The value of staring into stars/fire/backlit leaves

By Caitlin Kelly

Comparison showing the effects of light pollut...
Comparison showing the effects of light pollution on viewing the sky at night. The southern sky, featuring Sagittarius and Scorpius. Top – Leamington, UT, pop. 217 Bottom – Orem, UT, in a metropolitan area of ~400,000 I’ve attempted to match sky brightness to how it appeared to my eyes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love you guys. Really.

But two entire days far away from email and computer is a blessed and necessary break for my hands, eyes and brain.

To spend it, as we did last weekend at a friend’s cabin in the Catskills, right beside a rushing stream lulling us to sleep — bliss!

I was very lucky to grow up with parents who loved the outdoors and took long country walks. I also spent every summer, ages 8 to 17, at a summer camp in northern Ontario, surrounded by silence and birch trees, whispering pines and weathered granite.

We canoed across deep lakes, and the sunlight refracted in the tiny whirlpool of our every paddle stroke created a star sapphire in those ancient waters.

A stand of birch trees.
A stand of birch trees. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Loons called.

For a while, my father had a 200+ year old house in the Irish countryside, complete with a wide, cold stream thick with watercress we could pick and make into salad. We stood in Galway Bay, plucking fresh mussels, and went home and made soup.

I love re-connecting with nature and after too much time indoors by artificial light touching plastic, I miss it terribly.

After a week of so much computer time my eyes were sore and watery, I really needed to look at leaves and stars and stone.

So the weekend was perfect.

Lying, snoozing, in a wide hammock strung between two towering trees, dappled by filtered sunlight, all I could see was some bright blue sky with a fresh contrail.

Walking through the woods, I marveled at moss so thick and springy I wanted to make a bed of it and settle down for a nap. Mushrooms, of every possible variety, lay everywhere — many of them with their edges delicately nibbled by something small and hungry.

At night we light a bonfire and sat beside it, feeling small and primeval — not just weary New Yorkers, (three journalists and a spokesman for one of the area’s most-used services), usually attached to cellphones rushing to deal with the latest emergency. We stared up into the night sky and marveled at a rare sight in this light-polluted part of the world: the Milky Way.

As the fire burned out, we pushed the charred logs closer and closer, the embers winking and glowing through the darkness.

In the Catskills
In the Catskills (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do you make time to be at home in the natural world?

When and where?

The “What to wear to bed?” dilemma

Nighties
Nighties (Photo credit: Pete Lambert)

The easy answer, of course, is nothing.

After another fruitless quest in the sleepwear department, I came home with one simple black nightshirt. Black? Seems a bit sad, really.

Josie Natori, one of the country’s top sleepwear and lingerie designers, got into this business in the 1970s when she deemed sleepwear “lewd or frumpy.”

That just about sums it up — still.

Here’s what a woman gets to choose from, at least at Lord & Taylor, one of the U.S.’s better department stores:

Slut city! Gah. The whole red/black lace, spaghetti strap, this-will-slide-off-really-fast thing. This takes a level of self-confidence I never had, even many pounds and decades ago.

Daddy’s little girl. Yes, if you’re 16, or you have no desire to ever have sex with the person who sees you in it. Every nightie is floor-length, only in white, pale blue or pink. It has a little lace, or a lot of ruffles. It covers up all of you. It will keep you warm. It will not get you laid.

— Granny called and she wants her muumuu back. I miss my maternal grandmother fiercely; she died when I was 18. She was loaded and a grande dame and a lot of fun. She lived in capacious silky, colored caftans like these. (I admit, this is the style I prefer, both modest enough to wear for breakfast when visiting others and pretty enough to lounge in.) Easily enough slithered out of, too.

Just leave the Taittinger and roses by the door. These are the real deal, gorgeous gowns in silk prints by Josie Natori, (a canny former Wall Street exec who has made kajillions designing and selling really pretty underthings for women) and Donna Karan. I would have killed for the Karan silk caftan, but $300? I think not.

— Pretty young thing. I was sorely tempted by a lovely little slip by Kensie, a label aimed at 20-somethings, in an unusual cream color with a cable-knit print. It was both affordable, unusual and pretty. Maybe I’ll go back.

