Retaining resilience in the face of loss, grief, illness.
So much of life comes at us reallyreallyfast, especially in the age of the Internet.
And then we think, I can get whatever I need or want reallyreallyfast as well.
But it just doesn’t work out that way unless you are very lucky.
And so, when things move much more slowly than we want, or need, what’s our choice?
Staying the course.
Someone two decades younger than I has sustained too many losses of late — the death of a parent, the other lost in the mists of dementia, job loss, the end of a long romantic relationship/home and an injury that’s impeded her from her beloved sport.
I want to envelop her in layers of bubble wrap for a while so nothing else can bruise her lovely spirit for a long time to come. It’s hard to keep going, in any direction, when you feel the wind has been knocked out of you.
But I know her, and I know she has stamina. She will, somehow, power through this.
We all must.
Only with hindsight — and surviving some of life’s insanity and unfairness and sadness — can you more deeply appreciate the power of stamina, of staying in the game, (even if you need to withdraw from it for a while.)
To those of you struggling these days, (and who isn’t on some level, daily?), wishing you comfort, strength and the devotion of family and friends to help you through.
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
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.
It might be emotional — coming out to your family or while transitioning at work.
Or standing up, finally, to a bully or withdrawing from a toxic narcissist.
Or learning how to discuss a tough topic with someone you love.
Or struggling to reach rapprochement after estrangement.
Or visiting a friend who is dying and attending their funeral, making sure their survivors have the support they’ll need afterward.
It might be political –– switching allegiance after decades, maybe generations, of voting for one party and one set of principles.
Or door-knocking and phone-banking to try to get every possible voter to the polls for this crucial election.
Or choosing not to vote at all.
It might be physical — going through chemo, trying to lose (a lot of) weight, trying to stick consistently to a healthy eating and exercise plan.
Trying a new-to-you sport, maybe with a buddy.
Maybe committing to a daily/weekly routine.
Or getting the eye exam/dental checkup/skin check/colonoscopy/mammogram/physical you know you need and keep putting off because…ugh.
(Since late May, I’ve been carefully eating much less 2 days/week, [750 calories] plus consistently exercising. Fun? Not so much. But loving the results!)
It might be financial — living on a very strict budget to finally kill off your credit card debt or student loans or a mortgage.
Or asking for a raise or arguing intelligently for your value as a freelancer in a tight-fisted market.
Or really carefully reviewing your savings and investments, if you have some, to make sure your hard-earned money is working as hard as you are.
It might mean taking on an extra job, or two, to accumulate some emergency savings.
It might be spiritual — leaving a faith community that no longer feels (as) welcoming, looking for another one.
Or maybe another faith entirely.
Maybe it’s trying a silent retreat or daily meditation.
It might be intellectual — choosing to try a new way of working or thinking or reading/listening/watching that challenges you. that pushes your brain in another direction.
Maybe you’ll finally try to learn a new language, or a new skill or teach or tutor someone else.
Whatever the decision, it means making a choice. Shedding a prior behavior or set of habits, which only gets more and more challenging the older we get and more attached to those behaviors as the best (or most familiar) way through the world.
We’re blessed beyond measure if any of these choices are indeed choices, not sudden and unexpected terrors we have to face, let alone broke and alone.
Whichever new/scary direction you choose — as we all must if we’re to have a hope of significant growth in our lifetimes (and over and over!) — you may sit on the edge of that metaphorical cliff and think….nope! Nope! NOPE!
Pack a parachute! (Cupcakes? Liquor? A stuffed animal? A supportive friend?)
I hate the phrase “comfort zone” as if its limits were clearly demarcated and immutable.
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.
We live in a culture obsessed with being perfect and efficient and productive.
And a culture based on an industrial production model, aka laissez-faire capitalism, doesn’t really allow for much humanity, the times we’re slowed by grief or panic or confusion.
We can’t all operate at 100 percent all the time, even if some people expect it.
We get sick, with an acute illness, or a chronic illness or, worst, a terminal illness.
