I was struck recently by a social media post by someone I know who works in a demanding healthcare specialty. She had treated herself to a fantastic day trip to a nearby natural wonder and a gorgeous splurge of a breakfast.
What struck me most was the sense this was something, perhaps, to apologize for.
That taking —- making — time to care for herself and her soul was somehow suspect or self-indulgent.
I think being consistently kind to ourselves is essential and something too often overlooked or dismissed as silly, by others and worse, by ourselves. Women are so heavily socialized to take care of everyone else’s needs first and foremost that, when there’s a lack of time or money — and there often is — we get the short end of the stick.
I’m not someone who advocates self-indulgence or hedonism, (and who draws the line?) but I’m absolutely committed to what is now called self care.
For me that’s everything from playing my beloved vinyl on a Sunday morning to making home-made meals I can enjoy during the week, with my husband and on my own.
I spend real money at our local florist, sometimes as much as $25 a week, to fill our apartment with blooms and greenery, whether fragrant eucalyptus or bright gerbera or the tiny purple orchids that come all the way from Thailand. To me, it’s an investment in daily joy and beauty.
I go to a spin class at the gym to burn calories, manage stress, to enjoy the music and see familiar faces. It offers me a low-key social life and human contact when I work alone at home, now 11 years into that isolating workstyle.
I make play dates with friends, meeting them face to face for a coffee or lunch or a concert or ballet performance, creating memories we can share years later. I went to a fantastic Iron & Wine concert this week at Town Hall with a dear pal and made her spit with laughter over Manhattans at the bar in Grand Central. Priceless!
I love to travel, so am always looking a few weeks and months ahead at where we might be able to afford to go, and for how long. It refreshes me, whether seeing old friends back in Toronto or meeting new ones, as I did this summer in Berlin and Zagreb.
I commit a few hours each week to my favorite television shows. (Poldark!)
And this year — for the first time in my life — I’m driving a brand-new car, a luxury vehicle we’ve leased. Despite my initial trepidation, it is sheer bliss: quiet, beautifully designed, with intelligent and helpful technology. Our other vehicle is 16 years old, dented and scraped and, no matter how much money we drop at the mechanic, always has the check engine light on; freedom from that anxiety alone is a form of self care for me now.
It can feel weird, even guilt-inducing, to put yourself first, to say no, firmly (and mean it!) to others’ demands on your limited time and energy.
But without adding even the smallest pleasures to our days, and to our lives, we can end up stewing in resentment and self-denial.
In 1982, Japan made shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” a part of its national health program. The aim was to briefly reconnect people with nature in the simplest way possible. Go to the woods, breathe deeply, be at peace. Forest bathing was Japan’s medically sanctioned method of unplugging before there were smartphones to unplug from. Since shinrin-yoku’s inception, researchers have spent millions of dollars testing its efficacy; the documented benefits to one’s health thus far include lowered blood pressure, blood glucose levels, and stress hormones.
I start to feel very ill at ease when I haven’t spent time in nature and in silence there; after two tedious months of physical therapy aimed at loosening and strengthening my arthritic right knee, each session consuming two hours, I was sick to death of only relating to machines and being stuck indoors.
On our trip to Montreal we continued north to Mont Tremblant and spent two days enjoying what was left of the autumn leaf colors and stunningly warm weather.
The area is full of walking and cycling trails so we took one through the woods down to the Diable River where we sat on the rocks and listened to the rushing river. The woods were largely silent except for one nearby blue jay.
I loved the lush moss, peeling birch trees, sun-dappled leaves and ancient stones.
I loved the soothing sound of the river rushing over and around rocks.
I loved watching leaves tumble into the water, only to be swept under and away like little yellow boats.
The day before, I ventured to the edge of the hotel property and found a grove of trees whose thick, twisted, intertwined roots looked like nothing I’d ever seen before anywhere, like something out of a fairy tale.
I sat on them for a while, just being still and present, watching the sun glow lower and lower through the trees. The woods were silent — no chipmunks or squirrels rustling past, no birds squawking to one one another.
It was eerie and disorienting.
But so, so good to be out, once more in nature, as always reminded that humans are just one more species.
If my European journey taught me anything — or reminded me more powerfully than ever before — it’s to live, and savor, an unmediated life.
