One enclosed two packs of Marlboros, and several pairs of women’s stockings, with a card that explained: “This worked for my father in WWII. Maybe this will work for you.”
By 4pm, he hadn’t eaten all day. No one else was staying at the hotel and he found the restaurant closed. Begging the manager, he was given a piece of bread and a bowl of hot chicken soup — broth only.
That was his Christmas meal.
This week – warm, dry, employed, safe from guns and knives and rage and freezing cold — we celebrate our Christmas.
As the holidays approach, and hosts everywhere hope for the best, a few handy tips:
Don’t kill the cat, (or dog, or fish or parakeet.) I once rented a Parisian apartment, a tiny studio at the top of six (!) flights of stairs. It came with a cat. Within minutes of setting down my suitcase, the cat was gone. Where? I peered six stories down into the courtyard. Nope. Looked every-bloody-where. Asked a neighbor. Kitty had hidden under the duvet covering the sofa. Great. I might have sat on le maudit chat.
Whatever animal(s) come with your host’s home, treat them with kindness and care. Keep doors locked and windows closed when necessary.
Bring loot. It might be lovely soap, fine chocolate, wine, some CDs, a coffee table book. If you arrive empty-handed, be sure to send a gift or flowers within a few days after you leave. With your hand-written thank-you note, mailed. Even if your hosts are loaded and seem to have everything, you can come up with something they would enjoy.
Help out. This means you, missy. Even if you snooze ’til noon, you’re still fully capable of washing dishes, loading and unloading the dishwasher, sweeping the floor or wiping down the kitchen countertops. Not everyone is as haus-frau-y as me, and I do love a little housework, so I do windows, polish silver and even clean out fridges on occasion.
Buy meals. When you and your host(s) go out to eat or drink, pay for them. If you’re on a super-tight budget, do it anyway, at least once. Be thoughtful about their generosity in inviting you into their home. (i.e. you’re not paying to sleep there.)
Bring food and drink. Again, especially if your host(s) are on a budget, this means less of a drain on their scant resources. If you must consume something very specific (and/or expensive) — soy milk, quinoa, spelt, gluten-free bread? — bring it with you.
Sex. Don’t. Really, it’s just not that urgent. If you must, be quiet and tidy and don’t spend all day locked in your room. Whatever little treasures you enjoy at home, stash ’em when not in use. No matter how wildly in love/lust you are, limit the PDA. It can get a little scary.
No public grooming. Ever. Ever. That includes: shaving, flossing, plucking, picking, moisturizing, depilating, coloring, the noisy and disgusting trimming of your nails, filing/painting/unvarnishing your nails. No one needs to see, hear or smell these behaviors, however necessary.
Find a room and shut the door and do it there. Then tidy up.
Respect the space. Even if you think your host(s’) standards of housekeeping, design or cleanliness oddly high or low, it’s their place. If it’s really that dirty or gross, leave. If it’s so anally all-white-don’t-touch-the-sofa you’re scared to relax, ditto.
Ask about preferences and allergies. I almost ruined my friend’s job interview this week by starting to spray (a little) perfume on my wrists. Turns out she is wildly allergic and would have sneezed for hours.
Adjust your schedule. You don’t have to get up at 5:00 a.m. to meditate or jog with your host(s), but it’s their home and their life you’ve come to fit into for a few days or more. If you normally wake up especially late, make sure this isn’t going to pose a problem for them. Find out who needs the bathroom when and for how long. If you get up much earlier or stay up much later than they do, be quiet and considerate of others’ needs for silence and rest.
Staying with a friend or relative can be a lot of fun and a great way to get to know them better, and vice versa.
It can also, quickly and efficiently, forever kill even the best of relationships as people seethe, sulk and wonder whose idea this was exactly.