Setting a pretty table to share with friends? That’s a soothing activity for me…
There’s a phrase I see and hear a lot, and one I never heard decades ago — self-care.
It’s often aimed at women, especially mothers of small/multiple children, typically run off their feet caring for everyone but themselves.
The simplest of pleasures, reading a book or magazine uninterrupted, owning lovely clothing not covered with various bodily excretions, disappear in a whirlwind of attending to everyone else’s needs all the time.
It also happens when you’re overwhelmed by anything: a crazily demanding job and/or boss; trying to juggle work/school/family; wearyingly long commutes that consume hours; a medical crisis; care-giving someone ill and/or elderly.
Your own needs come second or third or fourth.
Or, it seems, never.
It becomes a matter of survival, of self-preservation.
Music, art, culture…feed your soul!
Of preserving, even a little, your identity, your hunger for silence and solitude, for time spent with friends or your pet or in nature.
It’s often reduced, for women, to consumptive choices like getting a manicure or massage, (and I do enjoy both, while some women loathe being touched by a stranger.)
But our needs are deeper, subtler and more complicated.
Caring for yourself isn’t always something you just buy, a product or service that keeps the economy humming — and can make you feel passive, resentful, a chump.
There’s no price tag on staring at a sunset or admiring the night sky or listening to your cat purr nearby.
There’s no “value” to sitting still, phone off, computer off, to say a silent prayer.
It’s one reason women who choose not to have children — as I did and millions do — are so often labeled “selfish”, as if caring for a spouse or friends or the world or, (gasp) your own needs, is lesser than, shameful, worthy of disapproval.
When it’s no one’s business.
We all need to preserve:
— Our souls, whether through prayer or meditation or labyrinth walking or a long hike or canoe paddle.
— Our bodies, which shrink and soften, literally, as we age, so we need to keep them strong and fit and flexible, not just thin and pretty.
— Our finances. Women, especially, can face a terrifyingly impoverished old age, thanks to earning less for fewer years, and/or putting others’ needs first, (those of children, aging parents, spouse, siblings), and hence a reduced payout from Social Security. It’s a really ugly payback for years of being emotionally generous.
— Our solitude. Yes, we each need daily time alone in silence, uninterrupted by the phone or texts or just the incessant demands of anyone else. We all need time to think, ponder, muse, reflect. Silence is deeply healing.
— Our mental health. That can mean severing toxic relationships with family, neighbors, bosses, clients or friends who drain us dry with their neediness, rage or anxiety. It might mean committing the time and money needed to do therapy, often not fun at all. It might mean using anti-depression or anti-anxiety medication.
— Our friendships. These are the people we often neglect in our rush to make money or attain some higher form of social status. It can take time, energy and commitment to keep a friendship thriving.
— Our planet. Crucial. Without clean air and water, without a way to flee flood, famine, war and fire — or prevent them — we’re all at risk.
–– Our sexuality. At any age, in whatever physical condition we find ourselves in.
— Our rightful gender. I recently met someone now transitioning from being born into a female body into the male one he now prefers. What an extraordinary decision and journey he’s now on. For some, it’s a matter of the most primal preservation.
— Our identities. Whatever yours is focused on, it’s possibly, if you live in North America, primarily centered on your work and the status and income it provides. Which is fine, until you’re fired or laid off. Then what?
Or on that of being a parent, (the empty nest can feel very disorienting.)
I think it’s essential to claim, and nurture, and savor lifelong multiple strong identities, whether athletic, artistic, a spirit of generosity or philanthropy, creative pleasures. You can be a cellist and a great cook and a loving son/daughter and love mystery novels and love playing hockey and love singing hymns.
We’re all diamonds, with multiple gleaming facets.
I loved this recent post by a friend and colleague, a Toronto-based travel writer, Heather Greenwood-Davis, who has seen much of the world, and even took her two young sons and husband globe-trotting with her for a year.
Heather trained as a lawyer and did well, but…
My marriage suffered. My friendships suffered. My health suffered. I began to shut out the world and as a result the very people I thought I was suffering for.
It made no sense.