We nurse loved ones with these afflictions.
I see so many people flagellating themselves for not producing more (why not producing better?) or not meeting others’ (unreasonable) expectations or failing to keep up with others who may have the advantage of tremendous tailwinds we’ll never see or know exist.
We could all use a little break, no?
A common phrase among fiction writers is their WIP, their work in progress, i.e. a book or poem or essay they’re plugging away on, whether with a contract and a publisher or just a lot of hope and faith.
We’re all a work in progress, really.
Getting older (I have a birthday soon!) is a great way to slow down long enough to reflect on the progress we’ve already made, not just scrambling every single day to do it all faster and better.
It’s so easy to feel inadequate when deluged daily by a Niagara of shiny, happy, successful images on social media.
As if those were the (full) true story.
But everyone has a wound and a dark place and a weak spot, likely several, and they often remain well hidden, sometimes from ourselves and sometimes for decades.
Are you — fellow Northern Hemisphere folk — feeling as cabin feverish as I am?
In mid-winter, it’s either gray or rainy or windy or bitterly cold or the streets are too icy.
Today was a blessed 57 unseasonally warm degrees and out I went to enjoy the walk along the reservoir.
One of the things I love most about living somewhere for a long time is getting to know a landscape intimately, like the face of a dear friend or the hands of your sweetie.
I’ve walked the reservoir path, a paved mile in each direction, shaded the whole way by tall trees, for the past 27 years now, in all four seasons, alone and with my husband and, a long time ago, with my lovely little terrier, Petra, who died in June 1996.
Here’s some of what I saw, heard, smelled and savored today:
The stream is starting to rush again as the snow and ice melt
Trees are showing the tiniest bit of bud
Winter-weathered leaves rustle gently in the breeze, the soft creamy beige of a very good camel hair overcoat
The white flash of a swan’s bum as it digs into the lakebed
The tang of woodsmoke from someone’s chimney
Soft emerald moss, tossed like a velvet duvet
Strengthening sun gilding the edges of the forest
Vines clinging to weathered granite
The soothing lapping sound of water on rock at the lake’s edge
The stack of books I’ve brought with me for a week’s rural vacation is nine high, from Joseph Stiglitz’ The Price of Inequality to Michel de Montaigne’s Travel Journal, from September 1580, during which the Pope greets him warmly and helps him become a Roman citizen.
I recently decided to finally read the Patrick Melrose novels by British writer Edward St. Aubyn. I’d heard and read so much about them and thought they just couldn’t be that great. But acerbic, cold-eyed, tart-tongued — they absolutely are.
They are not books for everyone! If you like shiny, happy stories about people deeply in love, optimistic and fulfilled, move on! His main character — a heroin-addicted hero, if you will in one of the novellas — is Patrick Melrose, wealthy, aristocratic, caustic. Sounds horrible. But so not.
I also saw The English Patient, from 1996, on television again and felt in love once more with its creator, Canadian-Sri Lankan author Michael Ondaatje. His writing is exquisite, like entering a dream, so that when you put down the book again you almost have to shake yourself back into the room, here and now. I’ve so far only read two of his books, but loved both, In The Skin of a Lion, set in my home city of Toronto, and Divisadero, set in rural California. He has also written many books of poetry.
I liked Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, (hated the next one), and Monica Ali‘s Brick Lane and Claire Messud‘s first book, The Last Life, (loathed The Emperor’s Children.)
If you have never read Alexandra Fuller, run! Don’t Lets Go To The Dogs Tonight is a beautifully written account of her growing up in Zimbabwe — as is Peter Godwin‘s When A Crocodile Eats The Sun.
I realize my list is already heavily loaded with writers who are either British or partly educated there; many years ago, I loved the novels of Margaret Drabble and Nadine Gordimer as well.
I usually prefer non-fiction, and some of my favorites include the brutal but incredible war accounts, The Good Soldiers, by Pulitzer Prize winning American writer David Finkel and My War Gone By, I Miss It So, by Anthony Loyd; from amazon:
It is the story of the unspeakable terror and the visceral, ecstatic thrill of combat, and the lives and dreams laid to waste by the bloodiest conflict that Europe has witnessed since the Second World War.
