I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath Scared to rock the boat and make a mess So I sat quietly, agreed politely I guess that I forgot I had a choice I let you push me past the breaking point I stood for nothing, so I fell for everything
You held me down, but I got up (hey!) Already brushing off the dust You hear my voice, your hear that sound Like thunder, gonna shake your ground You held me down, but I got up Get ready ’cause I’ve had enough I see it all, I see it now
— “Roar”, Katy Perry
If 2017 taught women anything, it was this…
It’s time to assert ourselves and stop deferring to the toxic bullying and sexual harassment of sooooooo many men.
But it’s also an ongoing personal/individual challenge and one that never gets easier, no matter how loudly we roar — I still remember Helen Reddy’s second-wave feminism anthem, “I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore”…
That was in 1971.
The sad truth is, when women roar — even whimper — we’re too often dismissed, laughed at, overlooked, ignored.
By women and men alike, people who cling to power and are scared to lose it.
We’re told to “pipe down”.
That we’re “over-reacting.”
It’s also deeply cultural, how at ease we feel (or not) asserting ourselves and our needs — whether the honeyed silk-sheathed steel of “Bless your heart” from a Southern American woman to the “Fuck you!” of a ballsy New Yorker. (Neither one of which might win us what we want, by the way.)
I was struck by a friend’s experience boarding a plane to claim the seat for which she’d paid extra — to be confronted by some guy traveling with his large family who preferred (!) to take her seat so they could all sit together.
My friend chose to defer, and it was interesting to see how differently her friends reacted. Some of us would have told the guy “Not a chance. Move!” and others would have “kept the peace” by allowing him to usurp her spot.
Because when women don’t defer, it can get ugly, even violent.
So we often opt to defer, not because we want to or because we agree with you or because we think it smart or powerful — but because we’re scared of what will happen if we don’t.
It’s a perpetual and not-fun seesaw of being polite (or a doormat?), or being assertive (or perceived as a bitch?) and one that is never going to be perceived the same way by the next person we encounter. That alone makes for exhausting calculations.
I grew up in a family where my deference — like yours, possibly — was expected, taken for granted. I remember little to no negotiation, so I learned that many of my needs were less than.
That’s a deeply female experience.
And yet I was taught, outside the family, to boldly assert myself intellectually and athletically — like a man, really.
Being Canadian by birth and upbringing confuses this further for me, as it’s a culture more attuned to the collective good than the individual-focused U.S., and certainly elbows-out New York City.
How about you?
How do you balance being assertive and deferential?
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.
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.
This is one of my favorite bloggers, Chelsea Fuss, a single woman who left a thriving floral design business in Portland, Oregon and who is now living in Lisbon.
Her blog, frolic, is a consistent joy: frank, lovely, wise.
Where in the world will you go? What if it doesn’t work out? What if it does?!
Some of her thoughts on the challenges of changing your life, big-time, (of which there are five in her post):
1. Nothing is perfect. Often, when I engage in these sorts of conversations, people are looking for a magical answer, a perfect life. Nothing is perfect. As my brother likes to remind me, everything in life is a trade off. Whatever new life you are able to acquire, one thing is for sure, you will have a new set of challenges. Weigh the positives and negatives and be honest with yourself about what your priorities are and what you are willing to sacrifice to make your dreams real. For example, when I left my home base in Portland, I was giving up a creative community, a great location for operating my business, all of my current and potential clients, most of my business and the ambitions and goals I had for it, everything I owned! The list goes on! Some people might say, “You traded all that and more to work as a glorified slave?” It’s all in how you look at it. At the time, my priority was to get my hands in the earth, apprentice on organic farms (I volunteered on farms in exchange for room and board, cutting out the rent factor), see more of the world, meet new people, and mix things up a bit to see what happened. I actually had no end goal in sight. I ended up staying in Europe and moving to Lisbon. I got a whole new life, and a whole new set of problems, with my new-found-life and accomplished dreams.
I’ve cast off my former life a few times and…it’s terrifying!
OK, it was for me.
The first time, I was 25, and won an eight-month fellowship to Paris (!) to study, travel and work in a group of 28 journalists from 19 countries, ages 25 to 35. I ditched a live-in boyfriend (willingly), my dog (sob), friends, family and a thriving freelance writing career I was sick to death of.
I was stuck in a cosy cocoon, but desperate for some wings.
It certainly gave me that!
I’d left my parents’ home at 19, and there I was, living for the first time in a college dorm room (tiny!) with bathrooms down the hall and a hyper-vigilant staff who grilled me when they thought I had “un clandestin” (i.e. a man) in my room.
I traveled alone (on reporting trips) to Sicily, Denmark and Amsterdam and spent eight days in a truck with a French driver going from Perpignan to Istanbul, still one of the best adventures of my life.
I’m still good friends with some of the people from our fellowship.
I did it again when I left my hometown of Toronto for a job in Montreal, where I’d once more be working en francais.
I loved my enormous top-floor apartment and quickly made new friends and met my first husband.
But the city was a poor fit for me, as was the newspaper I went to work for. Montreal, a charming place to visit, offered a brutally cold, snowy and interminable winter; very high taxes; limited professional opportunities, terrible public services and a much higher crime rate than Toronto.
I was gone within two years.
Off to a small town in New Hampshire to follow my first husband’s medical training there — but I had no job, no friends or family, and it was long before the Internet and its easy social and professional connections.
Then, two years after that, we moved to a town in the suburbs of New York City, just in time for a recession. Again, with no job, no family or friends and no alumni networks to lean on.
I had never lived in a small town before New Hampshire.
I had never lived in the suburbs before New York.
You can make a huge change.
Chelsea did. I did.
I know many people who have.
It takes guts, self-confidence, resilience.
Savings and good job skills are essential.
It may not work out at all as you’d hoped or planned; my first husband walked out the door (literally) barely two years after our wedding and promptly married a woman he worked with. That was very definitely not in my plans.
But here I am today, with a home, a town and a second husband that all make me happy that I made the move — and that I toughed it out.
Grand Central Station, NYC. One of my favorite things about living here.
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.
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