What was the point of a full bank account if I wouldn’t be around to enjoy it with them?
And so I downsized my career and upsized my happiness. I followed my passions and though there was an immediate hit financially, the life I’ve been able to craft with my family has more than made up for it. The happier I became, the more I earned.
As long-time readers of Broadside know, this is really one of my obsessions and an issue I care very deeply about.
Do you know this book — written by Elizabeth Warren and her daughter? — The Two-Income Trap? It argues that chasing the American Dream might be a fool’s errand.
If you’ve never read this classic book “Your Money or Your Life”, it’s an eye-opener. It makes clear, in plain and unvarnished language, the very real choice we make — we spend our lives focused on making (more and more and more) money, grow old and die.
That’s normal life for 99% of us.
But should it be?
Do we all really need the biggest, fastest, shiniest, latest, 3.0 version of everything?
The tiny house movement addresses this longing as well, as some people choose to live in homes of 200 to 300 square feet, giving them the financial freedom to make less punishing choices than staying in a job they loathe to…pay the bills.
And so many students are graduating college with staggering debt and having very little luck finding a good job, the kind they hoped that college degree would help them attain.
Whatever loyalty many people once felt to a job, employer or industry….Today? Not so much.
Every year, surveys show that a staggering portion — like 75 percent — of Americans are “disengaged” at work.
They arrive late, take sick days, dick around when they’re supposed to be working. They hate their jobs or, at best, feel bored, stifled, under-challenged.
This is brutal.
This is heartbreaking.
We only get one life — and it goes by very very fast.
I so admire Heather for making a decision that goes against every sociocultural imperative: get (and cling to) a fancy job, make tons of money, make more, buy tons of stuff, buy more.
We’re urged by everyone — friends, teachers, parents, bosses — to keep climbing the ladder of material success and professional glory, no matter what it costs you emotionally, physically, intellectually and spiritually.
I live in the same one bedroom apartment I moved into in June 1989.
If you had told me this would become my life, I would have laughed. I moved around a lot, and liked it.
I’d never before lived in any one domicile more than four years — and that was back in high school, with my father.
But my chosen life in New York also threw me a bunch of curveballs: three recessions in 20 years, a brief first marriage, an industry — journalism — that fired 24,000 people in 2008 and is in serious chaos today.
Life, if we are lucky, is a series of choices that reflect our deepest values, principles and priorities.
I didn’t want to change careers or leave New York, still the center of journalism and publishing.
I had no wish to assume enormous student debt to return to college to retrain for an entirely different line of work.
I didn’t want to move far upstate, or out of state, where I could live more cheaply, and possibly face serious social isolation, which I’d hated in New Hampshire.
My stubbornness created its own challenges!
I don’t have children, so did not have those serious financial responsibilities to consider.
I’ve been very fortunate to have maintained health insurance and good health (even with four orthopedic surgeries in a decade.)
My priority, always, has been to create the freedom to travel and to retire, (and we have) and to work on issues and stories that make sense to me.
It means making, and spending, less money.
We’re outliers, in some key ways:
We drive a 15 year old Subaru with 166,000 miles on it.
We don’t buy a lot of clothes and shoes and electronics; our splurges are meals out and travel.
We’re not close to our families, emotionally or physically, so we don’t spend thousands of dollars each year on travel to see them, gifts for them or their children.
I realized — after working at three major daily newspapers and a few magazines — work is just work. Like many others, I’ve also been bullied in a few workplaces and terminated from a few as well.
That left some bruises.
I enjoy writing. I love telling stories.
But it’s only one part of my life.
I have many interests and passions, not just the desire to work, make money and become rich, famous, admired.
I’ve become a nationally ranked saber fencer.
I’ve been able to help care for my parents through health crises because I didn’t have to beg an employer for time off.
I’ve been able to help friends as well, like taking a recent day off to get a friend home to Brooklyn from Manhattan after day surgery.
Now that my husband is also full-time freelance, we can take a day or two during the week and just have a long lunch or go for a walk or catch a daytime film.
Jose and I really enjoy one another’s company.
