Not being a beach person, I don’t spend the year eagerly awaiting summer, as many of our friends do.
And this summer has felt like a series of waves smashing us both in the face:
— Husband now using insulin and adjusting to all that it entails
— My breast cancer diagnosis right around my June 6 birthday
— The ensuing tests, procedures and appointments that have consumed precious days of lost work/income since my husband and I are both wholly freelance, with no paid time off that we don’t fund ourselves. (Thank God for savings.)
— Multiple $100 co-pays to have some of these tests and procedures.
— An infection in my breast, six weeks post-op. Extremely painful, but resolved. Breasts are such sensitive things!
— Two friends widowed the same week, a friend’s young adult daughter dying and the sudden and shocking death of a former colleague and friend.
— Far too many days shuttered indoors with AC blasting, curtains drawn, escaping 90+ degree heat
— Far too many days with torrential rain
OK, what’s been good?!
— Meeting a new Canadian-in-the-States friend, a fellow writer living in Oakland, CA and his husband who came to NYC and joined us for dinner.
— The thoughtful gift of a classic Hermes silk scarf from a friend; it belonged to her mother, who died last year and was a dear friend of ours.
— So many loving cards, emails, flowers and phone calls from friends worldwide as I adjust to a new reality.
–— Blowing insane money on a designer handbag, (on sale, dammit!) after my diagnosis
— Jose made us gorgeous new wooden planters and the brilliant orange marigolds and fragrant lavender have been amazing. I love watching bees dive into the salvia each morning.
— Discovering how multi-talented my friends are, both journalists like me, one of whom made us home-made soap, the other really delicious home-made bread. I love all things artisanal and am in awe of such colonial skill.
— Snagging a potentially very good new freelance opportunity after seeing an editor participating in a Twitter chat. We met in NYC for lemonade and hit it off.
Forget (!) the U.S. election and how weary some now are of constant comment, opinion, raging, crying, etc.
Some families are withdrawing from one another over the holidays to avoid (further) estrangement.
The next six weeks also mean a lot of rushing around, to parties, (for work, for fun, with family), to buy gifts, to attend professional events.
Maybe, on top of all that, you’re looking for work or a new job, or coping with illness or injury.
This time of year can also mean new, fresh heartache; we have friends who recently lost both parents (to a drunk driver); a friend whose husband died this summer; a friend whose husband of many decades died a month ago…each of them facing their first Christmas and New Years as an orphan, a widower and a widow.
Taking consistent care of ourselves is crucial to our ability to help nourish and sustain others, whether children, parents, friends, spouses, neighbors.
A few ways to nurture yourself:
Keep fresh flowers or plants in your home
As I’ve written here many times, especially as the trees lose their leaves and color here, every week I buy fresh flowers and keep our houseplants thriving. Even $15 worth of grocery store mums can fill multiple vases and jugs around our apartment.
Flowers are everywhere in our home: bedside, bathroom, dining table, side tables. I recently splurged $27 for three plants at a local nursery, including a pale purple cyclamen and a deep purple African violet.
We live, most of us, in such a noisy world! Traffic, airplanes overhead, other people’s music and conversations, our children, our pets.
Silence is deeply restorative. Find a place, at home or out in nature, to be alone, silent and still every day.
Talking to, hanging out with, patting your cat/dog/guinea pig.
Since the election, I’m sleeping 9 to 9.5 hours every night, an escape from fear and stress. Self-employment from home allows me to nap as needed. Few escapes are as consistently accessible, free and comforting as a nap or a refreshing night’s sleep.
Meditation or prayer
Making time to intentionally focus on your spiritual health is sustaining. A friend living in another state recently started an on-line group of us to meet for meditation together. It sounds odd, but we were all grateful she thought of it.
Face to face or on the phone or using FaceTime or Skype only. We really need to see our dearest friends’ faces and hear their laughter (or sighs). None of this online silliness! Get a hug. Give a hug. (In times of stress, ditch/avoid faux friends and competitive types, emotional vampires and frenemies. You need backup!)
Especially with those you’ve known for decades, reminisce about all the great times you’ve had together — and plot some adventures for 2017 to look forward to.
I keep a scented candle on my bedside table and it’s a soothing, calming final sight before I blow it out at night. It creates a ritual. We also light candles every evening when we eat dinner together ,(no TV blaring, no phones) and that, too, is a ritual that gently slows us down and moves into the evening.
I step onto a cozy bedside sheepskin rug every morning and treasure our woolen throws and blankets to nap under. Whether you wear a silk scarf or a cashmere muffler, or snuggly socks or slippers, keep your body as coddled and comfortable as you can.
We have a large collection of art, design and decorative arts books (all of which can be borrowed from your local library.) Few things are as pleasant as leafing through inspiring bits of beauty. Thanks to the Internet, virtually every museum in the world is now available for browsing.
Even better, get out to a museum or art gallery, sit on a bench and really, really savor a few pieces — sculpture, paintings, pastels, a mask or chariot — slowly and carefully.
