My former employer, The Globe and Mail, an espresso and a yogurt — a typical breakfast!
I love trying new things, and am often easily bored by routine.
It’s why I generally do better being self-employed, as any truly tedious gig is easily-enough ditched, soon to be replaced with something more interesting and challenging.
But, like everyone, I also find real comfort in the familiar, the tried and true, the reliable and known.
It’s one reason, I confess, I return on vacation to places I already know — my hometown, Toronto; Montreal, Mexico, Paris and London (all of which I’ve lived in), D.C. (to visit friends) and New Mexico (where Jose was born and raised.)
My recent week in Toronto offered both; I deliberately chose to stay in a downtown rented flat, the location and the apartment a novel choice for me. Loved it!
I tried a few new-to-me restaurants and cafes, and also enjoyed a cafe I’ve been eating at since I left the city for good in 1986, The Queen Mother Cafe. I love its booths, its oddly Asian menu and ohhhh, the cakes!
One afternoon I headed out, looking forward to trying a new-to-me restaurant — only to find it empty and closed. So much for novelty! That’s the challenge of a city with rapidly-accelerating property values and rents. Your beloved whatever may well be gone the next time you visit a favorite city or town.
In daily life, it’s a challenge to keep mixing it up, balancing a thirst for the new with the stability of reliably knowing that some things won’t change, at least for a while.
Between birth and age 30 I changed cities four times, countries four times. I’d attended five schools. I’d lived in 13 different homes, from apartments in Cuernavaca and Montreal to a student dorm in Paris to a stone cottage in Scotland; (this doesn’t include five years in a Toronto boarding school and nine summers spent at four Ontario summer camps.)
I’ve now stayed in the same one bedroom apartment since moving to the U.S. in 1989.
The thought of packing/sorting/moving/adapting again? Brrrrrr!
I was burned out from moving too often too quickly; between 1982 and 1989 I’d moved Toronto-Paris-Toronto-Montreal-NH-NY. I was fried. I wanted roots. I wanted to find and nurture new professional and personal relationships, which I have.
I’m still using the same doctors, hair salon, library since I arrived and am 17 years into my (happier!) second marriage.
But these days, finally, I’m feeling a bit restless and so I’m actively seeking out some novel experiences.
A favorite Toronto store. I always visit and always find something fun to buy
This week, (however small it may seem), I’m reading a collection, a best-of 2015’s science fiction and fantasy. Loving it! As someone whose normal media diet is news and non-fiction, reading in this genre is a stretch for me but one that’s really proven pleasurable.
I’m now absorbing less news, unusual for me.
I may (gulp) sign up for a decorative arts course in London this summer, as I’ll be there anyway. It’s not cheap, but it’s focused on two of my passions, combined — antique textiles and Asian art.
True growth and success is always sustainable. It’s not a short sprint with an inevitable physical, mental, and emotional crash. All goals are means, not ends. Each succeeding stage of your progression should clearly build one-upon-another, leaving you stronger and more able, not weaker and permanently damaged.
In order to do this, you must properly “recover” from the following things on a daily basis:
This is so damn smart!
This is so utterly counter-cultural.
I make it a point to recover from all six of these, as a matter of course and of self-care and self-preservation.
For numbers 1 through 3, I’m fortunate enough to be self-employed, so setting boundaries, and keeping them, doesn’t mean potentially threatening my livelihood.
For Number four, I eat 750 calories two days a week.
For fitness, I work out/exercise 3-4 days a week, sometimes (sigh) only twice.
Working from home, I nap as needed, sometimes as little as 15 to 20 minutes, sometimes 90 minutes; without dependents, not difficult.
Living in the United States these days, and I live/work near New York City in a thrashing/disrupted industry (journalism), means waking up every single morning in something of a panic.
Not helped by the daily chaos of Trump.
Whose civil rights will disappear tomorrow?
Which new executive order will require more calls and emails to elected representatives or another street protest?
Should we move back to Canada? When? Where?
If I stay — or if we go — would we be able to find work?
Call it self-care, sure, or call it life, but a soul is a thing that requires tending. The soul is not quite interchangeable with “heart” or “mind,” or any other word we mean to denote only the “spiritual” part of a person. In the words of the philosopher Dallas Willard, the soul is the entire inner person, not detached from bodily life but inclusive of it, as well as heart and mind, thought and motivation, feeling and judgment. An untended soul drifts toward inertia.
But what does my soul benefit from being “productive”? Am I any number of inches closer to God because I wrote an essay that was praised by someone I desperately wanted to impress? What is the moral imperative to produce?
These questions are all tricks to say that I have no idea what the answer is. I know that when I am anxious, I often think I can produce my way out of it. I have an uneasy relationship with productivity, thinking my anxiety will be placated if I just do enough big things.
Every day, I see talented, experienced friends losing well-paid jobs in our field, with no certainty of being able to replace them. One pal needed almost an entire year to find his new job, yet another insecure contract position.
We also live in a time and age relentlessly demanding increased productivity.
We’re exhorted constantly to domorebetterfaster!