I’d much rather have a day with him, just chatting and hanging out, than making an additional $1,000 to buy…something.
We met and married later in life, and we have both had terrific, satisfying careers in journalism.
It’s a normal and essential activity in retail — where I worked part-time for 2.5 years from 2007 to 2009, (and the subject of my last book.) An entire team of strangers, all wearing matching golf shirts, would take over our store for a few days while we watched in awe at their efficiency.
It’s a good idea to take stock of our own lives as well. So often, we just keep stumbling, or racing, ahead, too exhausted or distracted to notice the patterns guiding our behaviors. We’re all creatures of habit.
And some need a reboot.
As we slip and slide into 2016 — I’m writing this post during the first huge snowstorm of the year — I’ve been thinking about what to keep, what to ditch and what to add to my life, whether personal or professional.
A happy marriage
Thank heaven! Jose and I met 16 years ago in March after he saw my profile and photo on aol.com (remember?), posted for a story I was writing about on-line dating for Mademoiselle magazine, (also long gone now.) My headline, truthfully, read “Catch Me If You Can.” He did. We would never have met otherwise — he lived in Brooklyn and I north of Manhattan. But we both worked for The New York Times, he as a staff photographer and photo editor and I as a freelance writer.
A home we love
It’s been more than 20 years since I bought a one-bedroom apartment in a suburban town north of New York City, whose downtown towers we can see — 25 miles away — from our street. Luckily, we’ve had the funds to pay for high-quality renovations of our bathroom and kitchen and have made minor upgrades like a glass door to our balcony and lined custom-made curtains. As someone who spent ages 8-16 in boarding school and summer camp, sharing space with strangers in rooms whose design I couldn’t choose or alter to my taste, and a few years in fairly basic rental apartments, I love that we can create and enjoy such a pretty space.
Deep and abiding friendships
I’m so grateful for the friends I’ve made, worldwide, and for their support and belief in me, even when things are rocky; it’s the measure of true friendship that we don’t flee one another during the tough times. I love chatting with them on Facebook, Twitter and Skype, from Berlin to Dublin to New Zealand to Toronto.
The tedious-but-necessary habits of frugality
Ugh. So boring! But the only way I know to save money is to…save money. You can spend it or save it. If you never save, like millions of Americans who don’t or can’t, you can never, ever stop working and you live in daily terror of the next fiscal crisis. I’ve been working since I was 15 but didn’t start saving hard for a while. The only reason retirement is even an option is decades of living carefully and saving money.
I recently resigned as co-chair of a volunteer board I had served on for seven years. One of its members, an imperious and demanding older woman, immediately showered me with a Niagara of personal insults — and publicly — for my putatively disastrous tenure, however brief. QED, kids. Happy to flee such a swamp of nastiness. Same goes for anyone whose SOP is constant criticism, undermining, snark and whining. It’s exhausting to listen to, respond to and absorb.
Last year was an eye-opener, as I took on a few projects that looked initially pretty alluring, clear-cut and decently paid. Nope! They blew up within weeks, costing me thousands of dollars in lost and anticipated income, not to mention the emotional wear and tear of working with people who were bullies or micro-managers. Not this year, thanks.
Like that volunteer commitment above, which I struggled with for months before walking away. My nature is to be extremely tenacious, to keep going to the end, no matter how desperately unhappy I am along the way. That’s a decades-old habit and one it’s time to shed.
As my Jamaican-born friend said, “Don’t borrow trouble.” If it’s fixable, get it fixed. If it’s not, move on.
I suspect many women struggle with this one. New motto? “Give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.”
My hourly fee for reading your work or advising you on how to improve it is $225 and I may raise it yet again this year. I prefer being generous, but after reading too many words unpaid, I’m weary of seeing young writers crow loudly on social media about their supposedly solo writing accomplishment — when in fact their weak first draft required many revisions, and many invisible and unacknowledged editorial questions and suggestions.
All those bloody unread books
They clog up the shelves and prop up my ego — oooh, I feel so smart for having them around me for all these years. But I’ve never read so many of them and I doubt I ever will. Better to box them up and sell them, as we’ve done so in the past successfully. Allowing me to buy new books I’ll actually, you know, read.