By which I mean, one experienced firsthand, feet-first, immersed in all of it.
Not, as has become normal/affordable/easy for me — and so many of us — a world and its wonders seen and heard only through a screen or scrim, whether social media or explained by the traditional mass media of newspapers, magazines, radio and television.
The soft, smooth cobblestones of Rovinj — a small seaside town in Croatia — were silky beneath my bare feet, the light snaking around corners as the sun moved through the sky, every hour offering a different tableau.
I’d have known none of this without my (grateful!) physical presence.
Ironically, I follow several cool, adventurous people on Twitter whose lives are devoted to professional exploration, including aviation and wildlife photographers and three archeologists.
I love seeing what they find, but this is also, I realize, a little weird.
I need to go find this stuff myself!
Sadly, it’s now considered normal — starting in infancy — to spend hours consuming others’ visions and impressions and analysis of the world, instead of gathering every sense impression ourselves. (As I write this on our balcony in the early morning, I hear traffic on the bridge, a passing train and birds in the trees. The air is fresh and cool, the sun gilding the balcony’s outer edge.)
I work alone at home in the suburbs of New York, with no kids or pets to distract me. I work full-time freelance, which means I have no boss or coworkers with whom to share ideas or jokes or talk about our weekends.
Most of my friends here are too busy to actually get together in person, which all combines to create isolation, and so I’ve slipped into the tempting bad habit of feeling connected to the world through consuming social media — instead of socializing face to face.
If I want to actually be with someone, it takes me an hour each way, and up to $25 in train fare or parking fees, to go into Manhattan.
But if I don’t, I’m essentially a self-imposed shut-in, which is — my six supersocial weeks in Europe reminded me — a terrible choice for mental health.
My time in Europe, literally, exposed me to hundreds of strangers, some of whom became new friends, like an archeologist and travel blogger and translator, all of whom live in Berlin, all of whom had only been Twitter and blog pals before they became real, corporeal human beings sharing space with me, laughing and joking and hugging hello.
I was also struck by people’s gentleness with me, like the man on the busy, crowded Tube stairs in London, watching me slowly and painfully climb beside him, who asked: “Are you OK?”
People can be perfectly nice on social media, but they’re not beside you.
They’re not — as two young men did — ready to carry your heavy suitcase up (!) three flights of stairs.
In Croatia, I sat for hours in a cafe with three new friends, talking and talking and talking.
No one stared into their phones.
No one stared into their laptop.
No one was rushing off to something more important.
What we were doing — just being together, enjoying one another’s company and conversation — was more important.
One new friend, a Zagreb travel agent, says: “A perfect vacation is one without expectations..”
She might be right.
When I plan a vacation I focus on what I, (and/or my husband), really want to do, (not what we see on social media or what’s “hot” this year) — informed by my participation in multiple weekly travel Twitterchats, and reading travel websites, blog posts and articles that offer specific ideas and inspiration.
Having been to 40 countries, I’m torn between visiting the familiar, like Ireland, (five visits), and France (many more), and seeking out new experiences.
Things to consider when planning your holiday:
For how long? (Will it be enough or will you get bored?)
Using what transportation?
With whom, (or alone?)
How much activity, and how much downtime?
How many (tiring) travel days and transfers?
What will you give up to stay on budget, (e.g. luxury hotels, taxis everywhere)?
Washington, D.C. June 2016
“Perfect” for me includes:
— Easy/safe/quick/affordable, (hello, $$$$$ London!), public transit in and around the city/town, ideally without cars or taxis. My favorite vacations involve no driving, unless it’s a road trip or touring.
— Making emotional connections. I travel out of curiosity, and having long conversations with a country’s residents is a great joy for me. I got to know two sisters in Croatia whose powerful memories of Zagreb being bombed are much more powerful to me than any lovely vista.
— Kind and welcoming locals. I liked Berlin, but didn’t enjoy “Berliner schnauze”, a biting, sarcastic edge that’s quite common. Travel is disorienting enough and you can feel vulnerable, especially if you’re alone. Croatians have been terrific.
— Healthy food at decent prices. Easy access to farmer’s markets, (in cities like Toronto, Paris, London, Zagreb, New York), can make a real difference to your budget and ability to eat well.