Not to think.
Not to reflect.
Not to sit still, alone, in silence.
Not to take good, slow, thoughtful care of our most valuable resource, our health.
And yet, and yet, we’re each of us simply human, de facto limited in some way, whether by lack of time, impaired physical stamina, weakened emotional energy or by restricted access to social capital or financing.
We’re not robots.
We’re not machines, no matter what laissez-faire capitalism (and stagnant wages) relentlessly demand.
We’re all running too hard, too fast.
As a result, many of us vibrate with anxiety, shoving sweets and fats and pills and liquor down our throats in an attempt to satiate much deeper, more painful sadness and anxiety, whether personal, political or professional.
Sometimes (sigh) all three.
It’s a very wise choice to pay attention, to read the signals, to try our best to stay safe and to protect the rights and needs of others.
But not 24/7.
Here’s a 14-minute story (from one of the best shows I listen to on NPR, the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC), about how stressed many Americans are feeling since the election of Trump.
Grand Central Terminal; the view from Cipriani. What’s not to love?
Sitting at the bar is where I’ve had some of my best conversations — in Corsica, in Atlanta, in San Francisco and last Friday evening in New York City.
It was about 6:30.
Commuters were rushing to their trains north, to Connecticut and to Westchester, tourists, as always, posing on the steps and slowing rushed New Yorkers down as they raced for the 6:47 or whichever train was next.
Never get in the way of a New Yorker in a hurry!
I settled in at Cipriani , an elegant Italian restaurant in a balcony overlooking the station. I had a magazine and a Mr. C, a citrus-based cocktail. The bartender kindly plugged in my cellphone to charge it.
A handsome young man in a navy suit and white shirt, no tie, slid onto the stool to my left; a slightly older man with a head of wild black hair and oversized sunglasses sat to my right.
“How’s your week been?” I asked the man to my left.
He told me he’d just gotten a new job, and we toasted, clinking our cocktail glasses.
He seemed surprised I was happy to toast a stranger’s success. Why not? Who would be too churlish to deny him that pleasure?
It’s a big deal to flee a job that’s a poor fit for one you hope will be a much better one. Been there, done that.
That’s the beauty, I suppose, of being near the tail end of a long career. For someone only a decade in, every decision can still feel problematic because you’ve yet to make that many of them.
An investment banker, he admitted he didn’t much like the field, but — probably like many people, especially those unhappy at work — he had pretty much fallen into it. If you know anything about I-banking, the income is certainly seductive, but golden handcuffs are still handcuffs.
I urged him to start creating an exit strategy. Life is far too short to stay in a field or industry you really don’t enjoy, I said.
He looked surprised by my vehemence, and my insistence one could actually enjoy one’s work life.
We ended up talking for about an hour, sharing stories of family and work, of dating woes and East Coast snobberies, and the classic diss we’d both experienced: “Where’d you go to school?”, a tedious sorting mechanism. (The only correct answer being the coy, “In New Haven” (Yale) or “Providence” (Brown University) or another of the Ivy League.)
“I’m strapping, right?” he asked me, at one point. He was, actually.
It was a bit awkward to be asked, even though the answer was affirmative.
He was a little drunk.
It made me a little sad.
He was single, and just under half my age, a fact he finally realized but managed to handle with grace.
We had a good conversation with lots of laughter, a few of of life’s more painful challenges and a few high fives.
I like how the right bar and a drink or two can connect two strangers companionably for a while.
It was a cold, gray, rainy morning and the small Tarrytown, NY church — where author Washington Irving once worshipped — was filling up.
The long, dark wooden pews held friends, colleagues, cousins, a brother.
Several neighbors from her apartment building, including me, joined them.
So did one of her physicians, who would speak about her with respect and affection.
Attending a memorial service is — to put it bluntly — rarely fun.
It’s a spine-stiffening reminder of our mortality, no matter our age or health.
But someone has died and we’re there to honor them and their life, no matter how tenuous the thread of connection. To hold up, sometimes literally, their grieving friends and family, to show them that they, too, are loved and valued by a larger community.
It’s the right thing to do.
And, if you deeply knew and loved the person, it’s heartbreaking; even the female minister conducting the service warned us it would be difficult for her as she was a close friend of our neighbor.
One of my favorite writers, Susie Boyt, recently ended her 13-year column in the Financial Times; a great-grand-daughter of Freud, she is so deliciously un-British, all feelings and emotion, a huge breath of fresh air in those po-faced orange pages filled with PLU (people like us), and I will miss her!
She writes, in her farewell column:
I think that celebrating and mourning should be practiced in equal measure, sometimes at the same time.
I also loved this, from her:
You must try to prepare and be ready for the moment that you’re needed for the call could come at any time.
We now live in increasingly connected but disconnected times.
We check our phones constantly for some amusing text or parade of emojis.
We hang out on Facebook, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, “liking” and “friending” — but rarely sitting with someone who is in pain, scared and dying.
That’s the tough part. Showing up.