Get out there! No matter the weather, fresh air and light are a great way to detach from grim thoughts, social media and yet another bloody screen.
Avoid all social media
This is one of my favorites, whether listening to the Sixth Brandenburg Concerto or Erik Satie or the Stones or…Crank up the stereo and sing along as loudly as you dare.
If you’re a musician, what a great way to lose yourself! I so envy — and have been fortunate enough to know several talented amateur musicians — those who can just pick up a flute or violin or harmonica or guitar and delight themselves. (I need to get my guitar out of the basement and start building up my calluses again.)
Attending a concert is a great way to destress. Jose and I recently attended an evening choral performance, all in Finnish, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in upper Manhattan. It was sublime! The echoes!
Play a game
Anything! Gin rummy, Scrabble, Bananagrams, cribbage, bridge, mah jongg. Do a jigsaw puzzle. Borrow your kids’ or grandkids’ Legos and have at it.
Yay, endorphins. This has been my preferred method of stress management for decades, whether dance class, spin class, a long walk or playing softball. Especially this time of year, as we all start eating and drinking too much, burning off some of those calories will help.
Some people hate being touched by strangers. But for some of us, a massage and/or manicure and/or pedicure and/or facial (yes, costly!) can be a great stress-buster. We’re lucky enough to live next door to a very good hotel spa, so I have incentive to work and and save hard for another visit.
Only if you enjoy it! Creating something delicious is both focusing and distracting — a stack of muffins, a savory soup or stew, a pile of roast vegetables fills your home with great smells and gives you instant, possibly healthy, gratification.
In other words, do you shatter like a cookie/biscuit into helpless crumbs?
Or, like a teabag, as hot water surrounds you, gain strength?
It’s not a question I ask lightly, but one that seems to separate those able to find life pleasurable — even as it’s filled with inevitable stresses: illness, the death of loved ones, divorce, miscarriage, job loss/search, un/underemployment — and those who choose to sit in a corner, wailing in the fetal position.
I’m aware I may here sound heartless, lacking compassion or understanding.
It’s not for lack of facing a pile o’ stuff in my own life, starting before my teens, that included parental mental illness and alcoholism, abandonment, an often cruel and competitive step-mother, blablablabla.
I’ve been the victim of four acts of criminal behavior. Had four orthopedic surgeries since the year 2000.
I didn’t love getting fired from several jobs and surviving three recessions in 25 years after leaving Canada for the gilded streets of New York.
But I’ve reached the limits of my tolerance for whining, moaning, hand-wringing and helplessness.
If you’re addicted and/or mentally ill and/or barely surviving on poverty wages and/or suffering chronic illness….life can be hard as hell! Anyone facing a serious illness also faces multiple issues at once, and just getting through a day can be an ordeal.
But if you’re blessed with health, strength, saleable skills, (even if they don’t always add up to a well-paid or secure job, the Holy Grail of a crap economy), let alone a family who supports you financially, emotionally or intellectually, do you step up and do whatever’s necessary to improve your situation?
I do support public policies that help — unemployment insurance, disability pay, and more — and the taxes that pay for them; good people do land in terrible straits.
I recently joined an on-line women’s group that I celebrated here a few weeks ago as a pillar of on-line community. Most of the women in it are in their 20s, 30s and 40s, all decades now behind me. I was excited to find a group filled with fun and interesting people.
It has evolved into something else, a minefield of hurt feelings and expected apologies. Plus, the draaaaaaama! The angst! The unhappiness!
So, whether it’s an issue of age and experience, or personality, or my putative white/middle-class/heterosexual privilege, I just don’t have time.
How much patience do you have for others’ dramas — or your own?
For the umpteenth time, my life felt like I was wrestling a large, wet, thrashing and dangerous creature — a crocodile, as it were — that was the drama du jour. It might have been the crappy relationship with my mother, half-brother, stepmother, an editor (or three).
It might have been a fight with my sweetie, now my husband. It might have been my own insecurity or fear over my weight or my work or my income.
The more I wrestled with it, the more it thrashed, its scaly and powerful tail smacking me in the head, metaphorically speaking.
Hold it tighter! Make it submit! Then I had an epiphany, one that’s shaped my life ever since.
Drop the damn crocodile!
Just drop that slimy scaly sucker and walk the hell away.
Oooooh, that feels so much better.
It’s counter-intuitive for some of us to let something drop, to allow it to simply not matter anymore. We’re taught never to give up. To try our best. To work at things.
But, you know, sometimes that damn crocodile will kill you if you keep hanging onto it, its ferocious strength draining all of yours as you keep wrestling it.
Here are just a few of the crocodiles I’ve dropped in the past few years:
— obsessing about my income. And, funny thing, it’s rising, up 40 percent in 2011 over 2010. I expect 2012 to rise even further. Neurosis is rarely appealing to anyone, especially clients.
— whining about my weight. I need to lose 40+ pounds. I could go nuts or just try to do it in my own way. I’m working on it. It will take months. Whatever.
