OK, laugh…but I do, occasionally, read self-help books, especially those focused on business.
I’ve been working full-time freelance, alone at home, since 2005, and have done so several times in my career. Which means I have no boss or manager to, ideally, train and guide me, or mentor me or help me get better at what I do.
And being a freelance writer is — very rarely — about the quality of your actual writing, but about your ability to sell, close deals, hustle, to create and sustain profitable new relationships.
So I need to seek, and to find, people and ways to help me stay fresh, smart and sharp.
A classic of the business self-help genre is Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Successful People”, originally published on August 15, 1989, which I read and enjoyed.
Sharpen the Saw means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have–you. It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual. Here are some examples of activities:
Beneficial eating, exercising, and resting
Making social and meaningful connections with others
Learning, reading, writing, and teaching
Spending time in nature, expanding spiritual self through meditation, music, art, prayer, or service
As you renew yourself in each of the four areas, you create growth and change in your life. Sharpen the Saw keeps you fresh so you can continue to practice the other six habits. You increase your capacity to produce and handle the challenges around you.
Those of you who read this blog regularly know how deeply I believe in and evangelize for a life filled with joy and connection and rest, not just a hard charge from cradle to grave.
In that spirit, I’m heading to D.C. this weekend for a firehose of data on writing about retirement. I’ve been writing often for Reuters Money on a variety of personal finance topics, from taxes to how to establish a scholarship. This three-day D.C. fellowship, offered to 20 journalists from across the country, will, I hope, better prepare me to pitch and write smart, incisive stories.
While in Washington, I’m also meeting editors at two major publications and hoping for new work from each of them.
I’ll take three days to rest, recharge and enjoy the city, which I’ve visited many times; favorite spots include the Old Ebbitt Grill and the Sackler Museum, the elegant, serene Asian art wing of the Smithsonian.
I’ll get home, have a day to unpack and repack, then fly to Toronto, my hometown, to attend the wedding reception and brunch of one of my dearest and oldest friends, a woman marrying after decades of independence and financial success running her own business.
I’m super excited for her and her fiance, a distinguished author and professor, and thrilled to be there to share their joy; she spoke at my second wedding, in September 2011 in a small church on an island in the Toronto harbor.
She has known me, and nurtured me, from the very start of my journalism career, when I — a wildly ambitious writer in Toronto — apparently (!?) pestered her for free tickets to the ballet, which she represented for years as their press officer.
We quickly became good friends, and she has welcomed me into her home many, many times. I later wrote several times about the National Ballet, and had some great adventures as a result; I was honored to write an essay for their 35th anniversary souvenir program as well.
She is more family to me than anyone to whom I’m related.
It’s also been a busy spring with no out-of-state travel since early January, so I’m really ready for a break, physically, emotionally and intellectually.
A month away from home, from work, from normal life — I will very much miss Europe and my friends there.
It’s not just being away from the tedium of home life or a long break from the grinding pace of work, but savoring a culture that more deeply values the things I care most about — not money or work or power, but food, beauty, intelligence, conversation, friends and family.
I need to flee the United States a few times a year; a native Canadian who moved to the U.S. in 1989, I’m burned out on its stalled and vicious partisan politics, growing income inequality and fervent attention to pop culture.
One of the reasons I’ve stayed freelance — which costs me income but allows me time — is to take as much time off as my budget allows. The world is too large and filled with adventures for me to sit still in one place for very long; some places I’m eager to get to in the next few years include Morocco, Turkey and Greece. (I’ve been to 39 countries so far.)
Why so long a break?
We were loaned a free Paris apartment for two weeks, which made it affordable given the cost of Christmas-boosted airfares. I stayed with friends in London for the next week, so the only housing cost was $1,200 for the rental of a large studio apartment for my final 8 nights; (hotels on the same street are charging about $190/night for a small single room, about $1,400/week.)
Plus meals, shopping, trainfare to/from London, transfers, taxis/subway.
I hadn’t crossed the Atlantic in five years on my last visit to Paris where, as we did here, we had rented an apartment, also on the Ile St. Louis, the small, quiet island in the middle of the Seine, and settled in for two weeks.
My definition of luxury is not owning a shiny new car or huge house, (and have never owned either one), but the time to really get to know another place for a while.