— Dorm special. Any combo of sweat pants and hoodie/henley. Cute at 20, giggling til 2:00 a.m. with the girls. Less so beyond.

It’s not much better for men.

I went out to buy some pajamas for my husband and found:

— Duuuuuuuuude! Floppy, baggy, saggy flannel bottoms with a plaid so huge you could read it from the moon.

– Where are my damn slippers? The final line of  “My Fair Lady” rings true when you consider the Henry Higgins-ish elegance of silk or cotton pajamas, a la Brooks Brothers. Veddy old-school, veddy debonair. Zzzzzzzzzzzz.

— Hand me my axe. The nightshirt thing. Thick flannel, manly, brawny, whatever.

So our default mode, for both of us, ends up being a T-shirt and some sort of bottom. Pretty boring but comfortable, warm and affordable. I wish I had the guts to wear some slinky little negligee but it’s just not me and never has been.

And if I can’t be comfortable in my own bed, the hell with it.

Here are 16 ggggggorgeous sets of PJs from (where else?) the October issue of Vanity Fair.

Fess up mes cher(e)s! What do you and/or your sweetie wear to bed?

Do you — or your bed-mate — love it?

Simple pleasures

English: The 1959 Williamsport Grays, an Ameri...
English: The 1959 Williamsport Grays, an American minor league baseball team. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sigh.

Vacation is over and we’re heading home to New York today. I’ve been gone from my home for an entire month, and alone for the past two weeks.

Some things I enjoyed most:

— Watching  a minor-league baseball game. My ticket was $8, for one of the best seats in the stadium.

— Attending the 9:30 a.m. service at the local Episcopal church. It was a tiny A-frame, whose screened windows faced the grass of the Champlain exhibition grounds. Seagulls squawked. A man played banjo for Amazing Grace. The peace — the part of the service when everyone greets one another — went on, charmingly, forever.

— Eating at the bar of a dive-y pub a very good cup of home-made corn chowder and a cold local ale. Watching the NBA draft and a baseball game on two TVs at the same time.

— Not turning on the television once in two weeks of house-sitting. Didn’t miss it a bit.

— Reading fiction, which I almost never do. Loved “The Art of Fielding”, a new first novel by Chad Harbach and “Cannery Row”, the 1945 classic by John Steinbeck. Harbach’s book has sold 250,000 copies and he was paid $650,000 for it, after a decade working on it in broke obscurity. I really liked his book, despite the hype.

— Canoeing.

— A phenomenal blood orange martini and salmon with chive risotto on a splurge night.

— Washing my car with a hose in the driveway, (forbidden at our co-op.)

— Watching two hot-air balloons soaring over my head at dusk, the roaring of the gas flames audible and mysterious. Even the little dog was impressed.

— Meeting someone at a party on a farm in Vermont whose grandparents came from the same small tiny Breton town, Concarneau, where my mentor is buried.

— Having a small, playful, cuddly dog to accompany me on road trips, to hog the bed at night and whose silky ears I will miss terribly. On the car trip home from Montpelier, in the dark, she laid her head on my shoulder.

— Lying in the sunshine reading.

— Naps.

— My first few Zumba classes. Ouch! Now I get why people so enjoy it. Planning to continue them at home.

— Playing endless games of Scrabble on the Ipad.

— Missing the hell out of my husband, with three weeks apart to remember all the things I love and none of the stuff that annoys me.

— Driving up to the ice-cream stand for a huge cup of very good ice cream, for $2.60.

— The Friday farmer’s market, with wood-oven-fired pizza, luscious tomatoes, crusty baguettes and live music.

— The astonishing mist and cloud over the green hills as I drove southeast through rain to an outdoor party.

— Meeting new people who were welcoming and kind and offered amazing barbecue ribs at that party.

— Scoring some great, cheap-o antique finds, like four silver-plate knives for $7 and a lovely transferware cup for $10.

— Snagging some CDs, including the new Patti Smith.

— Introducing myself to local indie book-sellers and asking if they’d stock my book.

— Seeing the Camel’s Hump, a 4,800-foot high mountain southeast of where I stayed, in all sorts of light and weather conditions.