More exercise. Fewer calories.
I’m insatiable when it comes to exploring new places, while wanting to revisit old favorites like France, Ontario and California.
Whether turning to our trusted career coach, accountant or lawyers, when I need help to quickly and effectively resolve a difficult or messy challenge, I’m bringing in the big guns. Yes, they cost money. So does every lost minute of my mental health and focus!
More face-to-face meetings
I’ve vowed to spend at least one day every week — that’s 52 meetings — sitting face to face across a table with someone, whether for work or friendship. In an era of social media , texting and mediated communication, I increasingly want to see people at close range, and have them see and know me, not some virtual notion of who I am. Intimacy is ever more a rare and precious commodity now and I’m determined to add more of it to my life.
Attending more cultural events
A mix of live music, dance, theater. Art galleries and museums, as every time I do so, I come home refreshed and enlightened and inspired. My default choice, always, is going to the movies, and my best weeks I might see several films in the cinema. But I need to be more adventurous.
Gulp. Terror! I don’t even know how to read music, but a friend has lent me (!) a practice cello, now standing in a corner of the living room and making me feel guilty for not getting started.
On my last day of work at the American ad agency, something strange happened: I was smiling. A weight had been lifted, and I felt like a prisoner about to be freed. And despite my fear that no one would hire me, I soon found a job in Zurich doing exactly what I had been doing in the United States: copywriting for an ad agency.
My job title was the same, but I worked part time — and for a higher salary than I had received working full time in the United States. When I was politely asked to work additional days beyond the ones specifically mentioned in my contract, the agency paid me for that extra work.
Not only that, but instead of two weeks of vacation, I had five. And I was encouraged to use every single day of it, guilt-free. Once, when I went to Spain for “only” 10 days, my Swiss colleagues chastised me for not going away long enough.
Instead of worrying about working weekends and holidays the way I had in the United States, I planned trips like the rest of my colleagues: Paris. Prague. Zermatt. For the first time in my working life, I was living, too. Because of this, my creativity flourished. I had both time and money, and because I had real time off, I was more productive when I was at work. In my spare time I wrote blogs and essays and I swam in the lake.
I’m firmly and decidedly out of step with American values in this regard.
In 2015, I’ve spent 3 weeks in Europe in January, another three weeks in June in Ireland, 10 days in Maine and 10 days in Ontario.
Because my husband and I are, as of this year, now both full-time freelancers, (he’s a photo editor and photographer, I write for a living), we can work from anywhere there’s wi-fi and can take as much time off as we can afford.
We’re not wealthy and we live a fairly frugal life, with a small apartment and a 14-year-old car. Nor do we have the financial responsibilities of children or other dependents.
We’ve had terrific careers and won awards and the respect of our peers and while we still need to work for income…it’s time for us.
I’m not fond of the word “self-care” but it’s a concept I believe in strongly, especially for women who are socially encouraged to give everyone else their time, energy and attention — but often feel conflicted or guilty when they stop long enough to take equally thoughtful care of themselves.
Self care can take many forms:
— massage, manicures, pedicures, facials
— dressing well
— a barbershop trim or shave
— regular medical and dental checkups
–– cooking or baking something delicious, especially “just” for yourself
— a pot of tea in the afternoon, possibly with a biscuit or two (no sad little teabag in a cup!)
— drawing, painting, taking photos, nurturing your creative self
Driving through Vermont in the rain listening to U2’s Joshua Tree
Awakening to birdsong
A pretty new cardigan in ballet-slipper pink at Ca Va De Soi, a knitwear firm with shops in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto — and also soon online
Feeling so well-loved by dear old friends who welcome us back into their homes, year after year
A badly-needed 10-day vacation — then returning to multiple freelance assignments and teaching gigs
Bonus: Having two countries I’m legally able to belong to, and to work in: Canada, where I was born and raised and the U.S., where I have lived since 1988 and am lucky enough to have a “green card”. I get to celebrate my two countries in the same week each year —