To sloooooooooow down and savor where I am.
I ate lunch in a favorite restaurant across the street from our 2009 apartment and bought a dress from a favorite shop in the Marais.
It’s a luxury to reconnect with the familiar in a foreign country.
In my final week in Paris, I dithered…should I rush around seeing museums, shop the sales and/or sleep late and lounge around my rental apartment, which is large and comfortable? (I did all of them.)
I also joined in the Unity March, the largest in France’s history, thrilled that I was here for it.
One very powerful memory I’m bringing home to New York?
How vivid and present, even today in 2015, war still is in Paris.
Every street, it seems, has a plaque — often with a bunch of flowers attached to it — honoring Resistance heroes of WWII, their bravery now many decades past. Many schools, heartbreakingly, have a large plaque by their front door numbering how many of their children were taken away by the Nazis.
And there are at least four concurrent exhibitions in Paris devoted to aspects of WWII and WWI, from the Liberation of Paris (an astounding show) to one exploring collaboration with the Nazis. Having watched a 31-minute film there, from 1944, of the liberation, I’ll never again see Paris the same way — its lovely streets then filled with dead bodies and burning tanks, barricaded with trees and sewer gratings, women being dragged into the street for public shaving of their heads for collaborating with the Nazis.
A few things I’ve realized in my time away:
— Social capital can replace financial capital
Jose and I do OK for New York, but so much of it disappears in taxes, retirement savings and life in a costly place. So we’re very fortunate to have generous friends around the world who lend us and/or welcome us into their homes. I spent a week with Cadence and Jeff in London in their flat, whose total square footage is about 300 sf, the size of our living room and dining room at home. I don’t know how we managed it, but we did! While I’ve been here, Jose welcomed our young friend from Chicago, Alex, for a week and introduced him to several important new mentors and our friend Molly, from Arizona, has spent many happy nights on our sofa.
What goes around comes around, even globally!
— Travel can be tiring
Exploring big, busy cities on a budget, (i.e. taxis are a rare treat), means hours of walking and many subway stairs. I get tired and dehydrated and needed a coffee or a glass of wine to just rest.
You also have to pay attention to danger, from subway pickpockets to forgetting your address or house entry code.
— I missed my husband!
My best friend. My confidant. My sweetie. He was here for a week. I’ve missed his company and laughter terribly and we Skyped a few times.
— Routines serve a useful purpose
At home in New York, I normally take a jazz dance class every Monday and Friday morning and go for an hour’s brisk walk in the woods with my friend Pam on Wednesday mornings. Every weekend I read three newspapers, in print. I enjoy my little routines; as a full-time freelancer with no regular schedule, they ground me.
— But it felt so good to get away from them
I usually watch the nightly news at 6:30, but also hate how U.S.-centric and sentimental it is. In my time away, my only news sources were Twitter and the occasional newspaper — I didn’t turn on the TV once, didn’t miss it a bit and read three non-fiction books instead.
I’ve also loved spending 90% of my time in the real world and not glued to social media on the computer. I really loved not driving a car for an entire month; we live in the suburbs and I spend my NY life behind the wheel, tracking the price of gas. Tedious! A city vacation meant lots of walking, buses, trains and cabs. Healthier and much more fun.
— Less is plenty
I wore the same few clothes for a month, doing laundry once a week and it was eye-opening to see how little I really need.
Same for food. I bought fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese, soup and yogurt; that plus a fresh baguette every two days supplied my cheap/delicious breakfasts and light suppers at home.
— Experiences beat stuff
— riding the Ferris wheel high above Les Tuileries on a warm and sunny Christmas Day in Paris
— staying in a 15th century country inn in England, eating short ribs by the fire
— meeting a snappy young British journo I follow on Twitter who took me to a secret members-only club above a Soho restaurant. The room was dim, had two small dogs snoozing in lined wooden boxes and fragrant hyacinths on every table. Heaven!
— a cup of tea at the Ritz in London and the (!) $30 cocktails Cadence, Jeff and I shared in its spectacular Art Deco bar. Worth it!