— A climate with some variation. If it’s a sweltering 80 to 90+ degrees during the day, a drop of even 10 degrees and a breeze is a blessing. I can’t handle humidity; cold, for this Canadian, is not a problem.
— Ready access to nature: lake, river, ocean, forest, parks, gardens. Too much concrete makes me feel ill, even on a city-focused trip.
— Great shopping. I love finding items, styles and colors I just can’t get in New York (yes, really.). I treasure wearing and using them for years to come.
— Culture/design whether music, museums or just well-designed lighting, streetscapes and buildings.
— Personal safety. Especially in an era of terror attacks, I avoid crowds whenever possible and am extremely aware of my surroundings in large cities..
— Fleeing American violence and toxic politics. I’ve lived in the U.S. since 1989, but am so sickened and embarrassed by its current politics and President I want to be as far away from of it as I can afford, and for as long as I can afford.
Nor do I want, on vacation, to be surrounded by Americans, so I choose places, and hotels, with a more international clientele.
While trying to relax, the last thing I want to think or talk about is American politics.
— History. The town I’m writing this in, Rovinj, Croatia, has buildings from the 16th century — and my hotel dates from the 18th and 17th, two buildings later combined. I’m happiest in places with a rich, accessible history.
Eastern Europe also offers something I’d never seen before — in Berlin, Budapest and Zagreb, museums of torture, places where its citizens suffered unspeakable crimes. History is filled with darkness, too.
— Grace notes
Everything from the starched, spotless linen napkins and tablecloths in my Rovinj hotel to the oleander blossoms that fall onto my breakfast plate from the terrace’s overhanging trees. For me, touches of beauty and elegance make a place deeply memorable.
It’s so tempting to gogogogogogogo. I finally lay in bed one afternoon and napped and listened, on the Internet, to my favorite weekend radio shows from NPR.
— A mix of solo and accompanied time
So many women are afraid to strike out alone, to eat alone, to walk alone.
I’ve done it in Istanbul, Spain, Mexico…
Dig through the archives here and you’ll find several posts detailing how to do it safely and enjoyably.
Ideally, I like a mix of vacation time both solo and accompanied; alone here, I’ve had terrific conversations with bus and train mates, at cafes and in shops and restaurants. These included two U of Texas accounting students; a Croatian art history major; a Romanian professor of environmental anthropology; an epee fencer, and an electrical engineer, both from Zagreb and an IBM exec — who I met smoking a hookah! — who’d worked for NGOs in Africa.
Even when I travel with my beloved husband, taking some daily time apart is essential.
Some of our best vacations have included:
• Our rented cottage in Dungloe, Donegal, in June 2015, (through this website), and the flat we rented twice on the Ile St. Louis in Paris (friends.)
• A five-week bus journey throughout Mexico in May 2005, including Mexico City, Queretaro, Patzcuaro, Oaxaca and Cuernavaca, where I lived as a teenager.
• Since our first visit in the fall of 2001, exhausted by covering the events of 9/11, we’ve returned six (!) times, so far, to Manoir Hovey, a resort on Lake Massawippi in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, a 7-hour drive from our home in New York; elegant but not stuffy, welcoming, great food and lovely in every season.
This European trip has offered virtually no disappointments, not bad for a month on the road through four countries so far. I chose a mix of larger and smaller cities, with a seaside break in Istria, Croatia.
I also chose three long train journeys — Paris-Berlin (7 hours), Berlin-Budapest (13 hours), Budapest-Zagreb (6 hours) — in order to rest and see the countryside. I dislike flying, so this also reduced my stress.
This trip’s two greatest surprise expenses?
Hotel laundry, (sweaty from walking all day in 80+ degree heat; one hotel even forbade hand washing!), and taxis, when my arthritic right knee gave out. I could have used laundromats, (as I have in Paris), but right now, free time is more precious to me.
I have my new passport in hand now — and it’s good for ten years.
I hope I am!
Acquiring a new passport really is an exercise in optimism, as international travel, (all travel, really) always requires three key elements:
Jose and I are now at an age we read the obituaries and keep finding people our age, and younger, who have lost their lives prematurely, most often to cancer and heart attacks. We pray for continued good health, without which travel — let alone anything else — is out of the question.
This is such a privilege!