— worrying about whether or not I’ll be able to sell my next book. Probably will. If not, something else will come along.
— caring what my Dad thinks. Yes, I still do. But not nearly as much as I used to.
— keeping a spotless home. I used to waste a whole ton of productive work-time on house-cleaning. Now we have a maid coming twice a month, for a total cost of $110, which is less than my lowest hourly rate. I have more time to make more money.
— fretting over the normal costs of running my business, like my web designer and hiring paying assistants and lawyers and others for their help and expertise. Outsource! It’s all a tax deduction next year anyway.
— managing some of my business associates. Too difficult. Time to move on.
— trying to please my mother.Impossible. We no longer have any relationship at all. Sad to say, I have never been happier.
— keeping up friendships that actually left me feeling miserable. Just because someone was once a dear friend doesn’t mean they’re going to remain one. You change, they change and habits that might once have seemed normal can become unworkable. If you’ve tried to resolve them and it’s just not going to happen, time to drop that croc.
— getting my hip replaced. Two years of increasing pain, exhaustion, depression and frustration are gone since I had a new hip implanted in February 2012. I was terrified of the surgery and a poor result. I have my life back! I’m happy and strong once more.
No matter how much we look forward to visiting our distant family members, (and many of us do), there’s often a whole pile ‘o unexploded ordnance lying beneath that linen-covered holiday table: resentment, envy, insecurity, fear, doubt.
No matter how much we’d love to ignore them, they often blow up when you least expect them, or want them to. Here are some of the old standbys:
When are you getting married?
You still don’t have a boyfriend/girlfriend?
How’s that “freelancing” thing working out for you?
We had such a great time in Paris — how was your summer?
You’re still ABD?
Billy just got a promotion, and a bonus. Did you find a job yet?
It’s so great they’re making plus-size clothes in such pretty colors these days. Love your dress!
Having just survived the latest “helpful” advice from one family member — which left us both shouting in rage (nice) — I know all too well the joys of spending time with relatives who have firm and fixed ideas about how much more effectively or wisely one might behave.
It takes a soul of steel, (not to mention duct tape), to not let old patterns re-emerge, snitty comments get under your skin or ancient feuds simmer to a boil with the addition of alcohol, overeating and too much time in a small space with people you never got along with in the first place, shared genes be damned.
Right now, my mother isn’t speaking to me (I’m her only child); my half-brother insists it’s him or me at Christmas and none of my husband’s relatives (all two of them) could bother attending our recent wedding.
What are you most looking forward to when you gather for Thanksgiving?
Do you ever find yourself feeling like your life has turned into a crocodile — large, wet, scaly, heavy, unwieldy?
Thrashing wildly in your arms and trying to snap your hands off?
Time to drop that sucker, stat!
Right now, here’s what’s happening in my life, all at the same time:
My new book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” (Portfolio) comes out April 14, and I have hired two fantastic assistants, paid from my own pockets, to help me promote it. That means: setting up events and readings, finding people to blog and review and write about it, finding places to promote it on-line, setting up a book tour, etc.
My mom is in the hospital in another country, a six-hour flight away, facing surgery then moving into a nursing home. That means, as her only child with a shared power of attorney with another woman, finding buyers for, and selling: her car, home, contents and finding a nursing home. And managing all her affairs.
My right hand has two weird things happening at once, including a finger that clicks internally and needs to be seen by a doctor and I am sick to death of doctors.
My left eye has finally stopped looking like Frankenstein, bloodshot for a week, quite likely (you think?) from stress. The doctor warned me that until the stress has subsided, it could happen again.
My left hip, which has dead bone in it, makes walking difficult and painful. Now that New York, where I live, is covered in ice and snow, I walk like a Japanese lady in a very tight kimono, praying I don’t slip, fall or shatter that dead bone, forcing me into immediate hip replacement surgery and an eight-week recovery.
I was threatened by a fellow blogger who said he wanted to “beat me bloody” . I don’t laugh such threats off, and called the police, who investigated him, even though he lives in Florida and I in New York. FYI, making such threats is a Class B misdemeanor and carries jail time.
It’s been fun!
But the point is….how to cope?
Drop the bloody crocodile!
By which I mean, and here is the real silver living in it all, it all teaches you to take a break from whatever stress you can. Heave it, like that nasty croc, as far away from you for as long as possible.
Because it will kill you.
I met a woman yesterday to talk business. She’s lovely and passionate and very beautiful, but has already had one heart attack from stress and, after we met, I can see the next one lurking. She is driving herself at industrial speed. She sleeps very little.
So here’s what I’ve been doing to de-stress, and all of it works really well:
Long lunches with very good friends
Long phone chats with very good friends
Sweating it out at the gym and dance class
Sleeping as much as my body tells me to, if that’s 15 hours in one night, so be it
Taking naps during the day, if necessary
Drinking a lot of water and fresh juice and being careful about caffeine and liquor consumption
Reading some terrific books (Keith Richard’s “Life” is one)