More than ever, now, we need to show up in one another’s lives: when someone is ill, or injured, or their parents are dying or your favorite teacher or professor is retiring.
Not every event is sad, of course, but we need to be present, to witness, to celebrate and to console.
I’m at an age now (sigh) where funerals and memorials — for friends, for parents, for neighbors — are more prevalent than graduations, weddings and christenings, all events filled with flowers and joy, hope and anticipation.
And few moments are more sobering and searing than a virtually unattended funeral or memorial service.
I’ve been to one of those.
I’ve been to one that was standing room only, for former New York Times photographer (and someone whose life you might know from the film The Killing Fields), Dith Pran.
I’m especially sensitive to unattended milestones; neither parent attended my college graduation. My mother wasn’t there for my second wedding and neither were my husband’s two sisters or their partners. That hurt, a lot.
So I try, (grateful for the freedom as a self-employed person to be able to do so), to attend memorials and funerals for the people I know, even someone like our neighbor A., a single woman, never married, who was ferociously private.
We never socialized and rarely spoke.
St. Marks in the Bowery, one of Manhattan’s oldest churches
But at her memorial service I learned a great deal about her, and how very deeply her life, and her enthusiasms, had touched so many others.
Until or unless you’re in the room for these intimate, once-in-a-lifetime events, you’re missing a great deal.
We’re all a thread — as one late beau, cut down too soon by cancer, used to joke — in life’s rich tapestry.
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
As some of you know, the industry of journalism is in deep, widespread and massive disruption; The New York Times is about to get rid of 200 more of its staff and is making other significant internal changes to cut costs and boost revenue. I write freelance for the Times, producing three stories in 2016 for them, one on turbulence, one on a Broadway stagehand and one on real estate, which I’m researching this week.
But the life of a freelance writer is now, more than ever, like that of a polar bear on a small, melting ice floe. One of the most successful freelance writers I know sends out 10 to 25 marketing pieces every single week. Out of sight means out of mind — and broke.
Most of my colleagues are either clinging to staff jobs, working now in public relations, teaching or producing “branded content”, i.e. writing copy for corporate clients.
Here’s some of what this year brought:
Working on two book ideas, both non-fiction
People think. “How hard can it be? Look at all the books in bookstores.” Yeah, well…It really depends on a variety of issues. How much money do you want or need to earn from researching, writing and revising a book? (It can take years.) How large a potential audience can you offer a publisher? How timely is your idea? How well-covered is the subject? What credentials have you already established?
Realizing how essential a strong network is
Two of my very best gigs came from people I know through an blogging project we all worked in in 2009. I haven’t even met one of them, although we’ve also both freelanced for the Times as business writers. Both contacted me with lucrative, ongoing work, and I’m so glad they did! Both know the quality of my work and chose to offer opportunities to me, not to any one of the 100’s, let alone 1000’s, of my competitors.
Some very slow and frightening months
That’s unusual for me, and was crazy stressful, as our monthly health insurance costs are now an insane $1,800. Our fixed costs don’t suddenly shrink or disappear if I or Jose are having a slow month, or few months. Thankfully, my husband, also now full-time freelance after 31 years at the Times, has three steady anchor clients.
A stiffer spine
As I mentioned here in an earlier post on fleeing toxicity, I finally dropped an ongoing project that was making me really unhappy. I usually find it difficult to quit working on something I’ve committed to but this one, from the very start, was far too much work for far too little income. The way I was spoken to, consistently, felt rude and dismissive, on top of that. And (of course!), days after I finally said “enough!”, several much better-paid projects showed up to replace that lost income.
Loving being a generalist
I’m really proud of writing for the Times, (100+ stories since 1990), but also for three different sections this year on three utterly different topics, all of which I pitched. Most freelancers (and, yes, this costs me lost income), specialize narrowly on medicine or parenting or personal finance. I have so many interests and experiences, I’m much happier roaming around intellectually. As long as I can find a decent price for my idea, I’m cool with that.
Part of The library of Congress — spectacular!
Tossing my hat into competitive rings
I won a fellowship in June in D.C. to study retirement and its various challenges. That gave me three intense days listening to 19 speakers, introduced me to more smart writers in the group, (one of whom became a very good friend) and allowed me a brief vacation. I later applied for another fellowship, on the same subject, that would allow me the income and time to do a deep dive into a specific aspect of the issue.
Meeting a few editors face to face.
They’re sort of like unicorns now, out there somewhere but elusive. I met with several, including one at National Geographic Traveler and one from Elle. Neither has resulted in an assignment, but it was a thrill anyway.
Today being “a writer” means a lot more than writing, at least if you hope to earn a living doing it. It means being flexible, learning new skills, constantly marketing yourself, paying attention to industry shifts, happening daily.
Knowing, more than ever, how much real journalism — fact-based, deeply reported on firsthand knowledge — matters now
Stop consuming fake news! It is a disgusting disaster, enriching liars and cheats.
Read this great piece about why copy editing matters so much, still. It’s true. When “the desk” has a question, your heart stops.
Here’s to a great writing year for those of you who do it as well!
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.