Born into a distinguished military family, Loyd was raised on the stories of his ancestors’ exploits and grew up fascinated with war. Unsatisfied by a brief career in the British Army, he set out for the killing fields in Bosnia. It was there–in the midst of the roar of battle and the life-and-death struggle among the Serbs, Croatians, and Bosnian Muslims–that he would discover humanity at its worst and best. Profoundly shocking, poetic, and ultimately redemptive, this is an uncompromising look at the brutality of war and its terrifyingly seductive power.
I don’t read chick lit, celebrity stuff, romance, horror or science fiction but am always on the hunt for great, lesser-known fiction, memoir, biography, history and belles lettres — maybe from 50 or 150 years ago.
I’m lucky enough, for now, that the basics are covered: income, savings, health, good marriage, interesting work, a few new and intriguing projects, good friends.
It’s a lot, I know, and it’s come after a few years of fairly terrifying hanging on by the fingernails as the recession hit — my third in 20 years in New York.
What I crave now, possibly more than anything, is inspiration.
It’s been a word in use since 1300 and, technically, means to draw breath into one’s lungs — something I’ve been doing with difficulty for three weeks due to bronchitis. So I do badly want to breathe deeply and easily, but I also want the other sort, seeing something great in others and finding a way to incorporate it or emulate it in my own life.
Over the past week, I’ve been reading some books about the craft of writing. I was really looking forward to learning something so cool and compelling it would re-new my excitement about writing. Something, (forgive how arrogant this sounds), I didn’t already know after 30 years of writing for a living.
It’s like trying to appreciate the exquisite beauty of Satie or Chopin or Couperin by practicing scales. Yes, all the notes are there, but they’re not making you sigh in appreciation and awe at what someone has done with them.
So I picked up a book written in 1986, “Arctic Dreams”, by Barry Lopez, which won the National Book Award.
Now that’s inspiration!
He writes with tremendous delicacy and insight and I’ve already learned a slew of new-to-me words, like crang and flensing and saxifrages. I never read books about nature or natural history, so I wasn’t sure I’d like it, but I do love the Arctic, a place I visited for a mere 24 hours, on assignment for the Montreal Gazette, in December 1987.
I’ve never experienced anything so alien, beautiful and mysterious and have been dying ever since to return.
Lopez so skilfully limns this place, with observations both simple and profound.
On the tiny, stunted trees one finds so far north:
Much of the tundra, of course, appears to be treeless when, in many places, it is actually covered with trees — a thick matting of short, ancient willows and birches. You realize suddenly that you are wandering around on top of a forest.
I love the naked delight he shares with us, the startled realization he felt and wants us to feel as well.
Imagine your ear against the loom of a kayak paddle in the Beaufort Sea, hearing the long, quivering tremolo voice of the bearded seal. Or feeling the surgical sharpness of an Eskimo’s obsidian tool under the stroke of your finger.
These sentences are, to my ear, exquisite. They make me want to read and re-read them. They make me want to close the book so I can savor them and think about them.
His word choices are deliciously specific: tremolo, the alliteration of “surgical sharpness”, the naming of obsidian (gorgeous word!), not the vaguer “stone”. And the “stroke of your finger” — not the pad of your finger (which I think he might have written.)
It’s been a long time since I’ve read such good writing it makes me want to de-construct it so see why it moves so smoothly and efficiently. So much of what I read is a broken-down jalopy — Lopez opens the door to a smooth, seductive ride in a literary Bentley.
I’m envious of his skill — but also (yay!) inspired to try to whatever I can, whenever possible, to reach this level of excellence. (I was also amused, and delighted, to read the name of a friend’s husband on the very first page of Lopez’ acknowledgements, Kerry Finley, a Canadian expert in bowhead whales.)
In your personal life or your professional life, who inspires you and why?
Is it someone you know personally or someone you admire from a distance?