— The river at the end of our street. When I went to its edge, I found a tarp/tent and a very deep large hole dug at the edge of a cornfield. Shriek. Fled…quickly.

— Taking lots of cellphone photos for future visual reference, mostly of anything with patina.

— Going dancing with Jose, shaking my tail feather for 90 minutes, with kids half our age coming up to say “You’re a terrific dancer!” That new left hip works just fine.

I love glam trips to Paris and London, but the past month, doing the rural/small town thing, has been a wonderful and relaxing change. I’ve really enjoyed it.

What are some of the simple pleasures you’ve been enjoying lately?

Got Time To Read This? Two Meditations On How We (Should) Use Our Hours

New P icon.
Image via Wikipedia

My favorite weekly read is the weekend FT, and its columnists. One, a 48-year-old executive named Mrs. Moneypenny, bristling with an MBA and Phd, a woman who refers to her three children in print as Cost Centres #1, #2 and #3, says every hour of her business time — and is there any other for the high-flying exec? — is worth 3,000 pounds — about $4,440. She dares not waste a minute and never takes vacation.

But a recent 360 review by her staff suggests she should “waste” some time posthaste:

The general consensus is that the pace at which I work and the number of things I take on alarms my colleagues, who believe it has the potential to be counterproductive. Above all, they fear for my health – and that is a commonly held view, not merely one aired by two or three people. So yes, perhaps I ought to slow down a little. And to show how willing I am to change, the very same week I was presented with these comments I had lunch at the Wolseley with a former Master of the Universe.

Normally, I hate lunch appointments, believing them to be a mammoth waste of time. If you include travelling time, it is likely to take up two hours, or a £6,000 opportunity cost to my business. But this MOTU was too charming to refuse. He pointed me in the direction of John Updike’s poem “Midpoint”, written at the end of his 35th year. I only ever read fiction and poetry when I’m on holiday – doing so at any other time is an extravagance (especially at £3,000 an hour). But after an hour with this guy, I would have tackled Plato in the original had he suggested it. The final lines of the poem read: “Born laughing, I’ve believed in the Absurd, / Which brought me this far; henceforth, if I can, / I must impersonate a serious man.”

I am 48, not 35, and maybe it is time to start being serious.

Laura Vanderkam, another driven urban woman — mother of two small children, sings in a choir, attends church, runs every day — has written a new book called 168 Hours, the number of hours every fresh week offers us, if we would just stop wasting it.

I have mixed feelings about this notion of “wasted” time. I love the Italian phrase farniente –– literally — “do nothing” and aspire to a life with far more undirected time. I also love the British expression for day-dreaming — wool-gathering. We all need time to fantasize and imagine, to stare into the sky and let our weary, overcaffeinated brains….chill.

Last week, the sweetie and I took a vacation and drove to Quebec where we stay at a lovely, small, quiet lakeside hotel. Our plan of “action”? Eat, sleep, read, take photos, repeat. Plus a little antiquing — where the local shopowner remembered me from our last visit 3.5 years ago — and an hour’s canoeing.

This morning, (and it’s 9:11 as I write this on a glorious sunny June Saturday), I’ve: read 1.5 newspapers, watered the plants, made and consumed coffee and toast, blogged, washed the kitchen floor, discussed what paint we need to paint our terrace door. That’s in less than two hours. Yesterday, racing to finish my book, I worked at the computer for about 10 hours — I thought my eyeballs would melt.

I’m whipped and already ready for a nap. (And, no, I have no pets or kids, so my time is my own.)

Rest. Relax. Recharge. Restore. Revive. I think we all need more of it, and less of this boot-camp, finger-wagging instruction in efficiency. I plan to make highly efficient carefully-monitored use of my time when I am dead. I’ll have so much more of it anyway.

Do you waste time? What do you do with it? Do you think we should all be productive and organized all the time?

Workaholics Hate Vacations

So, three and a half days. That’s pretty good, right? I haven’t posted for 3.5 days. It’s not that work is so great, but money is. Generally, you don’t get the latter without the former. Et voila.