So many people work in jobs, sometimes multiple jobs, that allow them little to no paid time off, or are too scared to actually take their paid vacation or — worst — insist in answering work-related demands even while they are supposed to be resting and recharging.
Jose and I both work full-time freelance and are only paid when we work; i.e. no paid vacation days, ever. Every day we take off without pay means we have to make it up somehow, since our overhead costs are fixed.
Another mark of privilege.
Many people just can’t afford to go anywhere a passport is needed, i.e. to leave the United States (or their home country) — poorly paid or unemployed or beggared by debt service.
We don’t have children or dependent relatives, so we have more options in this regard.
Of course, travel and adventure can also be found and enjoyed close(r) to hand, exploring your own neighborhood, town/city/state/province. Both my native Canada and adopted U.S. are enormous, tremendously varied and filled with alluring places to visit.
The places in Canada I still want to see include Newfoundland, P.E.I. and some more of the Far North.
In the U.S., I hope to visit Colorado, Utah, Montana, Wyoming and several more national parks. I really want to do a driving trip the length of California. I’d like to visit Portland, Oregon, where we have several good friends.
It’s a very long list of places I’ve yet to see, including Japan, Laos, Cambodia, Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal, South Africa, Namibia, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, islands of the South Pacific, Antarctica, Lebanon, Greece, Croatia, Finland, Iceland and Morocco.
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.
It was 95 degrees, and humid — and said to feel like 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
But it was a perfect day, a day spent gratefully away from the endless grind of the computer and the claustrophobic roar of the air conditioner.
A hooky day.
I drove into the city, (a 40 minute drive from our town on the Hudson River, north of Manhattan), reveling in air conditioning and listening, as usual, to WFUV (the radio station of Fordham Univerisity, a private Jesuit college here.)
Loved seeing dinghies with bellied sails on the Hudson and several huge barges being pushed by tugs. Tugs are like elephants for me — the very sight of one just makes me really happy. Given non-stop maritime traffic here, I get to see them a lot!
I enjoy the drive south from our town, parallel to the Hudson River to my right/west, with glorious views of the city’s skyline, the George Washington Bridge and New Jersey, just a few miles across the water. I moved to New York in 1989, and I never tire of these views. I feel lucky to live close enough to afford it, and to dip in and out of the city without paying every penny to live in it.
I parked beneath Lincoln Center, (whose underground parking lot was a recent discovery), and walked over to ABC — the television network — to drop off the backpack we filled to donate.
Those corporate lobbies are really something. HUGE. Boatloads of green and red marble. Mostly intimidating and not very attractive. One wall of the lobby is filled with color photos of all their stars, and you realize that each person is a brand, a polished and valuable commodity in their collection.
I’d planned on a 1:10 movie, but missed it so I settled into a favorite French restaurant, La Boite en Bois, for a long, long (2.5 hours) lazy lunch. It’s a tiny space, a few steps below ground, and has been in business for 30 years — an impressive run in such a difficult city.
For much of the time I had the 48-seat room all to myself. Chatted in French to one of the waiters and enjoyed a three-course (!), very good meal for $27 ($32 with tip.) I caught up on two days’ worth of the Financial Times and the day’s New York Times. (And fielded a few work emails.)
Hopped a bus crosstown to meet a friend for a drink at a craft beer joint, The Jeffrey, which was terrific. One of the fun things of living here is that there’s always something new to discover — because rents are so high, places can open, even to rave reviews, and be gone within months.
Walked six blocks north, bussed back to the West side and caught Equity, a new film, at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, another below-ground gem. (Sounds like a Hobbit-y day!)
Walking back to the car at 10:15 p.m. — past the now illuminated Lincoln Center fountain, people silhouetted against its lit-up waters — was one of those perfect, classic Manhattan moments. Like Grand Central Terminal, Lincoln Center is such an elegant icon. I never tire of its understated white marble beauty.
The day wasn’t cheap; it’s Manhattan, after all, but not as bad as some might think. I usually limit my NYC excursions to once a week or so, but make sure to maximize my pleasure once I’ve made the journey.
Total cost of my perfect day: parking $48 (10 hours); lunch $32; bus fare $2.75 x two; cab $13; beer (paid for my friend, on her work expense account — we’re both journalists); movie $15, popcorn (dinner!) $5.