— spending a cold gray Sunday afternoon in a hammam, a Paris spa with a Middle Eastern flavor
— We are who we are, no matter where in the world our body is
At home, I need a lot of sleep, minimally 8 to 10 hours a night. Just because there are a gazillion things to do and see while visiting Europe, I didn’t force myself to do asmuchashumanlypossible. I now have a painful arthritic left knee, so by day’s end I really needed to rest.
My final week in Paris I took long, lazy mornings listening to music, reading, eating breakfast, then headed out around noon for a big French lunch, (cheaper than dinner), errands and explorations.
— Cosy beats grand/ambitious, at least some of the time
It was so nice to come “home” to our rented flats and settle in for the evening with a glass of wine and my new favorite radio station, TSFjazz; check it out online! Our Christmas dinner was roast chicken at home at the kitchen table and it was perfect. On a rainy, windy day in Paris, I was almost at the museum door, but was just exhausted. I said the hell with it, cabbed home and instead of being a dutiful/weary tourist took a nap and did laundry. Much happier choice!
— Solitude is relaxing
My life in New York requires chasing people down for work and/or payment, teaching two college classes, maintaining a happy marriage — and paying close attention to everyone’s emotional state. Whew! Raised as an only child, I savor quiet time alone, at home or out in the world exploring on my own. It recharges me.
My independence is a muscle. It needs exercise!
— But social media has been a godsend
So many blogging blind dates!
In Paris, Mallory, Catherine and Juliet — all followers of this blog, once virtual strangers now friends — invited me to meet; Catherine en francais. I also met Gillian and Ruth, fellow American writers my age. In London, I met Josh and in Paris my oldest friend from my Toronto childhood, also visiting. I had a busier social life while alone overseas than I ever do at home.
— I’m increasingly ready to leave the U.S. and its brutally industrial work culture
One of my hosts’s many books is “La Seduction”, by New York Times journalist Elaine Sciolino, who sums up my feelings well:
“The French are proud masters of le plaisir; [pleasure], for their own gratification and as a useful tool to seduce others. They have created and perfected pleasurable ways to pass the time: perfumes to sniff, gardens to wander in, wines to drink, objects of beauty to observe, conversations to carry on. They give themselves permission to fulfill a need for pleasure and and leisure that America’s hard-working, supercapitalist, abstinent culture often does not allow.”
I’ve come to loathe Americans’ fetish for “productivity” and self-denial. Pleasure and leisure are seen there with the same sort of suspicion as a felony offense. I hate that and always have.
Jose and I hope to retire to France, even part-time. Every visit back there confirms why…and I loved this recent post by Chelsea Fuss, a stylist from Portland, Oregon who sold all her things and has been on the road ever since, alone.
Does your trip have a point?It seems like you are aimlessly wandering around?
Seeing the world enlightens me. This trip was about facing the nagging wanderlust that had been bugging me for years and getting back to gardening, hence the farm stays. I have a blurry picture of what it is I want to do at the end of this and am figuring it out along the way. I’ve told myself it’s ok not to be overly ambitious right now. I keep busy with work, creative projects, and soaking up my environment but it’s definitely a slower pace than I lived at home and I think that’s ok for me right now. Slowly but surely this vision is getting clearer. I have days when I feel like I am going backwards and I should be climbing the career ladder, but that’s usually when I am comparing myself to other people. For me, this is right, right now.
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.
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.
Do you make time to be at home in the natural world?
When you lie in bed — seriously — and are blogging in your dreams, and writing the headline.
I’m in northern Ontario for the moment, staring as I write this out the window at pine trees overlooking a lake. Two grizzled black dogs snooze on their beds. The sweetie is snoozing in a chair by the woodstove and our host, my best friend from high school, is making ribs for dinner.
The sweetie planned to play golf but (really!) came home after running into snow squalls, only to discover all the carts were being put away for the season.
So it’s a blessed afternoon of eat/sleep/read/repeat. Pat dogs. Stare into fire. Admire the autumn colors.
My brain is frazzled and fried: finishing up the final revisions of my memoir; blogging for four sites; planning events for the book’s release next spring. Like a farmer’s field that needs to just lie farrow for a while to re-generate its fertility, this week is desperately needed downtime for my weary head.
Soon…within three or four days…I’ll be up and running again.
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.