Fun piece in today’s Globe and Mail about workaholics who try (not very successfully) to go on vacation and…do nothing.

The photo with this post is me this morning at breakfast. We are at Manoir Hovey, a country house hotel on a lake that we know and love from repeated visits since we first arrived, shell-shocked and weary in November 2001 after experiencing and covering 9/11. The minute we drove over the border into rural Quebec — home! — my shoulders dropped with relief.

The sweetie is beside me on the sofa reading “In Pursuit of Silence” on his Kindle and I brought a foot-high stack of magazines and a few books, David Finkel’s “The Good Soldiers” and Michael Ondaatje’s “Divisadero”. (He is a Canadian writer, best known for “The English Patient”, although “In The Skin Of A Lion” is spectacular.)

Reading for pleasure! The sweetie and I, trying to survive in journalism, remain ambitious and driven, but I wouldn’t call us workaholics. I always “forget” my cellphone charge cord so no one can reach me. I read email but may not reply. My perfect recharge is eat/sleep/shop/repeat. We may bike or go horseback riding or swim. Or not.

He golfs, reads, stares at the sky. We both take lots of photos; I got some great snaps of the garden, dew-covered, at 7:15 yesterday morning.

Work is seductive, never more so than in a recession that appears never-ending. We need incomes! We need our bosses and clients to consider us well worth our cost to them. It makes us feel needed, charged, plugged-in, useful, valued. All good.

But not at the expense of our health. Staying narrowly focused all the time is what carriage horses do. It’s hard to see much else, or listen more broadly — even to silence — if we spend every minute attentive only to our professional status and value.

Work is a false god. Yes, we need to be really good at it and, for a select few, available 24/7 — I’m thinking Obama. But we all need to carve out and protect time, space and silence to not be indispensable, except to ourselves, our partners and kids, our spirits.

In the library here, we met a great Montreal couple our age; she’s a judge and he’s a psychologist. She plays flute and he plays drums in a band. I loved that both, in serious, demanding jobs, make sure to have a life without a check attached to it. I’ve recently, after way too much struggle whether I could afford to take three hours out of a Friday morning for class, re-discovered drawing and am loving it.

Do you take, or enjoy vacations? What do you think of workaholics?

Simple Pleasures

Fruit-bearing branches, after losing leaves in...
There for the looking...Image via Wikipedia

It’s a crazy time. If you still have a job, you’re probably working insane hours and wondering when you’ll be laid off. If you’re freelance, you may have lost more than two-thirds of your income as panicked clients cancel everything non-essential. If you’re looking for a new job, you might be ready to throw in the towel. We need simple, affordable pleasures more than ever.

This month’s Elle Decoration, the UK version (decidedly different in tone and style from the American version) offers a list of 30 simple pleasures, some well worth considering.  (There’s no on-line version, so I can’t offer you a link.) But they include: take time to print out your digital images and make an album, bake a cake from scratch, keep a soft blanket or throw on the sofa, lay a sheepskin rug by the bed for those soon-to-be-frosty winter mornings.

As we head into another week deep into this endless recession, here are some of my favorites that are, as best they can, keeping me sane and happy:

Steal 10 extra minutes to lie very still in bed before you rocket out and start your day. Stare out the window at something lovely.

Take a total techno-break one full day a week. Turn off everything that buzzes and beeps and demands your constant attention and response.

Before you go to sleep, light a candle and have it be the only illumination in your room. Staring at a small, flickering flame is deeply soothing.

Dig out your 10 favorite recipes, find a lovely, large blank notebook and copy them into it for a friend or relative, maybe a new college student learning to cook.

Spend an hour at your local garden nursery or greenhouse. Buy something small and green to bring home and nurture over the winter.

Take your camera and wander a local park for an hour. Capture, in the Northeast, what’s left of the spectacular beauty of the leaves.

Go to the library with no agenda. Browse the stacks slowly and see what looks good. Bring home no fewer than four books and three videos. Experiment — it’s free.

Come home, brew a full pot of Constant Comment tea in a china teapot, pour it into a china cup and sit alone to sip it slowly. Savor the smell and the delicious sound of tea splashing into china.

What are some of your go-to soothers?